Cocktails are about transformation. When you order a drink at a bar, you get to witness that alchemy firsthand: From a handful of ingredients and the motion of a spoon or shaker emerges something greater than the sum of its parts. But what the guest on the barstool doesn’t often see is the change that happens outside the glass, in the lives of the bartenders who are growing alongside their craft, treating their drinks as artistic expressions that draw inspiration from all corners of life.
Showcasing those drink-makers who heed the call of creativity outside the bar is the 14th annual Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Most Imaginative Bartender (MIB) competition, presented by Bombay Sapphire. Following on the heels of last year’s Canvas Project, it returns at a crucial juncture for the industry.
Bartending is by nature a high-stress field, but the pandemic ratcheted up the pressure to an unprecedented degree. To cope, some bar professionals reached for the paintbrush, the guitar, the pencil, the camera—any medium that would recharge and enrich the artistic vision that also fuels their work behind the bar.
This year’s contest—and the $20,000 grant awarded to the ultimate winner—will give artistically minded service professionals a deserved chance to shine. “It’s really meant to be a celebration of creativity,” says Ryan Wainwright, North American brand ambassador for Bombay. “We’re recognizing that, for bartenders to survive the last two years, they had to be creative and lean on other talents apart from bartending, because bars were closed.”
That emphasis on the whole person is what sets MIB apart from other major cocktail contests. “It’s the only competition that asks bartenders what they like to do outside being a bartender,” says Valentino Longo, winner of the 2020 competition. “It’s not [just] about the cocktail here, it’s about yourself.”
This year’s entrants will begin just as Longo did back in 2019: by submitting an original recipe and a 90-second video about their creative passions to mostimaginativebartender.com. For Longo, that passion was photography, a métier he was introduced to early in life by his father. His aesthetic interests informed his elegant practice of mixology, honed at bars in Rome, London and Miami.
In both drinks and photography, Longo perfected a “less is more” philosophy, creating balance out of a few impactful elements. His competition-winning cocktail, The Decisive Moment, mirrored the composition of an image; with Bombay gin as the “subject” of the portrait, he used lemon and bergamot to represent light, and coconut olive oil and coffee-infused balsamic vinegar to provide contrast.
Using the proceeds from his win, in September 2021 Longo launched the Shoshin Art Club, a vibrant online platform for hospitality education that currently has about 2,500 subscribers. Mentors, including industry leaders like Kumiko’s Julia Momosé, experimental mixologist Remy Savage, and former World Class Bartender of the Year Erik Lorincz, teach master classes in subjects ranging from the art of ice carving to the Asian-Pacific heritage of cocktails. That journey from bartender to online entrepreneur, spurred by the competition and the prize, is one that Longo calls “life-changing.”
Bartenders hoping to emulate his path will undergo a rigorous but exciting multistage selection process. Forty individuals chosen from among the first wave of applicants will be visited at their bars by judges, who will taste the drinks. From there, a regional-level competition across the United States and Canada will winnow the field to nine (three each from the west, north and south regions), plus one member personally selected by Bombay’s distiller. Those 10 will travel to Laverstoke, England, for a week in Bombay’s hometown, before convening in Miami for the final competition.
It’s a once-a-year chance for bartenders to showcase those facets of themselves that aren’t always visible from behind the bar, and to stretch the artistic muscles that have been fueling their work. After a challenging two years, Wainwright says, “it’s time to show off.”
Valentino Longo’s Tips For 2023 Most Imaginative Bartender Participants
Be true to your interests. “Listen to yourself: Try to understand what you really, really like to do. Don’t create anything that you don’t really believe in. Otherwise, it’s not going to be successful for you.”
Don’t go overboard. “Creativity doesn’t mean to be excessive; it doesn’t mean that you need to showcase fireworks or crazy stuff. It can be simple things, like a simple garnish that you see every single day, but put on in a different way.”
Creativity requires discipline. “Get ready. You’re going to have the best bartenders in the country competing against you. Try to keep half an hour or one hour of your time every single day for one year to focus on the competition. I did a small schedule for myself where I put down on my calendar one hour, every two days, to focus on the competition and get ideas—even if it was just walking around the block and looking at people’s faces or asking questions.”
Apply For Most Imaginative Bartender
Submit your application for the 2023 Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Most Imaginative Bartender presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE®