Before Negroni Week ended, I wanted to post this interview with "The Maestro," legendary bartender and mixologist Salvatore Calabrese, on why the Negroni is--like so many bartenders--his favorite cocktail...and so many other interesting topics.
I reacquainted myself with Salvatore a few weeks ago at the opening of his new bar in Las Vegas, Bound by Salvatore Calabrese. The menu here is both approachable and creative--and it features the debut of a new cocktail, the Negroni Svegliato, or Coffee Negroni.
Here's VIDEO of Salvatore explaining how the Coffee Negroni is made:
And here's the full text of an interview we conducted. It took place a couple of years ago, but the sentiments expressed are as current as ever:
Do you have a philosophy about cocktails?
"I think any great bartender should have a philosophy about cocktails. I believe a great cocktail should be a true changing of spirits. It's not like 30 years ago, when making a cocktail was a way to hide cheap spirits. Now, to make a great cocktail is an art. And so a bartender chooses ingredients like a chef. And a great cocktail has to spark all the senses, the eyes, the nose, and the taste. It has to look great, smell divine, and taste incredible.
Talk about the era in which you started making cocktails, and what got you started.
"My journey began when I was 11 years old, in 1966. In those days in the South of Italy, it was not unusual for a young [kid] to start to work in bars and restaurants. It was a good way to keep you out of the street. The biggest dream of any bartender is to immortalize yourself so that 100 years, people will recreate your cocktails. But my real passion is Cognac...
That's interesting because early on Cognac was a popular ingredient in cocktails and then it fell out of favor.
"Don't forget, it was and still is one of the few noble spirits. If you look back 100 years, it was known as the refined, aged spirit. Today, every spirit is refined. 30 years ago, tequila was harsh. The only way to drink it was like a shot. Today, there are reposados and anejos, and it's amazing. 100 years ago on ships, rum was used to combat malaria--a pint a day--and because water wasn't available. clean. It was also used to light gunpowder. If the powder was damp, you put overproof rum on it, and poof! But today there is a whole art to playing with great spirits.
You call the Negroni your favorite cocktail, as so many bartenders do. Can you explain the fascination?
"The Negroni is a true classic cocktail. Why does it work so well? I love that it was created for a consumer, a nobleman, Count Negroni, who loved an Americano, he used to have them every day. And his bartender was making his drink for him one day, and the Count said 'Put some gin in it, I need an uplift.' And the drink was so amazing, and from there on it became his drink. Don't forget the Americano in those days wasn't served like it is today, a long drink. In those days it was short. So the bartender did two things, he made sure that the consumer was immortalized with the name, and he also made sure the drink was well spotted, he put a slice of orange in the drink, instead of lemon. Count Negroni was a great traveller, so as he travelled, he asked the other bartenders for a Negroni, and they said 'How do you make it?' Remember, the name and the simplicity is what makes it classic. And so, they started to make it. What makes a Negroni really stand out is the three elements, the juniper of the gin and botanical essesnce, then you have the sweetness and spiciness of the dry vermouth, and then you have the Campari. And when you marry them together, it's the perfect marriage.
What's your observation of how people drink in the US vs. Europe?
"The world is becoming smaller. And it's not just smaller in that it's easy to travel. Also in the bartender's world, what I do in London is easy to be copied here. I remember 30 years ago when I started, everything was sweet & sour, sweet & sour, everything was pre-made. I think I was one of the first in the '90s to bring in the freshness of cocktails. But I didn't create it, I think it was the consumer talking about it, bringing it to other bars, my Breakfast Martini, my hospitality. Remember, you can be a great mixologist, it doesn't mean you're a great bartender. And you can be a great bartender, it doesn't mean you're a great mixologist. You need to be both. 10 years ago bartenders loved to be called mixologists. The same people today say 'I am not a mixologist, I am a bartender.' This is completely wrong. The first step in being a great bartender is the art of mixing. I have to learn how to discover the art of flavors before anything. Then, as you become more knowledgeable, you step behind your theatre. Because the bar is one of the greatest theatres, and the better your act, the more people will come to you. So you have to make great drinks, but don't forget to smile, and don't forget hospitality. The art of mixing goes as far back as Egyptian times. That's what I like, and I love the theatre of the bar. I've been doing this business for 45 years, and the reason I love it is because of the people that come to 'my home.' The bar is a social place, you go into a bar, you're never alone.
So you dont find many differences between America and Europe?
"I think in America, you like more dry, spicy, more earthy whiskeys, Bourbons. People like something with charisma, character. Maybe because we are living in a world which is not secure. In the '90s it was all about white spirits. Now it's about darker spirits. Because we want to sit and think, we don't want to rush. But also gin is coming back. Bartenders are also responsible for bringing back spirits--for example, rye. For 70 years, we used Canadian whiskey to make Manhattans. And Old Tom Gin, we can make the Martinez now! One thing we do in London at my bar, we create the classics with original spirits.
For example, just before Christmas, I gave a present to my bartenders. I asked each of them to recreate a classic. One of them chose the White Lady. So we used original gin from 1930, Cointreau from 1930, and used the shaker from Harry Craddock at the Savoy bar. If you go to my website, you'll see it. And Pierre did the Old Fashioned with rye from 1913 and Angostura bitters from 1900. And another one did the original gin Cock Tail which was first made in 1824, with Genever gin from the 1800s, Curacao from 1860. In the room, you felt all the creators of these great cocktails come back to life, you felt the ghost of the person who created the Old Fashioned. And I finished off with a Sazerac, using the original Cognac of the period, an 1805--you think of Napoleon, the battle of Trafalgar, Thomas Jefferson was President--so I did that with the original spirits and the original glassware and original shakers.
Other than doing that for history's sake, does that inform how you can make the cocktail today?
"Obviously spirits are much more refined than they were 200 years ago. Whiskey was made 120 proof. It would knock your head off! And to soften the spirits, you didn't have much choice. Curacao was the choice because it was available everywhere. The Dutch were very clever to do that. Also there was citrus, but lemon was not easy to find. So when lemon was used, for example in a Brandy Crusta, it was almost a fancy cocktail. Even if you think about the Martinez, the Old Tom gin of the time was not cut as it is today, it was quite harsh. But because of the sweetness it was a bit more pleasant, more round. Genever was preferred because it was more aromatic. But if I look back, when cocktail culture really started to change, it was when Martini Rossi came into the market, because Martini Rossi Vermouth was more easily adaptable with harsh spirits. That's why some of the great drinks, like the Martinez, the Manhattan, the Bronx--in 1920, you will find that almost 40% of the recipes, there is Martini used, because it is so versatile. And there's always about three ingredients. Many of the recipes sound almost the same, just different names.
Today we have much more complex creations, maybe because everything has already been done on a more simple level--
"I don't think everything has been done already on a simple level. Remember that today, to create a great spirit is an art, the master blender is an artist, they can paint a picture like Michaelangelo, the master blender really thinks about how to make a great spirits. There is a bit more craft to making the best spirits, much more challenge. Also the palate of the consumer has become much more refined. And they recognize great spirits. I'm going to tell you something, and I hope it brings a picture of what it means to be a great bartender. The media loves to talk about chefs, they love to talk about sommeliers and their great knowledge of wines. Then there is the bartender. If I pick these three guys and give you their job description... The chef, he's an artist and a creator, but whatever he does is behind the scenes. His plate is his canvas, and his plate speaks for him. The sommelier, he has an incredible palate and incredible knowledge. He might be an artist, he has to pair wines with the chef's creation, but he's certainly not a creator. And then there is the bartender. the bartender is an artist, we use our glassware as our canvas, and then we start to paint with our juices, our fruits, whatever. But we are also creators. Because the consumer knows what a Bloody Mary is, or a Margarita or a Mojito. But one thing is different between today and when I started, bartenders are opposite. ... he must know about 30 different kinds of gin, which is sweeter, which is spicier. And we must know about wines as well, and beer, and Champagne. We are doctors in a way. If you say to me, 'Salvatore, I have a stomach ache,' I must know how to fix it.
Do you think that a cocktail can tell a story?
"Definitely. Why do you think a cocktail lasts 100 years? Just think about the Martini, the King of the cocktails. Drunk by royalty to Presidents to celebrities. Yes, a cocktail can definitely tell a story.
Do you think the choice of cocktails can influence an evening or an interaction?
"A great bartender has to understand the mood of the customer. A great bartender is not the one who says 'you want another drink? you want another drink? you want another drink?' and take a hammer and hit you over the head. You have to make them feel good, and they have to remember. There is always the understanding that you want the person to come back. Alcohol can play in a funnyway, because people react in different ways. If people get drunk with gin, they might get very sad. Alcohol is a friend but it's also an enemy. Alcohol was created for beneficial reasons, and we need to remember and respect that. If the bartender respects that, he respects the person he's serving.