Baharat bar manager Arvid Brown was recently crowned grand champion of new Portland bartending competition Bar Madness. Photo courtesy of Arvid Brown

I spent almost nine years in the Middle East, a region with incredible food but no cocktail culture, thanks to the fact that alcohol is taboo in so many places there. When I moved to Portland, I quickly discovered Baharat, a Middle Eastern restaurant in East Bayside which has not only phenomenal food, but also an outstanding cocktail program, something I didn’t expect. But it was no surprise when I recently learned that Baharat bar manager Arvid Brown had just been crowned the grand champion of Portland’s first-ever Bar Madness bartending competition, so I reached out to learn more.

Winning cocktail The Shapely Ape was inspired by Brown’s favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, Chunky Monkey. Photo courtesy of Arvid Brown

Organized by Old Port Sea Grill general manager Justin St. Louis, Bar Madness kicked off with Instagram submissions and culminated in an in-person battle (from six feet apart, of course) at the Sea Grill  in late July. The winning concoction was The Shapely Ape, a drink Brown said “began as a tribute to a winter classic, the Brandy Alexander,” but “evolved into a tiki-ish homage to my forever favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor.” He is of course referring to Chunky Monkey, a banana ice cream with fudge chunks and walnuts. The Shapely Ape is what Brown calls a “neo-tiki” cocktail, starting with a walnut orgeat that he makes from candied walnuts. Other ingredients include Appleton Estate signature blend rum, Averna amaro, banana, cacao, oat milk and cream.

Brown, 32, grew up in Blue Hill, then went to Boston for college, where he started working in the restaurant industry. His introduction to craft cocktails came when he worked as a server at The Back Bay Social Club in Boston. He bounced around for awhile, which included a two-year stint teaching English in Thailand, before ending up in Portland in 2013. He took a formative bartending job at the now-gone Ebb & Flow, where he was given the freedom to experiment and worked with a really strong team, then moved on to the also-now-gone Roustabout, before joining Baharat when it opened in 2017.

Baharat got its start as a food truck, so Brown was free to create a cocktail menu from scratch. Having never been to the Middle East, he started by reading the chef’s cookbooks to develop an ingredient-forward cocktail program mimicking the flavors. One of his first creations was a riff on ayran, a popular Iranian yogurt and mint drink. He added vodka, vermouth, and a cucumber syrup, then paired it with Baharat’s lamb kebabs for an instant hit.

Like all restaurants, Baharat closed during the first part of the pandemic. It did not reopen until late July – and then, only for outdoor dining. To maintain flexibility, Brown slashed the cocktail menu in half and is now offering three “fan favorites,” three new additions and one mocktail.  His current favorite is the brand-new $13 Jets to Brazil, a tropical-leaning drink containing cachaca, mezcal, cinnamon syrup and a passion fruit puree with curry powder. The Shapely Ape is too heavy for a summer drink, so it’s not on the menu yet.

When Brown is at home, he tends to go for rum or a Negroni, which he prepares in batches and keeps in the freezer. If he’s going out, he most often stops at The Portland Zoo for a beer but also enjoys the cocktails at The Portland Hunt & Alpine Club and at the brand-new Via Vecchia, which Brown suspects will soon be “one of the best bar programs in town.”

Bar Madness (which I think should have been called Barch Madness since it kicked off in March) was Brown’s first bartending competition, but I’m betting it won’t be his last.

Angie Bryan is a former diplomat who is enjoying getting acquainted with her new home in Portland, one cocktail at a time.

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