We’re exploring what creativity means to the 12 finalists in the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Most Imaginative Bartender Competition presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE®. To follow along and read more about the contestants as they head to finals, please visit the MIB 2020 home page.
When it comes to his philosophy of mixology, Miami-based bartender Valentino Longo follows a maxim from a fellow Italian, Leonardo di Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
“I like to present something simple but very complex, with history behind it,” he says. “When you have a sip, you have a lot going on.”
Growing up in Rome, Longo worked throughout his youth with his father in his photography studio—but when the industry started to go digital, he lost interest and searched for a new outlet for his creativity. Inspired by his sister, a chef, and their grandmother, who had run her own restaurant, at 20 he decided that his life’s ambition would be to open his own bar.
His first job at a hotel in Rome taught him one important lesson among others: He had to learn some English if he wanted to work at a bar in Europe. He headed to London, where he joined one of the city’s most prestigious hotel bar institutions. The seriousness of the cocktail world in the English capital cemented for him that this was the industry he belonged in.
“London is very precise,” says Longo. “It pushes you to give the best that you can. So you have to grow.”
It was in London that he created his first cocktail approved for a menu, a drink called the Charlie Chaplin, who was once a patron of the historic bar. With a nod to the comedic actor’s rise from rags to riches, the cocktail played off an everyman grain, barley, and the haute vibes of Champagne, with absinthe lending herbal depth.
International travel exposed Longo to more of the world’s bartending styles, from the precision and perfection of cocktail bars in Japan to the more casual drinkers in the U.S., some of whom still requested their Martinis shaken. He found a home in Miami, working at bars that borrowed from European cuisine and customs.
His experiences have led to a creative process that, perhaps influenced by his work with his father, tends to start visually. “I try to envision what I want to achieve from the cocktail, how I want it to look.” Once he knows the kind of glass the drink will go into, he begins to brainstorm the flavors that will work in it. “I’m very old-school in how I create cocktails. Less is more.” Often, he forgoes a garnish, discarding anything unnecessary.
His best ideas frequently come to him when he is alone or out running. He rarely goes out, tending to consolidate his free time in order to travel, typically going abroad once a month. “That way, I’m thinking, what can I bring back from this journey? I would say traveling is very important for this job.”
This is how he’s been able to start drawing inspiration from people like Ryan Chetiyawardana, figures in the industry unpacking complex flavors from a single ingredient or particular fruit. “Who has the best lemons from Florida? Who is the best honey producer?” Longo is now asking. “I want to achieve that perfection of how to get the best from the flavors.”
What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
How does it inspire you?
Photography is an art that teaches you to see the different point of view of the subject. The same subject can be photographed in 10 different ways from different photographers. It all depends [on] how you see something, how you want it to look, and then make it so with your tools and hands. Isn’t [it] the same when you create a cocktail?
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
From my dad (ex-photographer): “Everything depends on your vision, don’t worry if [it] isn’t understood.”
Describe your creative process in one sentence.
When I shoot a picture or mix a cocktail, I always try to bring the best out from the subject, doesn’t matter if it is an ingredient or a person.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
MIB 2020 is really pushing me to get the best idea I can get, trying to give my 100 percent and going beyond my limits.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to give something new to the industry and to the guests—perhaps opening my own place one day.
Best thing you ever drank:
Martini Gibson…in Tokyo, Japan.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Miami Vice in Mexico City. The color was blue and served in a Martini glass. (Luckily, I didn’t drink it.)
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Trying to mix mushrooms and coconut for a cocktail menu. Didn’t work out well.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
I like to relax and take time for myself, either going to the beach or by just staying at home.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Oh, easy: Honk by Rolling Stones.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I used to play baseball back in Rome, while everyone was playing soccer. Yes, I was one of the few in Italy.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Focus on ONE THING. Be concentrated and give 100 percent to that dream. Because if you believe it, you can get it.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
I believe a virgin Mojito without lime and mint??
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
50/50 Martini with my companion Jacopo Rosito, or a simple whisky highball.
Shot and a beer.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever: