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The Maestro on how to make a good drink, a great drink

Salvatore Calabrese

He is one of the world’s leading bartenders, he’s The Maestro, so when Salvatore Calabrese starts talking about what it takes to make really great cocktails and how to become a great bartender we were listening.

Calabrese was in Australia for a two week tour with De Kuyper’s The Works. A series of inspirational workshops, with seven events across five cities helping to upskill Australian bartenders and showcase the latest cocktail trends.

While this year’s De Kuyper The Works program saw Calabrese talking about After Dinner Cocktails, Bars and Clubs sat down with The Maestro to talk about making great cocktails, becoming a great bartender and what is working in Australia’s bar scene.

In terms of making great drinks Calabrese’s philosophy was very much around keeping it simple, not only in terms of how you make the drinks, but also in terms of the ingredients you use, including your choice of spirit.

“When I opened up Library Bar at the Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner in 1995, there was also the Atlantic Bar in London which had a very late licence and this was when things started to change and the world of the bartender became a bit more trendy. London was certainly on the top of that, with me involved very heavily, and it was the pioneer of the new cocktail culture.

“Before this, when people use to make cocktails they didn’t necessarily use great ingredients, but what I started to do was to bring great spirits, good whisky, good Cognac and use a great canvas for my work of art.

“We started using more fresh ingredients and really focus on making great cocktails, using things like chilli, garlic – anything you could imagine you could use in a drink. Almost bring the kitchen behind the bar. But then we start to face the new culture of the martini style.”

As this change in the bar culture started happening, Calabrese it helped him focus on his philosophy of using great spirits, to make great cocktails.

“What I always wanted to do and it was one of the things that helped make me different was to always choose great spirits for my bar. If I’m going to make and Old Fashioned and it’s going to take me five minutes to make that Old Fashioned, I’m not going to use a cheap whiskey, a cheap Bourbon. I’m going to use a good rye, a rye that I think is a good canvas for me.

“I may charge a little more, but this is my way. I don’t go crazy with this, I’m not going to put a 25-year-old malt whisky with coke or orange juice, there has to be the right marriage. So there is an education and of course there is how much do you want to spend.”

The idea of keeping things simple is one that comes up often during a conversation with Calabrese, it is something he is clearly very passionate about, and as he explains more behind this belief it becomes clear why.

“It’s interesting because I made drinks that have become known around the world and the key is simplicity, they were easy to replicate everywhere around the world,” he told Bars and Clubs.

“Today we are more knowledgeable and better at making drinks and much more educated. But I have been working on cocktail competitions for the last 30 years and over the course of the last 20 years only two or three drinks have become classics.

“That’s incredible, because we should have more classics, because we understand more about how to make better drinks. But we don’t because they are so complicated. People are looking to become the Heston Blumenthal of the cocktail world, but these are cocktails that only Heston Blumenthal and his chefs can make in the kitchen.

“If I am bringing too many ingredients that are homemade or distillates that’s going to mean that another bartender is not going to be able to make it even if it is a marvellous drink.

“We are trying to create the world, but what I say is don’t just make a menu because you want to show your skills, but also create some cocktails that could become iconic, because they are simple.”

It’s a perspective that makes sense, the Negroni, Martini, Manhattan, hugely popular and very simple cocktails that are easy to replicate and importantly easy for the customer to understand and engage with.

Finally I asked Calabrese what he has enjoyed during his trip around Australia and what he has liked about Australia’s bar scene, his answer delightfully gave his insight into what it takes to be successful in this industry.

“To be a great bartender you need to be two things,” The Maestro said.

“You need to be an artist at work, at craft. That means you know how to mix, you know how to create. You know what it means to do your research and how to implement all of that. But that alone doesn’t make you great.

“The other bit is about hospitality and when you can embrace them both – now you can call yourself a great bartender.”

He added: “One thing I notice about Australia, more maybe than anywhere else, is the sense of hospitality. There is a sense of warmth. Whether it’s just being down-to-Earth or up-to-Earth, whatever way it is, there is that sense that you walk into a place and you feel at home.

“I see it a lot in the bars in Australia, when people walk into a bar you can feel the hospitality and it’s not just a place that makes a great bar it is the people inside.”

The De Kuyper The Works 2019 saw Calabrese cover 5860 air miles across the country and present to over 500 bartenders with over 2300 De Kuyper cocktails sampled.

Speaking about the tour, Calabrese said: “What a pleasure it was to host De Kuyper The Works events in Australia.

“The tour was amazing – meeting so many Australian bartenders, visiting some of the best bars around the country and tasting so many original cocktail creations with many laughs along the way.”

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