Bartender mixes drinks with Sichuan style
To bartender Ran Duan, the most important ingredient in a cocktail isn’t actually part of the drink.
“The first key ingredient to a delicious cocktail is hospitality,” says Duan, who runs the Baldwin Bar at the Sichuan Garden II restaurant in Woburn, Massachusetts.
Maybe there’s a little irony in that statement coming from a 28-year-old who recently won Bombay Sapphire’s US Most Imaginative Bartender contest, which included bartenders from across North America. Duan’s victory and his winning cocktail, The Monarchy, also were featured in the December issue of GQ magazine.
Duan’s unstinting standards are what bring people from miles away for a seat at his bar in the Boston suburbs.
For instance, he carves his own ice.
“Ice is one of the most important ingredients you use in a cocktail,” Duan said. “It can make or break a cocktail. It’s all about ice, crystal clear, made from a chain belt, forces all of the air bubbles out of the ice. Slow melting ratio. Slower the ice melts, the drink won’t dilute as quickly.”
Duan came into bartending somewhat by necessity and tradition. His family owns two Chinese restaurants in the Boston area — Sichuan Garden I in Brookline and Sichuan Garden II in Woburn.
Duan, who was born in Chengdu, Sichuan province, came to the US at the age of 3 when both of his parents earned music scholarships to study opera at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
The family eventually moved to the Boston area when Duan’s father, Xiaoyi, pursued a master’s degree in opera at Boston University.
Jobs for opera singers are not so plentiful in the US, Duan joked.
“We had to resort to Plan B; that was Chinese restaurants,” he said.
“My father had a bar … typical Chinese restaurant cocktail program,” Duan said. “Cutting corners, not using fresh juices, not the best spirits you can find. Scorpion bowls, mai tais, zombies.”
When he took over the bar in 2009, Duan, by then a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, with a degree in hospitality, said he made it “a little more crafted toward quality”.
“There’s never been an Asian restaurant able to elevate the food with the drinks,” he said.
“The thing I love about Chinese cuisine is it brings a sense of umami (from the Japanese for savory taste) in all flavors — sweet, salty, texturally, savory — every element is always enlightened.
“All my cocktails I definitely try to have the same dimension, same savoriness, to make them more craveable; it helps to pair with the food.
“A perfectly made cocktail is exactly like a perfectly executed meal,” he said.
“We’ve created our own niche market,” Duan said of his restaurant. “We’re finally catching on; so blessed with industry peers supporting us.
Part of the buzz comes from an emphasis on welcoming customers, which Duan stresses to his bar staff.
“It’s not just about the cocktail. It’s about the service, the hospitality.”
Duan says being cordial pays dividends in tips, even if one is making a simple drink.
“Even if they want a Jack and Coke or a vodka tonic, it’s going to be the easiest $10 you ever made,” he said.
Despite the exotic cocktails he makes for himself, he’s not a bar snob.
“I’ll go to Applebee’s; I’ll go to the local dive bar if the bartender is right,” he said. “Even if I go to a local and I get a shot of Jameson’s and a beer, and they’re super friendly, that’s going to make my night.”
Duan’s hospitality skills were put to the test on Dec 5, the day he became involved in a tense e-mail exchange with Harvard business professor Benjamin Edelman over a $4 overcharge on Edelman’s takeout order.
Duan admitted that his restaurant’s website hadn’t updated the prices, while Edelman, a lawyer, cited a Massachusetts consumer protection statute that customers who are overcharged should receive treble damages.
Edelman said he would have dropped the matter if he had received a $4 refund promptly, but now wants a 50 percent discount.
Duan said the company that manages the website has removed the outdated menu.
Edelman issued an apology on Wednesday in a letter published on boston.com.
Their back-and-forth over chili and peanut prawns, among other delicacies, found its way onto major news site in the US, Canada and the UK. China Daily interviewed Duan before the takeout flap.
Disputes over takeout aside, the future seems limitless for Duan, who also consults for restaurants and has been kept even busier lately by the birth of a son.
“We’re definitely in a cocktail renaissance right now, going along the whole vibe of organic foods,” he said. “In the ’80s, ’90s, no one really took cocktails that seriously. It became more obsessive.
“It’s amazing to see Boston as a cocktail city advance compared to five years ago,” said Duan, who is looking for sites around the city to open another bar.
“It’s definitely evolving into something that hopefully can compete against New York.”
And what about going international?
“Asia loves Western-style bartending,” he said. “I have so many friends who have moved to Asia who are just killing it,” including one colleague who opened a bar in Shanghai called el Ocho that is “getting some amazing press”.
“It’s nice to see the cocktail revolution spread across the world,” Duan said.
As for whether Duan sees himself setting up shop in China someday, he wants to work on his written Chinese first, but he does speak Mandarin and Sichuan.
About that winning cocktail, The Monarchy (recipe below); it included some intriguing ingredients, such as “brown butter fat-washed” house Bombay Sapphire apple liquor, which is best left for Duan to describe:
“Taking brown butter and throwing it into the apple cordial,” he explained. “You let it sit and mix, and all that savoriness, the viscosity of the fat infused into the gin … you put that in the freezer for a couple of hours.
“All the fat separates from the spirit, and floats to the top, like gravy, heavy sauce. Once it separates, you then scoop out the brown butter fat. You’re left with infused spirit that doesn’t have any fat in it. It tastes rich.”
In May, Duan will compete in the Bombay Sapphire international bartending competition in London.
“I will be the only bartender representing America,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll make America proud in the world finals.”
re definitely in a cocktail renaissance right now, going along the whole vibe of organic foods.” RAN DUAN BARTENDER
Ran Duan, Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender contest-winner in North America, practices his craft in Massachusetts.