The paradox of drinking in Dubai, and how the city's cocktail culture just keeps getting better.
It's evening in Dubai: the air is hot, the streets full, and the skyscrapers sparkling. I am at Jun’s Restaurant sipping a Pure Shores cocktail, a delicious combination of tequila, mezcal, pomegranate, elderflower, citrus, and grapefruit soda. I close my eyes and savour the fresh, crisp, and invigorating cocktail before reminding myself that I'm enjoying this beverage in a place where drinking alcohol is illegal.
In Islam, the main religion of the city, consuming alcohol is prohibited. Under Sharia Law, the religious legal system for the Islamic faith, even an indirect association with alcohol is not allowed. So, it's interesting that a report from the World Health Organization records drinkers in the UAE consuming almost twice the global average in alcohol per year, outboozing traditionally heavy-drinking western nations such as the U.K., Ireland, U.S., and Australia.
According to Global Data, in 2021, the UAE spirits market was valued at $7.4 billion and forecasted to grow at least 13 percent in five years. These numbers include the 85 percent expat population, but does not account for the approximately 14.36 million tourists that visit Dubai each year.
But if drinking alcohol is illegal, how is this happening? Why did cocktail giant, Diageo, hold their 2023 bartending competition here, and how did three Dubai hot spots make the World’s 50 Best Bars list?
There are loopholes that allow non-Muslim tourists and expats living in Dubai to drink in specific licensed locations. It is these licensed restaurants, hotels, and hotel bars that are contributing to the epic rise of Dubai’s cocktail scene.
There are almost 13,000 restaurants in Dubai (11 with Michelin stars), and with top-quality food comes discerning customers in search of high-standard cocktails. Some bars are nestled in hotels helmed by world-class brands, like Nikki Beach and the SLS, while others are only-in-Dubai haunts. For many mixologists, Dubai to the perfect place to hone their craft, dazzle drinkers with something new, and most importantly, be recognized.
Kelvin Cheung is an award-winning Canadian chef and launched his restaurant, Jun’s, in downtown Dubai in 2019. After opening two successful cocktail bars in India, he knew that Dubai was the best next step.
"All the big players [in food and cocktails] are here now,” he tells me as he presents a new and colorful drink. “There is a dense multicultural diaspora in Dubai and things that get started here go international. If you want things to happen, they will happen here.”
Cheung’s unique cocktail menu reflects his multicultural past, the child of Asian immigrants growing up in Toronto, living in India, and traveling the world. Both the food and cocktail menus are very personal and flavor forward. He even has a drink called PB&J, an homage to his time as a latch-key kid in the '90s.
He gestures to downtown Dubai, sparkling lights in palm trees line the spotless streets and luxury cars are parked along the curb. Everything here is glitz and glamour, distinctiveness, and exceptionality. Cheung attributes the rise in distinctive and delectable cocktails to the ease and accessibility of fresh and exclusive ingredients. “We can get anything imported,” he says. “Literally anything we want. And it’s not crazy expensive. The rate of consumption is so high that we can have premium products at a good price.”
Later that week, I’m sitting in Ginger Moon, the boho-inspired, poolside bar and kitchen at the W Hotel Mina Seyahi, an adults-only hotel that opened just over a year ago. I am overlooking the giant yachts resting in the handsome human-made harbor while the breeze floats by as though it, too, were manufactured.
Ginger Moon understands the importance of providing guests with a superior cocktail experience and approaches mixing drinks like an art. The cocktail menu is written like a poem, lyrical and flowery with descriptions that start with “fly on the wild side,” and “get lost in the jungle.”
I am sampling their ‘no waste’ dinner menu, part of Dubai Food Week that highlights this year’s theme: sustainability. The beverage manager, Emanuel Ferraz, has designed a cocktail for each course, crafted from kitchen leftovers. With the kitchen leading the way, this project has allowed Ginger Moon’s mixologists to get creative, combining new flavors, playing with the sweet and the savory.
“There is a big connection between the W brand and cocktail culture, it's in our DNA,” says Ferraz as I sample his gin, tomato, and basil concoction. “When [guests] arrive in the hotel they already expect to find something unique. [They want] something different than the classic, something quite extravagant and [for us] we can say that cocktails are a big part [of that].”
As with everything in Dubai — the new buildings, the meals at Michelin-starred restaurants — the cocktails are executed with precision. From the moment I stepped onto my luxurious Emirates flight, greeted by a perfect old fashioned, I was dazzled by the city’s ability to capture its five-star brilliance in a glass. Drinks in Dubai are not merely drinks: they are artistic masterpieces that represent the glamour and bounding success of the UAE.
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