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A drink with Salvatore Calabrese, the record-breaking bartender who conquered London


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If there is something that Salvatore Calabrese’s story has taught me, it is that sometimes bad luck clears the most unexpected paths to success.

Mr Calabrese nostalgically imparts his very own fairy-tale, as we sit on a vintage sofa opposite the Manhattan Room, in one of the bars he helped design. Over the speakers, Marvin Gaye’s voice guides us in this trip back to the 1960s, when Salvatore’s journey started...

As a child, Salvatore had to give up on his dream to become a captain of a ship due to an injury. From then on, he spent his days quenching the thirst of foreign tourists on the Amalfi Coast, hungry for a taste of La Dolce Vita.

Some 50 years later, in 2017, Salvatore is an award-winning, record-breaking bartender. He left his sunny hometown for London, where he is currently residing.

"My career started with an accident," he says, describing his first job as a bartender at the Dukes Hotel.

"The barman who previously had the role accidentally set the bar and a customer alight. As that man’s career vanished with smoke, mine started with fire,’’ Calabrese remarks ironically.

It was on the ashes of that bar that Salvatore began making history. ‘’Liquid History’’, to be precise, is the name that he gave to the pioneering concept of creating drinks made with the world’s oldest spirits in order to ‘’enclose history in a glass’’.

In 2012, he ended up breaking the world record for the oldest and most expensive cocktail in the world, made of spirits with a combined age of more than seven centuries.

He went on to open bars in three continents, yet the original secret of hospitality can be traced back to his youth back on the Amalfi Coast.

He recalls the days when, as a child, he used to serve coffee to the grumpy chef of the Hotel Regina and wish him a good day, until "he threw a fish to my face and angrily asked why the hell I was always so happy’’.

It was at that point that Salvatore’s mentor, Signor Raffaello, enlightened him with the secret of hospitality: "You can’t bring the sun to those who don’t want it. Feel what they’re feeling and behave accordingly.”

This lesson on empathy, along with his ever-developing talent, earned him the privilege of serving the British Royal Family multiple times in his career. He once convinced a hesitant Queen Elizabeth to taste a 1926 Cognac he offered her at a party. ‘’An excellent bottle for an excellent woman,’’ he said, before Her Majesty fell for Salvatore’s polite flatteries.

But the list of world leaders and celebrities he has served goes on and on. George W. Bush, Clinton and Mandela are but a drop in the ocean of drinks that Salvatore has poured in the past 50 years.

After decades spent serving celebrities, Mr Calabrese eventually became one of them. Yet, he managed to preserve the spirit of that ten-year old child who refused to give up his dreams: ‘’I might not be an official captain of a ship, but in the end I bought myself a boat and I’ve become the captain of my own ship. Dreams can be accomplished, sometimes through unexpected paths.”

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