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Inside Ran Duan’s Creative Toolkit

From his GoPro camera to a Ninja blender, here are the things that inspire innovation for the Boston bartender.

Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Most Imaginative Bartender Competition presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® Gin is an opportunity for bartenders to let their imagination and creativity shine. For more information and to enter, see the Official Rules at Most Imaginative Bartender’s site.

One look at bartender and photography enthusiast Ran Duan’s Instagram (@cocktail_lens), and it’s clear what he cares about.

As someone who has built a thriving cocktail-bar business in the Boston suburbs literally atop his father’s Chinese restaurant, he prizes family above all. “I know that sounds cliché,” says Duan. “But it’s the truth.”

Duan’s own career begins, as he tells it, with his father. Duan was born in Sichuan, China, and his family moved to America when he was three years old. His father’s dream was to sing opera, and he received a scholarship to study his passion, but it didn’t turn into a career. Instead, he opened a Chinese restaurant inside Baldwin Mansion, which was built in the 17th century.

“My dad gave up his passion to be able to provide for his family,” Duan says. “That’s inspiring for me. In the Chinese culture, family is everything.” Duan grew up in the family business and intended to continue their legacy, heading to culinary school Johnson & Wales to earn a degree in hotel management. After graduating from school in 2009 and returning home, his father tasked him with opening a bar in the space above the restaurant.

However, the new grad didn’t have much experience in bartending. He learned by devouring books, cocktail blogs (he cites Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s blog as a particular influence) and engaging with Boston’s thriving bar scene.

Today, he describes his first bar as a “tiki-esque” space, with drink concepts and ingredients inspired by his world travels. “It’s been a whirlwind of being a craft cocktail bar within a Chinese restaurant in a suburb that’s not known as a destination,” Duan says. “We didn’t realize the magnitude of what we could make it.”

He also began entering—and winning—cocktail competitions. It’s telling that his Bacardi Legacy 2015 USA title was secured with a drink called Father’s Advice, a Manhattan/El Presidente mash-up featuring BACARDI ® GOLD RUM, Cardamaro, Punt e Mes, amontillado sherry and Giffard Banane du Brésil. The drink idea stems from a quote that his father shared when Duan’s son was born: “The greatness of a man is not measured by his wealth, but by his integrity to love and his abilities to put someone else’s needs before his.”

As his bar and personal reputation grew, he eventually opened a second “secret” cocktail lounge, above the first, serving even more baroque cocktails. In 2017, he opened a third bar in Brookline—also adjacent to the Chinese restaurant owned by Duan’s parents—featuring South American spirits and tiki drinks.

His creative process for coming up with new drink ideas often starts with a specific concept, such as a memory, “or something our guests can relate to.” For example, he points to a drink on his menu called After School Snack, which channels a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; it’s made with tequila, horchata, peanut oil, cacao and cream. “We make it reminiscent of childhood,” he explains. “Ever have a dish that reminds you of something your mom made? We always try to find the connections.”

The bar business also led him to his other obsession: photography. “I was sick of paying people to take pictures or take videos of our products for our website,” he recalls. “About four years ago, I bought my first camera, and I never looked back.” As with making cocktails, he taught himself, this time using online tutorials. His photography skills also provided a springboard into travel opportunities, which he also incorporates into his drinks, closing the inspiration loop.

“We try to put our journeys, our memories into these drinks,” says Duan. “That’s how I got started. But now it’s a passion—a creative direction for me.”

Five Items That Inspire Ran Duan

  1. My Sony a7R3. This is my daily shooter I use for work, for pleasure, for travel. It’s always attached to my head. It’s a great camera for low lighting, so I use it when I’m behind the bar or shooting for Instagram.
  2. I can’t live without my tile. I tend to lose my keys or my phone or my wallet a lot. It’s a little keychain thing. I probably use it once a week. I live and die by it. For people who are very forgetful, it’s a lifesaver.
  3. One of my favorite things to use behind the bar is my Cuisinart immersion blender. It’s one of my favorite bar tools because it makes blended drinks on the fly wherever you are, so you don’t need a loud blender, and you can surprise guests with a different texture. It’s a handheld immersion blender.
  4. My GoPro Hero Black 7. I am obsessed with it. Sometimes while I’m bartending or midshift, we’ll make a quick little video. It’s probably one of the best action cameras on the market. We did a couple of pop-ups; we sometimes put a GoPro on our guest bartenders for the entire shift. It’s my action camera wherever I go.
  5. I’m really obsessed with my Ninja Blender. I have kids. I never have time to make or eat a full meal. We just blend a bunch of fruit in the morning. Or I take it to the bar and we use it for making syrup—it has this quick little adapter. It’s like Magic Bullet, but I know that’s a different brand. I use it whenever I’m on the run or I have to do a quick little prep for the bar or do a quick meal for myself.