Behind the Bar at Sichuan Garden II

How Ran Duan has transformed Woburn into one of the most talked-about cocktail destinations in Massachusetts.

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Ran Duan, bar manager at Sichuan Garden II in Woburn. Photo by Alex Lau

Located in the twisting rotary of Route 128 and Woburn’s Main Street is the faded canary yellow mansion built by town founder Henry Baldwin. The 17th century manor, with its grand pilasters and a balustrade straddling the front entrance, has some unexpected embellishments since its colonial fabrication: twin Chinese lanterns swaying above the portico, yin and yang emblems pasted inside the third-story windows, and a sprawling green banner advertising its new identity as a specialist in Sichuan-style cooking.

From the outside, Sichuan Garden II looks like any other garish Chinese buffet lining the interstates and strip malls of America’s suburbs. But there’s a reason why Boston’s bartending elite can often be found inside, swaddled in the shadowy hues of The Baldwin Bar. Helmed by 27-year-old Ran Duan, a graduate of Providence’s Johnson & Wales, the mahogany-lined tavern is a study in fastidiousness and craft cocktail virtuosity. Sodas, bitters, and mixers are all made in house, lining one end of the bar in a battery of tincture bottles and repurposed light bulbs. The cocktail menu changes two to three times a month depending on the produce available and Duan’s own whims. Even the antique glassware and adornments—like his collection of 19th century julep strainers and Napier jiggers—are constantly swapped out for returning guests and special occasions. Duan’s pet project might share the first floor with his family’s restaurant, but the two concepts couldn’t feel further apart.

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House-made bitters, grenadine, and orgeat. Photo by Alex Lau

“When I took over the bar program in 2009, it was like Chinese done wrong,” Duan says. “There were beer neons on white walls and all the drinks were like cheap scorpion bowls. The food has always been authentic and good. I just felt it needed something that could elevate and complement the bold flavors. The first thing I did was implement all these authentic tiki recipes from ‘Beachbum’ Berry and Trader Vic’s. Customers weren’t responsive at first because it wasn’t what they were used to drinking at an Asian restaurant, but I just kept pushing the envelope because I knew it was good.”

Instead of toning down the acid and booziness prevalent in classic tiki drinks, Duan went even further, challenging the North Shore community with his encyclopedic arsenal of pre-Prohibition cocktails and techniques he picked up as a patron at Eastern Standard, Deep Ellum, and Drink. Unlike most bartenders who build their confidence and skill set behind a more seasoned practitioner, Duan is completely self-taught. While pursuing a degree in hospitality and hotel management, Duan became fascinated by the burgeoning cocktail scene, and dedicated most of his free time pestering bartenders for insider knowledge. “I was that annoying patron at the bar asking ‘how do you do this or how do you do that?’ Guys like Hugh Fiore, Kevin Martin, and Max Toste became my mentors.”

Not only did Duan revamp the menu, he overhauled the interior. The televisions and Tsingtao signs were stripped from the walls. The room was adorned in mahogany and a paint job of austere grays and greens. Wooden blinds were installed and firmly clasped shut. The finishing touch came from Duan’s other obsession: antiquing. “I hand-selected everything from the antique barstools to the vintage decanters and cocktail glasses,” Duan says. “One of my real passions is antiquing. I know that sounds crazy. Whenever I have a day, off I like to go antique hunting in places like Brimfield, which admittedly is weird for someone my age.”

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Bartender Van Hongthong cuts ice cubes with a bandsaw. Photo by Alex Lau

Duan has now accumulated over 400 vintage coupes, tiki, and highball glasses, as well as a 1904 Tiffany & Co. register that he lovingly refers to as his “little baby.” That attention to detail though is what has drawn bigger and bigger crowds. Duan is enthralled with the concepts of seasonality and terroir. He hand cuts every 300-pound block of ice from Brookline Ice & Coal, first with a chainsaw, then a bandsaw for smaller cubes. His printed cocktail list might change bi-monthly, but individual ingredients are swapped out daily. For example, the house-made ginger beer is altered every time Duan brews a batch, depending on the ginger crop’s root of origin and its fluctuating levels of heat. When sour cherries became available in May, The Baldwin Bar switched its focus to the cobbler family of cocktails. And Duan admits he’s looking forward to peak kumquat season, when every one of his creations will be touched with the diminutive fruit’s mouth-puckering tartness.

As word-of-mouth has spread, Duan has felt the pressure to continually improve the quality of service and the wow factor of his ambitious bar program. Next up is an investment in a Clinebell machine to harvest crystal clear blocks of ice and eventually, a Boston location.

“It’s definitely been a journey. Each year we’re getting better and better because we’re learning every day. We push ourselves everyday,” Duan says. “For four years, this has been my sweat and blood, but there are things coming up. I don’t know when we’ll open a place in Boston, but I can definitely say we’re going to to break some rules. We’re going to make a splash.”

2 Alfred St., Woburn; 781-935-8488 or thebaldwinbar.com.

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The Baldwin Mansion in Woburn. Photo by Alex Lau

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  • Tyler B

    Well deserved press. This place is awesome. Can’t forget about them hot wings either!