“You communicate through a cocktail the same way a photographer communicates through a picture,” says Miami-based bartender Valentino Longo. “A cocktail is a piece of art.”
It’s with this ethos that Longo created The Decisive Moment, an elegant riff on a gin Martini which serves as a paean to his love of photography—and which also sealed his victory as the 2020 winner of Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Most Imaginative Bartender Competition presented by Bombay Sapphire Gin.
In a year that challenged contestants to incorporate their personal creative passions into cocktail-making, Longo seamlessly integrated his experience with the art of photography in a drink that reflected the four fundamental elements of visual balance.
The Decisive Moment
Valentino Longo’s take on a gin Martini—which won first prize in the 2020 Most Imaginative Bartender competition—is constructed to reflect the four classic elements of balance in a photograph.
He used lemon and bergamot, which thrive in the sun, to represent light (and as a nod to his native Italy); sherry, in its evocation of the mysteries of the aging process, reflected the presence of darkness in an image. Bombay Sapphire gin, the contest’s sponsor, stood as the subject, while a garnish of coconut olive oil and coffee-infused balsamic vinegar drops provided the contrast. In the final presentation, as Longo walked the judges through the role each ingredient played, he revealed the corresponding elements in a photograph.
“The overall concept, which is my style now for the past five years, is simplicity,” says Longo. “It’s about how to do a complex cocktail using simple ingredients.”
In the competition, Longo and his fellow eleven finalists underwent a three-part challenge, a style introduced this year to give judges a full picture of each bartender’s skills and vision. In addition to creating a completely original final-round cocktail, competitors took part in a pantry challenge inspired by Bombay Sapphire’s use of sustainably sourced botanicals. Each finalist was assigned a botanical, around which they had to build an original cocktail in a live setting, using ingredients undisclosed ahead of time.
The contestants also took part in a “Shark Tank”-like pitch competition, detailing before a panel of judges how they would share their creative passion with others if they won the competition’s grand prize of $25,000, funded jointly by Tales of the Cocktail Foundation (TOTCF). Each was given a $5,000 stipend to create a final presentation showing how they would combine their imaginative pursuits with an entrepreneurial spirit and dedication to their larger community. TOTCF helped the finalists craft their pitches, part of the organization’s effort to support bartenders in doing more than making great drinks.
“We want to help them explore outside their craft, go beyond and do good things for their community,” says Caroline Rosen, president of TOTCF. “It’s been really cool to see them apply their creative outlets to something bigger. I truly think it’s going to have a lasting impact on our industry.”
Photos: Vincent DeSantiago
With his grant, Longo plans to create a communal workspace in Miami called Shoshin—Japanese for “beginner’s mind”—to give bartenders a space to hone their craft. Like Atlanta’s Gathering Spot for the bar trade, it will not only provide a space where bartenders can experiment, but also offer educational resources like master classes about mixology and the service business. “It’s an important thing for the Miami industry to have a place to be inspired,” says Longo.
It’s the kind of inspiration Longo himself benefited from while growing up in a creatively inclined family. His father was a professional photographer who taught him the techniques and principles of capturing beautiful images from an early age. His sister, a chef, and their grandmother, who had run her own restaurant, exposed to him a love of the hospitality business. After working behind the stick at a hotel in Rome, he sharpened his abilities at one of the top cocktail destinations in London before landing in Miami, bringing his talents to bear at bars that borrowed from European cuisine and customs.
Photo: Richard Shilkus
Competing in the Most Imaginative Bartender competition has allowed him to weave together those strands of his life story, his creative outlet, and his profession, stretching his capacity for imagination to new heights.
“I discovered so much more about myself and my creative passion during these nine months,” says Longo. In addition to the prize, he takes with him a new group of friends, his fellow finalists, whose ingenuity continually amazed him as they bonded through the MIB process. “We grew together, we learned, we discovered. Watching eleven of the best competitors and best bartenders in the U.S., each of them creating something unique, has been fantastic. We are artists, right?”