It was six years ago that Salvatore Calabrese, the master mixologist hailing from Italy’s Amalfi Coast, made history. One October night, Calabrese, who had previously worked at Dukes in St James’s and The Lanesborough in Knightsbridge, created a cocktail in The Playboy Club in Mayfair.
Made of 1788 Clos de Griffier Vieux Cognac, 1770 Kummel Liqueur, 1860 Dubb Orange Curacao and two dashes of Angostura Bitters first bottled in the 1900s, this was not only the world’s oldest cocktail – using spirits from the time of the American Revolution – but also the world’s most expensive. The ‘Salvatore’s Legacy’, it is said, cost £5,500 a glass.
Fast forward to today, and Calabrese seems to have set something of a trend. After pouring his heart and soul – and several hundred pounds worth of spirits – into a cocktail glass, the Italian has inspired many bars around the world to do the same. No longer are these bottles dusty relics to be coddled and locked away in display cabinets. Today, they are viewed to be used, mixed with similarly rare tipples and sipped at leisure – and with great decadence.
"After pouring his heart and soul - and several hundred pounds worth of spirits - into a cocktail glass, the Italian has inspired many bars around the world to do the same..."
The industry itself has also been revived by these age-old bottles. Bartenders and mixologists who were finding themselves increasingly bored by the spirits on offer, and turning to left-field smokes, foams and reductions to create interesting cocktails can now take things back to basics, paring back the number of ingredients but upping the ante of their quality. And this involves some exciting detective work, too – the chance to scour the drinks cabinets of the globe for forgotten and aged treasures untold.
And there is a real thirst for these vintage cocktails from customers. Within the high-earning community, keen and savvy drinkers are more than happy to part with their cash for a splash of these authentic, ancient drinks. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy an Old Fashioned mixed using bourbon created before the recipe for the classic drink had even been dreamt up?
Since Calabrese’s bold initial effort, more and more bars and hotels have dipped their toes into the vintage cocktail industry – with many of these establishments based in the exciting gastronomic hub of London. In The Ritz’s Rivoli Bar, there are a grand total of four different vintage cocktails on offer, including a Negroni mixed using 1960s Gordon’s Gin, 1970s Campari and 1980s Vermouth. This best-selling cocktail is priced at a mere £90 – which is considerably more than anything you’d find at All Bar One, but not a patch on the most expensive drink on the menu.
That honour goes to a £500 Sazerac, mixed using a bottle of Lhreaud Cognac from the year The Ritz opened, 1906. There are only six bottles of this brandy left in the world, and three of them sit behind the bar in the iconic hotel. Across London, in the Savoy, The Beaufort Bar offers six vintage cocktails, all with their own unique heritage and history lessons to consider while you sip.
For the £250-a-glass Nacional – named after Churchill and Hemingway’s favourite Havana hotel – head bartender Joe Harper uses Cuban rum from the 1940s and 1960s apricot brandy, an education in the distillation processes of the past. And, if you’ve got really deep pockets, why not chart the life of, and take a sip of The Beaufort Bar’s exclusive stash of Harewood House rum, distilled in Barbados in 1780. The Savoy charge £12,000 per customer for the chance to sip at this ‘true piece of liquid history’ – a high-rolling highball if ever there was one.
But is there actually any benefit to using these older spirits to pep up your drink – aside from the obvious peacocking to fellow drinkers? According to those in the know, yes. Over the decades – and, in some cases, centuries – that companies have created their signature spirits, recipes have changed for reasons from availability of ingredients to customer tastes. And this results in vastly different tasting cocktails.
"Keen and savvy drinkers are more than happy to part with their cash for a splash of these authentic, ancient drinks..."
Types of grain have become extinct, the woods for barrels has changed and the volume at which spirits are produced now differs. Bourbon whisky is sweeter today, and a high-alcohol vintage gin gets smoother and smoother with age. These spirits have lived, and whilst not all may improve the taste of your cocktail, they will give it a whole new and exciting flavour. If you’ve got the money…
Although, before you click away, wishing you had a spare couple of thousand pounds to drop on a rocks glass of liquid history, know this: The Ivy in Covent Garden, for all its glamour and celebrity guests, offers the most affordable vintage cocktail in London. It may not be centuries-old, but the 1917 Champagne Cocktail, mixed using 100-year old ‘R’ de Ruinart Champagne, 1917 Hermitage Cognac and a sugar cube soaked in 1917 Madeira – is just £25. So raise a glass, because old is the new new.
Fancy mixing a drink or two at home? Here’s the Gentleman’s Journal guide to creating the perfect Martini…