The world of competitive bartending can be a strange one, especially for the competitors themselves. Bartending is, by nature, a service industry, and as a result, many bartenders have a natural aversion to the spotlight (despite what pop-culture depictions would have you believe). So when Ran Duan, head bartender at The Baldwin Room in Woburn, Massachusetts, took home two of the industry’s biggest titles back-to-back—the US Nationals of Bacardi Legacy and the USBG and Bombay Sapphire’s America’s Most Imaginative Bartender—few people were more surprised than he.
Much of that humility seems to come from the fact that his career has never strayed far from home—The Baldwin Room shares a space with his family’s restaurant, Sichuan Garden, and its success is very directly a product of his own trial-and-error ingenuity. For Ran, bartending, competitive or otherwise, has always been a pursuit in which family comes first.
“A Classic Chinese Restaurant Bar”
According to Ran, Sichuan Garden’s bar program wasn’t always the stuff of glossy magazine spreads and culinary awards. “We had all the classic Chinese tiki recipes, which basically meant that nothing was done properly,” he explained. “It was all sour mix, well booze—which can still be great. It’s become America’s Chinese classic now, you know, but it wasn’t really what I wanted.”
It wasn’t until Ran was in college, though, that he saw the opportunity to change things up. While home for a weekend to work at the restaurant, some friends took him to Eastern Standard, a popular cocktail bar in Boston. “I had my first Whiskey Smash, and my first Whiskey Sour with fresh lemon juice, and it was like a lightbulb went off. I thought, oh my God, I can’t believe this has existed this whole time! Back then, being a college kid and comparing that experience to sour mix and all that, it was kind of like an epiphany.”
By the time he graduated, the Great Recession had kicked into high gear and jobs were extremely difficult to come by. But Sichuan Garden needed a bar manager, and Ran decided to give it a shot. “We just picked up Trader Vic’s and Beachbum Berry’s cocktail books and started plug-and-playing. We changed the whole menu to that, to embrace quality tiki drinks without changing up the theme too much.”
Unfortunately, the good people of Woburn didn’t seem too interested in Ran’s new Caribbean potions. “I love Woburn, but it’s a Bud Light type of city, you know what I mean?” he said with a smirk. “Granted, that’s changed in the past nine years, but back then it was definitely tough to make something that appealed to the local demographic. So when the craft tiki approach backfired, we decided to rebrand and try again.”
And so, the Baldwin Bar was born. Inspired by and named for Henry Baldwin, an early colonist who built the mansion in which Sichuan Garden resides, Ran wanted the bar to pay homage to its historic roots. “It’s weird when you walk in and you see a Sichuan restaurant in an old, colonial-style house,” he told us, “and now it has two tiki-centric cocktail bars. But it works.”
Building the Baldwin Bar
The menu at the Baldwin is probably best described as tiki-esque, clearly drawing from tropical influences, while its upstairs sister bar, the Baldwin & Sons Trading Company, takes a little more of a molecular bent with foams, dry ice, and house-made bitters.
“I don’t want to say the Baldwin is only for tiki,” Ran explained, “because we definitely do things that are a little different from the classic tiki cocktails. There’s a little modern twist. But we want to pay homage to what we were before when we started this, and we want to kind of appeal to everyone.
“The Baldwin & Sons Trading Company, which has been open about 10 months now, is where we can geek out a little more about cocktails. We can do crazier presentations, use more esoteric ingredients, and people won’t just be completely weirded out. But we always try to encourage our guests go to both bars, because they might be surprised to find something new that they like.
“If the guests can come to our establishment and leave with more than their buzz, some new knowledge, that’s what we always go for. That’s how you resonate with people and create a memorable experience.”
It’s clear that this attitude is central to Ran’s philosophy on bartending as a whole—it’s not about him, it’s about making sure his guests enjoy themselves. “I always tell my bartenders this,” he said. “the first ingredient to a delicious cocktail is hospitality.”
Hitting the Competition Circuit
While the Baldwin has earned its own reputation as a world-class cocktail bar, most people know Ran for his exploits in competition—and deservedly so. In 2014, he won both the US National Finals of Bacardi Legacy and America’s Most Imaginative Bartender.
“When I first started, it was really just to learn and to see what all the bartenders were doing with techniques and flavors,” he told us. “It was definitely a while before I had much success.”
His first year competing in Bacardi Legacy—a competition known for being one of the most demanding in the industry—Ran made it to the Boston Regional Finals, but no further. The next year, he made it all the way to the US National Finals and finished second, before finally winning the title in 2014 with the Father’s Advice cocktail, a drink he dedicates to the guidance he’s received from his dad over the years.
“A lot of people don’t realize, cocktail competitions are definitely a different animal. I almost want to compare it to acting, where your cues, your timing, your expressions, your pour… everything needs to be on point. For example, at Bacardi Legacy, you have two minutes to set up. Then you have to explain the whole story behind your drink while you make it, and finish and clear your station off all within eight minutes. The energy is unreal, but the nerves do get to you sometimes.”
At the same time, Ran was competing to be named Most Imaginative Bartender, a relatively new competition sponsored by Bombay Sapphire and the United States Bartenders’ Guild. “The year MIB came up, I didn’t think I was going to win,” he admitted.
“But I thought, you know what? I’m just going to enter it. I already had two years of competing in Legacy under my belt, and I decided just to enter for kicks. Lo and behold, round one I won, round two I won, round three, round four, and when I got to the US finals and won that too, it was surreal. I still pinch myself and say, ‘Hey, that was me.’”
Though the flashy press coverage that followed was a nice perk (the winner of MIB gets a feature on the cover of GQ), the titles represent something much more meaningful for Ran. “I became a US citizen less than eight years ago, and to be able to represent my country in two global finals, back to back, was insane. That’s the American dream, right? A Chinese-American representing the United States.”
Back on the Home Front
His success in competition has also, much to his delight, had quite the impact on his family’s business. “You know, being in Woburn, which is a 10-15 minute drive from downtown Boston, it’s definitely a challenge getting people from inside the city out to us. Winning those cocktail competitions brought a lot of good PR, though. We’ve been in the media more times than I’d ever dreamed of, it’s really a blessing.”
At the same time, that recognition has also helped him reconnect with his family on the other side of the world. Following his big wins, Bacardi sent him on a tour of China to give master classes at a number of bars, which included a stop in Chengdu, the city where he was born.
“Before we got there, Adam, the VP at Bacardi China, contacted my entire family. We showed up at lunch and all my grandmas, grandpas, cousins, uncles, aunts, everyone was there. It was awesome, and probably one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Bartending brought me home, and it also brought me to my family. If I ever thought shaking a drink would do that… it was just unreal.”
It’s a theme that comes up time and again when talking to Ran. For him, the human connections he’s made through his work far outweigh any financial success or fame. As he sets out on his latest business venture, a bartending supply company called Twelve24 Cocktails, he’s fully prepared to start working his way up from the bottom all over again.
“To become a really good bartender, you have to be the total package. Nobody’s above any job, and you have to work your way through the ranks—barback, dishwasher, whatever. I own the bars now, but most nights I’m on the floor, bussing tables, and seeing what I can do to make my staff’s life easier. That’s really all it takes, focusing on how you can help the people around you.”
Feature Photo: Will Shenton, Bevvy