Shake It Up profiles the eight Beijing mixologists that are up for the title of Beijing's Best Bartender in the Beijinger's 2015 Reader Bar and Club Awards (vote here through May 17). Today we talk with Badr Benjelloun of Cuju and Caravan.
What's your best selling drink?
The Rum Sour, both a Cuju & Caravan, is #1. Fresh lemon juice, home made simple syrup with real demerara sugar cane and good Cuban rum. It’s beyond addictive! Over the years, I’ve rotated pretty much every cocktail on the menu except this baby. It comes with its own fan club now.
What was the first cocktail you ever drank, and what did you like about it right away?
If you consider a whiskey and Coke a cocktail, then that was my first cocktail and also my first taste of alcohol that I liked. It just all went downhill after that and, now, I need to run two establishments to feed my constant thirst for cocktails.
That said, the first time I remember drinking a real cocktail was in Tallahassee Florida at a friend’s brunch. It was a potent tiki-style punch that left me begging for more. I love the balance between spiced rums, tropical fruits and hints of lime.
Why did you want to become a bartender?
I never set out to be a bartender. Heck, I spent two years studying chemical engineering before switching to computational finance and having a whole career in IT.
The attraction to bartending came from the chemistry side I guess. I love deconstructing flavours and creating new experiences, and that drew me into the world of cocktails or mixology. I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to cocktails, so I was surprised at the differences in taste when ordering a Zombie or even a White Russian at different bars. So I started slowly building my own at home and recreating the tastes I enjoyed. I slowly found my way behind the bar at every house party, and then working part time in various dives in college-town USA with people enjoying my creations.
What does a bartender need to do to be good?
Every bartender is different. A good bartender must find a way to master their tools, understand the history of the liquors and cocktails and learn to read the customers. You don’t need to master every drink known to mankind, but understanding the mixology of things allows you to turn on a dime and whip something out as long as you know the ingredients. Another must is consistency. People come back because they liked a drink, and it better taste the same every time. This is especially important when working with fresh juices, because they can affect the taste of the drink a lot.
And finally, especially in Beijing, put some damn alcohol in my cocktail please.
Beyond this, it comes down to personalities. Some bartenders prefer strong tastes, while I like balance. I hate tasting the alcohol in my cocktails, but I want to know it’s there. Balance is really important to me as a bartender.
How has cocktail culture changed in recent years? What's hot now?
The changes are different in different geographic areas. China is slightly behind and we’re getting into a cocktail appreciation era, at least in the bigger cities. I’m seeing a return towards old classics which I welcome because, for a while, I thought we might be forced to just sell fruity slushies with booze. There’s a new generation that seems to appreciate a decent Manhattan made with rye whiskey.
How do you come up with new drinks?
A lot of my recipes came out of Chemistry Thursdays at Cu Ju. If you wanted a cocktail from the menu, it was full price. If you were willing to be subjected to my creations, it was much cheaper. Slowly we got a crowd of regulars enjoying the weirdness of the creations and ingredients like 8 Treasure Tea from Ningxia or Goji Liquor. Nowdays, I’m busy re-studying the classics, especially pre-prohibition drinks, to understand how they changed through the years.
What makes your technique special?
I like a good solid drink and that's what I serve. Like I mentioned before, I love balance in my cocktails. You need to be able to drink it without knowing that there’s a good 2oz of booze in there. Another thing is I take the time to talk to the customers and make sure what they’re ordering is what they should drink. So I’d say balance, good ingredients, and a willingness to out-drink the best of them.
Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog