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Beirut’s top mixologist returns with new doors open

Ballout won the national competition in Lebanon.

BEIRUT: In the final round of Diageo Lebanon’s World Class bartending competition at Iris Beach Club, six mixologists combined creativity and precision for a chance at the coveted title of Lebanon’s best bartender. In the end, ingredients straight from traditional Lebanese cooking held true when Jad Ballout’s fattoush cocktail caught the eyes of the judges. An unconventional blend of tomato, cucumber, sumac and Ketel One vodka, served with crispy bread on the side, the unique drink secured Ballout a spot in the international competition.

Ballout has since returned from the Diageo World Class Finals. Though he didn’t bring a title home, Ballout told The Daily Star the competition was a life-changing event and has opened new doors for the young mixologist.

Ballout studied hospitality management at the American University of Science and Technology, and pictured himself in a career behind the bar. As a child he aspired to become a chef, but soon discovered a knack for mixing up delicious beverages and decided to make a living out of his passion for cocktails, he said.

Ballout stepped into the business at Club Social, where his natural instincts for drinks soon saw him promoted to the position of bartender. He then worked at a series of restaurants, nightclubs and cocktail bars, honing his skills and developing his classically inspired signature drinks.

Despite his newfound glory, the road was a little bumpy, he said. Ballout smiled as he recalled a disastrous competition where a shaker slipped through his fingers in the final seconds of the round. “I had finished the presentation, the drink, and then I dropped the shaker. It was bad, I definitely didn’t win that one,” he laughs.

But the hard work got Ballout to Diageo World Class Finals: several grueling rounds against more than 40 of the world’s top bartenders. This year’s competition was held on a weeklong cruise touring Nice, St. Tropez, Barcelona, Cannes, Monaco and Ibiza.

“It was a great experience. I met like 44 bartenders, each from a different country and from a different bartending culture,” he said. “Each day was different. The first five days, I didn’t sleep and I didn’t really eat, we were waking up at 6 a.m. to start preparing for the two challenges.”

During the cruise, Diageo treated the competitors to events at some of the party capitals of the world. They got tickets to see international DJ David Guetta and VIP treatment in Ibiza, he said.

While winning the international round would be the ultimate title for any bartender, Ballout considered participating in the prestigious event an honor in itself.

His experience has given his career a major boost and international exposure. His name and biography are now posted all over the Internet, on trade publications and Diageo’s website. Diageo is also publishing a book of all the 2013 finalists.

“Because of this, I will get more offers. I will be more known,” he said. “It’s changed my life, it gave me a push to work more.”

He also said he planned to re-enter the competition after a year or two of working hard.

Ballout also offered some insight on the changing shape of Lebanon’s drink culture. Ballout said he had witnessed how the scene continued to develop in step with the changing tastes of the public.

Two years ago, nightclubs dominated the scene. But young bartenders like himself have inspired an interest in cocktail bars.

As the popularity of specialized cocktails grows, Lebanon’s bars are upping their game. At a training session provided by Diageo a month before the competition, Ballot learned the delicate arts of ice carving, fruit garnishes and balancing bitters and classics. He said he hoped to bring these talents to a new bar being developed in conjunction with Diageo, set to open in Mar Mikhael in October.

Despite the unique nature of his winning drink, Ballout is a firm believer in the classics, and usually orders a Manhattan on relaxed nights out with friends. As advice for upcoming bartenders looking to improve their skills, Ballout recommended finding a great recipe book, and practicing meticulously before branching out on your own.

“And always have fun doing it,” he added with a smile. – Additional reporting by Beckie Strum

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 14, 2013, on page 2.

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