Over the last couple of years, one of the worst kept secrets in the industry has been that one of Boston's best bars is actually way out in Woburn. Tucked inside the Baldwin House, a distinctive historic mansion that dates back to 1661, is Sichuan Garden II, a rightfully well regarded Chinese restaurant. Inside of that you'll find The Baldwin Bar, headed up by Ran Duan, whose family owns the operation. The visual effect of the set up itself would be worth a visit alone – it's like stumbling into a Brooklyn cocktail bar that just happens to live inside a Colonial era home in the middle of the suburban wasteland – but Duan has been methodically carving out a spot as one of the more inventive bartenders in the entire state. And now he's making waves on the international level.
After rounds of regional competitions throughout the country, Duan traveled to Las Vegas in mid September, where the United States Bartender's Guild named him Nation’s Most Imaginative Bartender after a series of tight contests against other bartenders. He'll appear on the December cover of GQ “Men of the Year” issue and will next move onto the global finals, held next year.
For his first round of competition, Duan's cocktail used Bombay Sapphire gin, Campari, passion fruit syrup, lemon, yuzu, and egg white garnished with an All Spice Dram spray, orange and cherry. Things got progressively more complex as the competition level heightened. For the next round, in which a surprise secret ingredient was introduced (sweet potato), he used the gin with a sweet potato CO2 flash-infused Amontillado sherry, orgeat, apricot cordial, lemon, salt, egg white, garnished with grated almond and cinnamon. And for the finals he used the gin, a brown butter fat-washed gin and granny smith apple liqueur, lemon, sugar, salt tincture, and – and this is where the imaginative part really comes through – a cardamom “fog.”
“I wanted to highlight the roots of Bombay, England and India, but also wanted to highlight Boston, which is why I picked the apples,” he explains. “I made a granny smith Bombay apple liqueur, and fat wasted it with brown butter. For India I made a cardamom fog.”
“It's literally a fog,” he says, answering the question you were probably thinking. He takes a tincture of the gin and cardamom, and the way it works is you pour it over dry ice. “The whole point was you sip the cocktail, then smell the fog to clear your palate. It's like a multi-sensory cocktail, a molecular style cocktail.”
“It was super clean, and you got the umami, the salt brought out the brown butter, the malic acid of the apple really complimented the lemon, and it's just worked out beautifully.”
Not everything at his bar is quite so involved, although a similar level of thought goes into most, like a popcorn infused rum, with salted bourbon syrup, egg, and Angosturra done in a flip style. Others are more tradition-minded, including plenty of tiki-style cocktails served in exceptionally playful and distinctive glassware. Sturdier sips come in the form of stirred spirit recipes like one made with rye, Cynar, China China Amer, and house clove bitters. The Letter to a Young Bartender, made with Smith and Cross, Benedictine, amontillado sherry and Carpano Antica is one of the best cocktails I've had all year.
“We've been very blessed, we've been getting a ton of industry support, and the industry has been spreading the word for us,” he says of people making the pilgrimage out from Boston to sit at his bar . “It's nice since we're a mom and pop operation and we don't have the big budget for PR, and we're ecstatic. We're ready to show people what we can do.” I'd be back once a week if I could. It's just going to be a problem finding someone to drive with so much to choose from.