Ran Duan competes for top bartending prize, months after battle with Harvard prof over $4 – The Boston Globe

On a recent Friday, as soon as The Baldwin Bar opened at 5 p.m., Ran Duan greeted guests already lined up at the door and showed them to seats at the bar, which was booked solid that night. He set up a table for 12, then disappeared to grab bottles of mezcal. The supply at the bar was running low.

Joanne Rathe/globe staff

He had recently returned from Las Vegas, where he gave a seminar at the Nightclub and Bar Convention trade show titled, “How to Create a Winning Signature Cocktail.” He knows what he’s talking about.

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At the end of the month, Duan — who runs the Baldwin Bar at the Woburn outpost of Sichuan Garden, his parents’ restaurant — takes his signature cocktail recipe to Sydney, where he’ll represent the United States in the Bacardi Legacy competition. After competing against winners from 35 other countries, he’ll jet off to Morocco to vie for the title of Most Imaginative Bartender, in a competition sponsored by Bombay Sapphire.

For all his success on the international bartending scene, Duan may be best known for a dispute he got into last December with Ben Edelman, an associate Harvard Business School professor, who complained he’d been overcharged $4 on his take-out order at the Sichuan Garden in Brookline. The kerfuffle went viral, with media outlets (including this one) hungrily reporting every detail, and social media sending the story to the four corners of the earth.

“This competition isn’t about me. It’s about everyone who’s supported me — from teaching me to coming to the bar to [a potential] lawsuit,” Duan said, the last reference to the Edelman contretemps. “I’ve been a US citizen for three years, and I’m going to two another countries to represent the United States. I can’t even fathom it.”

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What he can imagine is just how much preparation he needs for Sydney. The amount of time he’ll be in front of judges there is a mere 10 minutes, and if it seems like a long way to travel and a lot of work for such a short performance, consider how few seconds it takes an athlete to complete a pole vault or high dive.

“I’ll probably put 50 hours of practice into the routine,” Duan said, watching his staff prep for that Friday night’s service with the vigilance of an umpire.

“There’s memorizing the speech that explains the drink and the story, then timing that to pouring and mixing the cocktail — that’s all muscle memory. Then I have to time it all to music. And I don’t want to call it acting, but you have to think about how you carry yourself, the way you dress, the way you interact with judges — and how you represent your country, really.”

Duan’s ascent to top of the elite class of the nation’s bartenders is a classic American Dream narrative: His family emigrated from China when he was 3. His father, Michael, got a full scholarship to Louisiana State University for opera performance, but when a career didn’t pan out, the family moved to Massachusetts, and Michael opened Sichuan Garden in Brookline. Duan worked at the restaurant through high school, then attended Johnson & Wales, where for four years he took classes four days a week while managing the restaurant the other three.

Duan’s Father’s Advice cocktail.

Joanne Rathe/globe staff

Duan’s Father’s Advice cocktail.

When he graduated with a hospitality management degree in 2009, he thought about “breaking away,” as he puts it, from the family business, but the country was in the throes of a recession and the job market was grim. Intrigued by the emerging craft cocktail scene, he’d go to bars like Deep Ellum and Eastern Standard and treat each visit like a classroom tutorial. The bar in Woburn was barely an afterthought, so Duan convinced his dad, a professed old-school restaurateur, to let him give it an overhaul.

“When he was 5 years old, Ran played piano and guitar very well. But it’s very hard for artists to make a living in this country, so I told him he has to go to school, learn something,” said his father, who just returned from a six-week teaching stint at Sichuan Conservatory. “When he does something, he always wants to understand and control everything about it, so I gave him complete control of the bar.”

Soon Duan became a regular on the competition circuit. He entered Legacy the past two years and came in second in the nationals last year behind a fellow Bostonian, Eastern Standard’s Naomi Levy, whom he considers an unofficial mentor. This year Duan triumphed with a drink he christened Father’s Advice. It’s a cross between a Manhattan and the El Presidente, a classic formula of rum, vermouth, and orange liqueur. Starting with a rum base, he uses an amaro, sweet vermouth, and Amontillado sherry to build layers of herbaceous spice, bitterness, and saltiness, then wraps it up with a touch of banana cordial.

The name speaks to a core requirement, which is that competitors are instructed to incorporate their personal stories into their cocktail development. An autobiography straight up, if you will.

In a way, the drink also represents his evolution as a bartender. When Tthe Baldwin Bar opened in 2011, the inaugural drink menu consisted of complex formulas with many ingredients, but over the years, the selections have moved toward elegantly simple formulas. His concoctions are rooted in the classics but typically incorporate an imaginative flourish. Thus, the Domo Arigato, a tall mezcal drink with ginger beer and lime that’s spiked with sesame oil.

His approach dovetails with another Legacy directive: design a cocktail that will stand the test of time. To demonstrate the drink’s appeal, he launched a buzz campaign that’s gained a bit of international support. TThe Father’s Advice Facebook page now has 587 fans and lists 46 bars in three countries that feature the tipple.

Liza Weisstuch can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @livingtheproof.