Juan Valls

26 Nov. 2018
On how an entrepreneur became one of Spain’s most creative bartenders

Some bartenders become entrepreneurs: after years of toiling for others, they finally open their own bar. Sam Ross, whom we recently wrote about, is one such figure. But what about entrepreneurs who become cocktail bartenders? There are not that many around, which is why Juan Valls’ story is interesting. Known as one of Spain’s most creative bartenders, he runs with his partner two excellent cocktail bars in Valladolid and the country’s main bar show. But cocktails were not initially part of the plan.
As many before him, Juan got in touch with hospitality as a mean for extra cash. « The social aspect of working in bars is what drew me in », he remembers. « If I’m honest, I wasn’t a very good student and I found myself more motivated by my part-time work than by my studies ». And so he left school. But working for others was not enough. « Very early, it was clear that I understood bars in a very personal way and that only I could create the kind of establishment I had in mind ». Aged 23, Juan and his partners opened his first bar. Four years later, he was the owner of two bars, a restaurant and a catering company. And still not a cocktail in sight…

So what led him to shake and stir, then? A big, nay, a huge problem: his business relationship with his partners broke down and he found himself in the very uncomfortable position of having to buy them out even though some of the establishments were not doing great anymore. « It’s obvious that moments of crisis bring out the best in you. I had the impression that my professional life was not going anywhere; I needed a change and I thought that cocktails could be interesting ». With no formal training at a time when cocktails were not really en vogue in Spain, Juan had to learn everything on his own. « Initially, I just wanted to improve the offer of my bar, make it stand out more, but what I found was a way to better express myself, to focus my energies ». In short, he found his true calling.

And so with his business doing better, in 2011 he was finally in a position to open El Niño Perdido, in Valladolid’s center, a bar that would express his new self much better. « The challenge was to offer something that didn’t exist in town at the time but for clients to feel confortable with new things, you have to give them something they’re familiar with ». That’s why at ‘El Niño’, as the bar was soon known, no one looks down on you if you want a coffee or a beer…

Over the following years, Juan and team built their reputation — winning numerous awards on the way — but most of all a clientele. Safe in the knowledge that he could rely on El Niño to bring the goods, it was time to find a new challenge. Last year, he took over the city’s oldest jazz club and opened Sinners Club. Focused on classic cocktails done right when El Niño is more about experiential and experimental serves, Sinners Club is, in Juan’s words, « a bar for people my age ».

If that were not enough, Juan is also, since 2013, at the helm of FIBAR, Spain’s bar show. « I just wanted to give something back to the industry. And in the end, once more, it was I who got something in return. We’ve grown with the Spanish industry and last year we had more than 5800 visitors. I think we helped gel the industry, and offered some support for its growth ». This year’s show, to be held next week, will once again focus on education — the core of Juan’s project — with talks from some of the brightest Spanish bartenders as well as international stars such as Philip Duff, David Wondrich or Nico de Soto. Helping put Spain on the map and providing first class education to the young kids getting into bartending might very well prove to be Juan’s lasting legacy. Not bad for someone who first turned to a shaker to try something different, right?