A View from the City: Dubai

Continuing our series, Jimmy Barrat, award-winning bar manager at Zuma Dubai, lifts the lid on what’s happening in his adopted home

Tell us a little about the Dubai drinks scene. 

It has changed quite a bit over the past five years with the addition of a number of world-renowned venues and brands. As Dubai alcohol licences are mostly restricted to hotels, most bars and venues are located within the grounds of those hotels. Zuma is one of the notable exceptions, being in the licensed DIFC district. In terms of trends, vodka is still strong, along with whisky, but recently we have seen a steep surge in Japanese whisky and gin has also achieved more recognition. We at Zuma are looking to continue the move towards rare products, such as mezcal, and are always knocking on the doors of the alcohol distributors to secure the importation of niche brands that are readily available in London, Europe and the US.

How is cocktail culture progressing?

Twenty years ago this city wasn’t much more than sand dunes and camels, so it’s fair to say the development to where we are today has indeed been rapid. Venues such
as ourselves, Okku, Hakkasan and, more recently, the
likes of Suga, have gone a long way to facilitate the development of the region’s palate to more complex
flavours and educate people in more interesting ways of enjoying alcohol. But these things take time and there
is still a long way to go before the industry and cocktail culture is anywhere near the likes of London or New York. Zuma does not serve certain drinks, such as Long Island Iced Tea and the local favourite ‘DooDoo Shot’, in an attempt to educate people and promote a more sophisticated and cultured way of consuming alcohol, however even today, this policy still seems to surprise and upset the odd guest here and there.

Why should people visit the Dubai bar scene?

The bar scene in Dubai is growing and improving fast due to so many big brands wanting to come over. It’s one of the few areas of the world that didn’t really feel the economic crash that much, not within F&B at least, and it’s definitely thriving now. The only concern is the way brands are managed once here, as there is a trend for owners who do not really know the industry to become too heavily involved. This can also be linked to a greed element where owners only look at the bottom-line figures and do not know where to invest in the business and where they are able to shave off a little cost. Due to the way salary packages are organised in Dubai, with companies having to pay for visa, flights, accommodation and transport, labour cost is often the first area to be cut. This has traditionally lead to service standards being poor. Hopefully this message has begun to sink in over the past two years though, with more of the newer venues spending more on recruitment and housing for staff but, it’s a tough market. If the businesses outlays a lot upfront for these costs it is essential the money starts rolling in immediately otherwise the venue could face liquidation within a year. Zuma was lucky, being able to pay for itself within just eight months, something unheard of within the industry.