The Beirut neighborhood of Mar Mikhael is experiencing a burst of creative culinary and cocktail energy. Located in the east side of the city, close to the shore, it’s become a hub for nightlife and up-and-coming businesses. A major player in this growing cocktail scene is Central Station Boutique Bar, where manager Jad Ballout holds the reigns.
Ballout didn’t intend to become a bartender—his first passion was food. Since he was young, he’s loved to experiment in the kitchen. While studying to become a chef, he began working as a waiter in a bar. It was here that his interests were piqued.
“After a while, I joined the bar where I started to learn more about bartending and realized that I can play with ingredients and do some cooking to create drinks,” Ballout says. “What I loved the most was creating recipes and mixing ingredients together like chefs do in the kitchen, and at the same time, meeting people and sharing my creations. So I decided to stay behind the bar instead of pursuing my kitchen chef career.”
Culinary techniques continue to shape Ballout’s practices behind the bar, and he gathers inspiration from cookbooks and chefs blogs when crafting new cocktails. He makes homemade syrups using seasonal fruits and fresh herbs, like coriander, oregano and sage. He uses the sous-vide method to infuse spirits by cooking them in vacuum bags, like smoked tea infused whiskey used in the Whiskey & Cola and banana-infused bourbon for the Winter Colada. Creating a demand for more complex drinks was one of the principal reasons for launching Central Station.
“When we opened Central Station our first mission was educating our customers, gaining their trust, and getting them into the cocktail world by evolving their taste so they can enjoy new and adventurous cocktails rather than the traditional ones that they are used to drinking.”
In Lebanon, Ballout says, sweet and sour cocktails are generally favored over “bitter and boozy drinks,” with classics such as Moscow Mules and margaritas being the most common cocktails of choice. But he wants more for his country.
“The idea for this place emerged after I represented Lebanon in the Diageo Global Competition in 2013,” he says. “I wanted to offer something new in terms of cocktails and be innovative for my market, while bringing international cocktail standards and trends to my country and putting Lebanon on the global cocktail map,” he says.
Ballout certainly has the chops to bring the cocktail revolution to Lebanon. He’s won the Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year in 2013, where he represented Lebanon in the Global Competition, and the 2015 Lebanese final of the Bacardi Legacy competition. Last year he represented Lebanon in the Global Bacardi Legacy final in Sydney and finished as runner-up presenting El Mediterraneo, a concoction made from Bacardi Superior, basil, Skinos Mastiha, lemon and sugar and garnished with drops of olive oil. This exposure is as good for Ballout as it is for the local cocktail culture he’s a part of.
“I love to travel and explore various cocktail cultures in different countries, and meet the best bartenders around the globe,” he says.
Besides Central Station, which opened in late 2013, he also manages a Mexican restaurant and bar called Garcias and an outdoor summer place called Terminal B Bar & Grill. And he’s now working on an Italian-inspired restaurant and bar as well.
Although the new place he is opening is in the Mar Mikhael district, he’s got his eye on what he predicts will be the next happening spot, Dbayeh, 15 minutes east of Beirut. He has plans for a rooftop bar in the area. “All the bar owners now are running to take locations there because it is going to be the next destination for nightlife and restaurants,” he says.
With Ballout’s influence in action, it’s likely that any new cocktail scene could flourish.