Our constant search for the most inspiring bars and prolific bartenders, finally led us down to the charming city of Beirut where Jad Ballout and his team are sculpting the drinking culture into a magnificent beast. If you’ve had your ear to the ground, then you know only too well that Jad Ballout isn’t an unfamiliar name. He has diligently carved a niche for himself in the ever growing world of craft cocktails and is a well regarded figure in the emerging Middle Eastern beverage industry.
Born and raised on a beautiful Mediterranean coast, Jad has been greatly inspired by the unique local terroir and Middle Eastern culture since an impressionable age. Known to have made his foray into this world with the mindset of a chef, he has been experimenting with rare herbs and spices in different forms to provoke and delight guests with unusual flavour profiles. A committed champion and propagator of Middle Eastern-Mediterranean bartending, Jad focuses on using local and seasonal ingredients to reinvent his culture and pour it into a glass. His work is highly contemporary, with pronounced undertones of regional terroir and tradition.
This commitment to the craft naturally spurred him to open Central Station in Beirut with his partners, where he established Middle Eastern-Mediterranean bartending as the soul of the concept. In a market that was still quite nascent to international cocktail culture, Jad pioneered a whole new movement that earned him several heavyweight accolades including No. 26 of World’s 50 Best Bars 2016, Best Bar in Middle East & Africa 2016 and Top 10 Best International High Volume Cocktail Bars by the Tales of the Cocktails Spirited Awards 2016 and 2018.
We chatted with Jad about Central Station and his relatively new venture, Electric Bing Sutt, which he kicked off with his wife, in the heart of the lovely city of Beirut. Read on as we dive into his journey, the vision, and the challenges of the bars that are redefining the landscape of Middle Eastern bar culture.
Tell us a bit about Central Station, the journey and story.
The idea of Central Station started 7 years ago after I start to travel for bar shows meet people from the global industry and compete in global competitions and visit international bars in many countries I felt there is a gap in the Lebanese market and back then, there were few bars doing cocktails but mainly margaritas and mojitos – nothing too creative or interesting. So I decided to open Central Station and change the idea of the cocktails in the country and introduce more creative style cocktails using new techniques and being creative – push the level to compete with the international standards. I proposed the idea to the owner of the bar and he was on board. He asked me to propose a location and 8 month, we opened Central Station, serving the new wave of cocktails for the Lebanese market.
How have you seen Beirut’s cocktail scene evolve over the last 5 years?
It has evolved a lot and still evolving from both sides – the consumers and also as an industry. Now we have many good cocktail bars where you can have a great drink and where they pay attention to ice, glassware and are always trying to be creative. From the consumer’s side, it has also evolved considerably. I remember 5 years ago it was very hard to sell a twist on a Negroni but now it has become something acceptable to drink bitter drinks. So not just the bars, the consumer’s palates have also evolved.
What sparked the idea of Electric Bing Sutt? Walk us through the origins of this.
The concept of Electric Bing Sutt was created by me and my wife – she is Chinese but lived abroad for many years. I was working at Central Station and she had her own bar in China. I was in Lebanon and we where seeing each other long distance so we decided to do open a bar together to be able to be together. We decided to start our first project together in Lebanon and that was the birth of Electric Bing sutt. We wanted to do a bar that represented us, who we are, what we love. Since I am middle eastern and she is Asian, we decided to open an Asian-Middle Eastern bar, bringing together the best of the two cultures. Most importantly, we wanted to create this new concept in a culture context that everyone understands. In short, Electric Bing Sutt is an Asian-Middle Eastern all-day bar but with Funky 80s New York-Chinatown vibes!
Electric Bing Sutt has a unique approach to spirits and distillation techniques. Here is also a complete transformation in the place between night and day. What brought that about and how have peers and consumers reacted to this very avant garde approach to the craft?
Electric Bing Sutt is an all day bar inspired by Hong Kong and New York Chinatown. Bing sutt literally means ice room and it is a category by itself. Just like a cafe or restaurant, bing sutt is a kind of Asian diner popularised in Hong Kong. People go there to enjoy coffee in the morning or tea then lunch and they hang out there at night for beers, booze, and Asian food so it is like a typical Asian eatery or diner. Our idea was to do a modern bing sutt and that’s why we named it Electric Bing Sutt, because of the large pink neon installation and our electric vibe at night. We are open from 10am until 1:30am daily, we serve aperitifs and low ABV cocktails, coffee and tea during day, along with a full menu of authentic Asian food. At night, the drinks menu changes and we switch to a more complex and experimental drinks menu using a combination of Asian and Middle Eastern ingredients. We create a lot of distillates to use them in our cocktails because fresh Asian ingredients are hard to get in daily delivery and sometimes we need to order one week ahead and in large quantities so what we do is concentrate fresh flavor of the ingredients by distilling them and use them later in our cocktails, like shiso rum, Thai basil gin, and wasabi tequila. Also, the distillation allow us to create unusual flavors that don’t exist – we have crazy distillations like Buttered Popcorn Whiskey distillate that we use for a twist on the Manhattan or Tom Yum Soup Pisco distillate that we do a twist with on a Pisco Sour with pomegranate molasses.
We also make our house gin which is inspired from Japan and Lebanon where we distill Lebanese Juniper, Local Myrtle leaf, Matcha and Yuzu.
Electric Bing Sutt is situated in Gemayze which is like the old city centre of Beirut, and where the coolest people hang out. At Electric Bing Sutt we attract a lot of people from the art scene and our regulars are quite alternative, so this crowd is always open to try new things and looking for something unusual. This attitude really helped our cocktail program succeed because while our cocktails are peculiar in flavors and very innovative, they are still very minimalistic in presentation – but that fits the palate of our target audience perfectly.
What is the focus of the beverage programme across your bars when it comes to sourcing/ingredients/build of the drinks?
At Central Station we focus on Middle Eastern flavors and seasonal ingredients. We have one menu that we change yearly, that includes our classic signature cocktails and best sellers since the bar open and well as 8 additional drinks following specific themes that change every year. We offer seasonal cocktail menus through the year using locally produced seasonal fruits and vegetables.
At Electric Bing Sutt, we work a lot with Asian flavors with a touch of Middle Eastern ingredients . We offer two menus – one during the day that is aperitif and low ABV focussed and the other at night, which is more experimental and complex in flavors.
Any particular challenges that you have faced in building these brands and creating a name for them globally?
It is quite hard to create your bar name globally when you come from a small country like ours and Lebanon is the most challenging since it is not often visited by a lot of industry people who visit New York, London, and Paris; but what has helped a lot is competing in many global competitions through which I was able to meet a lot of people and get a lot of travel opportunities. Slowly, I started doing seminars and guest shifts in many countries where I was able to get on a platform to show that we have created a great cocktail scene in Lebanon through which we want to express our culture, tradition and flavours.
We have met our fair share of praiseworthy bartenders around the world and Jad Ballout sits somewhere on the top of that list of firebrands, displaying an enviable amount of commitment to the craft and the region alike. His penchant for pushing boundaries and exploring unchartered territory has shaped the drinking culture of the region and he continues to champion the Middle Eastern bar community as he travels the world and takes a part of Beirut with him. We highly recommend you pay them a visit in the charming city of Beirut. Be warned, it’s easy to fall in love with it.
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