Behind the Bar
The Value of Adding Vintage Spirits to Your Bar
There are lots of options for the armchair historian.
They can visit the museum and see history brought to life in front of them. The archeologist can dig deep into the soil and raise the mysteries of the past to the light of day. Anyone can crack a book and read the tales of lives past.
Salvatore Calabrese, however, has made his career out of bringing liquid history to the taste buds of the rich and powerful through Salvatore’s Bar at the Playboy Club London.
“We love to think about the past,” he said. “We can see it, we can touch it, we can read about it. We can’t taste it. At least we think we can’t. That’s what we do at Salvatore’s. We allow people to taste the past.”
Salvatore’s Bar boasts one of the most impressive selections of vintage bottlings in the entire world, including cognacs from the 1700s, bourbons and ryes from the 1860s, genever from 1900s, and countless other rare spirits and liqueurs.
For Calabrese, the obsession began in his days behind the stick at Dukes Bar in the Dukes London Hotel down the road in St. James. Dukes earned its reputation on the quality of its martinis. And the more Calabrese thought about it, the more he wanted to recreate those truly traditional cocktails.
“The classic cocktails were always so popular,” he said. “But the more I thought about it, the more I became fascinated with the history of these drinks, and what they tasted like in the eras that they were actually created.”
It’s that fascination that brought Calabrese to where he is today: an internationally recognized cognac expert. Consultant for Sotheby’s. Maker of the the world’s oldest cocktails, including the world’s oldest Martini and Negroni. Former world record holder for most expensive cocktail ever made, at £5,500 per glass.
Rarity in the Americas
It’s not just the British conducting liquid archaeology, either. In our own nation’s capital, Jack Rose Dining Saloon boasts over 2,700 hand-selected Scotches, bourbons, and various other whiskies. A portion of those have breached the century mark.
“Jack Rose is an interesting concept, because we’re a bar and restaurant, though we are most known for housing the largest whiskey collection in the Western Hemisphere,” said Bill Thomas, owner and resident whiskey expert at Jack Rose. “We’ve got a few uber ‘rare’ page sections on our menu, and three lighted display boxes filled with about 100 highly-sought after bottles in our saloon bar.”
Other bottles are scattered throughout the restaurant on their many library shelves.
Like Salvatore’s Bar, Jack Rose has offered rare and vintage spirits since its inception.
“I’ve been collecting personally for more than a decade,” Thomas said. “So when we opened Jack Rose in 2011, we had stockpiled thousands of rare bottles that not many places in the country can offer.”
Some of those rare bottles include the 1964 Black Bowmore, 1913 Gibson Pennsylvania whiskey, the now-iconic 23-year Willett Rye ‘Velvet Glove,’ and the Old Rip Van Winkle 23-year decanter.
“And they’re available by the dram,” Thomas said.
Classic cocktails and modern mixology
The mixology renaissance has been kind to bars like Salvatore’s and Jack Rose.
“These young mixologists have begun rediscovering classic cocktails,” Calabrese said. “And it’s wonderful to see these cocktails being revived. However, we don’t really know what they tasted like because the spirits today don’t taste like the spirits back then.”
The value of having the width and breadth of Salvatore’s selection comes from the unique experience that can be gained from drinking history.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “No one else in the world can say they used an original 1880s bourbon. With my selection, I can go back to the creation of the cocktail and make that cocktail exactly how it would have been served over 100 years ago.”
Jack Rose’s collection is often used by collectors to see what their unopened bottles taste like, and on occasion even as a resource for auctioneers to taste potential offerings.
“Being one of the few bars around the country that specializes in rare bottlings is invaluable,” Thomas said. “People fly in from all over the country just to try some of these bottles that they couldn’t try elsewhere.”
Though many of the offerings on display at Jack Rose are rare vintage bottles, they aren't there to gather dust, according to owner Bill Thomas. "We're a library, not a museum." Photo: Veronica Sequeira.
Ensuring the quality and pedigree of the bottle largely comes from experience and recognition, not just within the world of cocktails, but also on the collector’s market. The more you’re known, the harder you work, the more doors open to dependable and reputable suppliers.
Calabrese says he’s always looking for new bottles. As such he constantly has other collectors and auction houses reaching out to him to gauge his interest.
Likewise, Thomas’ reputation precedes him, allowing him to track down trustworthy bottles.
“We’ve become experts in dating bottles, through research, consulting historians, purchasing from reputable sources and learning their provenance,” he said. “Being somewhat of an authority on whiskey, I’ve been called upon by historical societies, distilleries, even led an Antiques Roadshow-esque whiskey event with bourbon historian Mike Veach at the Kentucky Bourbon Affair to authenticate bottles.”
Meant to be consumed
And yet, you have to wonder. With access to these living pieces of cocktail history, how often are they actually sampled by customers and clientele? Do these bottles reach the parched lips of the adventurous imbiber, or do they simply gather dust on the shelf?
For Calabrese, the process goes beyond any sort of bragging rights over a showpiece cocktail. It’s about ensuring that these spirits make it into the hands of an appreciative drinker.
“It’s been my honor and pleasure to serve some very iconic people from all over the world,” he said. “We can craft cocktails from ingredients that were created before George Washington was president. Craft cocktails from ingredients that were distilled the year Lincoln was assassinated. I truly feel that my bar truly brings people back to those times. And that’s an amazing thing to be able to do.”
Thomas echoed Calabrese.
“We price all whiskey to move, rare bottles are consumed and finished nightly,” he said. “Our motto has always been, ‘We’re a library, not a museum.’ We want people to actually taste and enjoy the whiskey. It’s not up there to collect dust. Whiskey is meant to be drunk.”