Salvatore Calabrese at Fifty

23 February 2006
Salvatore Calabrese at Fifty

Salvatore Calabrese doesn't do modesty. "They don't call me the maestro for nothing," he declares, with a grin, perched on a stool in his London bar, Salvatore at Fifty.

The thing is, he actually deserves the title. Most in the industry will tell you he's the best bartender in the country, and some will even tell you he's the best in the world. The bar is part of the Robert Earl-owned super-luxury private members' club and casino, Fifty, located in the heart of St James's.

"There's such history here. It was the first casino in the UK - did you know the Duke of Wellington used to play here?" he tells me.

There are 500 different bottles of spirits, with an unrivalled Cognac collection that dates back to 1788 (including a glass of Hennessy Timeless for £425). He has rums going back to the 1930s, and Tequila that dates back to 1940.

The extensive cocktail list is split into Classics, Champagne, Martini-Style, Short and Sublime, Long and Lingering, Non-Alcoholic and After-Dinner. There's also a substantial whisky list, a 25-strong Champagne list, and a short wine list.

Calabrese searched everywhere for the perfect cocktail glasses, made by an Italian manufacturer, inspired by art deco and inscribed with his initials. Then there's the never-ending onyx bar, made to his precise specifications - principally to allow a perfect gap between the back bar to enable staff to move more easily ("designers never think of that," he says), and special sinks made to his own design, which he has patented, incidentally.

But it's the cocktail that has made Calabrese's name. More than 60% of customers choose to drink them at Fifty, and the list includes newcomers that have already become classics, such as the Spicy Fifty, at £11.50. Vanilla vodka and elderflower cordial is shaken with fresh lime juice, honey and a touch of red chilli, which takes any lingering sweetness out of it and leaves your mouth with a pleasant tingling sensation. "The aftertaste is what makes a great drink," declares Calabrese.

Where does he get his ideas from? "The bartender is an artist - think of me as Michelangelo. I sometimes even dream my creations, though a particular colour could inspire me. I'm an amazingly knowledgeable person, you know - when you've been in this business as long as I have 39 years], then you see inspiration in many things," he replies.

But Calabrese's real passion lies with Cognac, and a locked glass display case behind us is packed with different bottles. He has even written books on the subject - nine at the last count, including the Home Bartender's Guide, which sold 400,000 copies in the USA, and his biggest seller, Classic Cocktails, which looks at the history of the cocktail.

"But I can't be the maestro unless the orchestra plays my music," he declares. He has 11 bartenders working for him, all trained by Calabrese. "I encourage them to try out new recipes and enter competitions. If they love what they're doing, I can be more free," he reasons. Some have been working for him for many years, others are passing through, taking their knowledge with them, and spreading his reputation further.

"But being a great bartender is not just about being a good mixologist, it's also about being a good host and giving a bit of yourself to your customers," he says. "That's what makes people keep on coming back."

So it's time to brush up on that patter, all you bartenders out there.

What's on the list

  • Maestro (vodka, fraise, maple syrup, fresh lemon juice, eight-year old balsamic vinegar), £11.50

  • Fig Supreme (aged Tequila, fresh lime juice, Grand Marnier, grenadine, ripe figs), £11.50

  • Asian Babe (lemon vodka, grapefruit juice, coriander, vanilla, lemon grass, orange bitters), £11.50

  • St James (seven-year-old Havana Club, Campari, fresh lemon juice, gomme, guava juice), £11.50

  • Godfrey (Cognac, Grand Marnier, crème de mûre, fresh lemon juice, blackberries), £11.50

  • Spicy Fifty (Vanilla vodka, elderflower cordial, fresh lime juice, honey, red chilli), £11.50

  • Laurent Perrier Brut NV, £49

  • Bollinger NV, £65

  • Louis Roederer Cristal 1996, £270

  • 2003 Planeta Chardonnay, Italy, £52

  • 1991 Château Le Pin, France £320

  • 1990 Sassicaia, Italy, £750

  • Macallan 30-year-old Blue Label, £82.50 (a glass)

  • Lagavulin 16-year-old, £12.50 (a glass)

  • Frapin XO, £22.50 (a glass)

  • Camus VSOP, £9.50 (a glass)

Fifty, 50 St James's Street, London SW1A 1JT. Tel: 0870 415 5050

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