Damir Miladin, the president of the Bartenders’ Association of Serbia, describes the cocktail era that long reigned in his country succinctly: “black or yellow”—as in Rum & Coke or Scotch & Soda.
There were weighty reasons for a humdrum bar scene, like communism and war. The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia wasn’t the most fun or progressive place. Adult Serbians still remember watching bombs fall on a nightly basis during the vicious conflict with neighboring Croatia. And Serbia remains out of the European Union, which doesn’t exactly accelerate the evolution of its hospitality scene.
But more and more, with an assist from Miladin’s association, a special sort of bar is helping redefine what’s possible. In a bohemian Belgrade neighborhood called Skadarlija, a leafy area appointed with cobblestones, funky-cool cafés and striking street art, sits Bar Central, considered by most the best cocktail bar in the city. It’s where you’ll find sharply dressed bartenders behind a bank of tools, tinctures and jars holding things like dehydrated rose tips.
Miladin owns Bar Central, along with Bartenders’ Association of Serbia vice president Zoran Perić, and the drink choices are more complicated than black or yellow. Roughly 500 creations are available on any given night, with more than 20 Negroni variations alone.
“Bar Central is where you can find the best cocktails in the city,” cocktail critic Jasmina Kanuric writes for Culture Trip. “Numerous awards confirm their status, as well as crowds gathering [there] every night.”
But Bar Central is more than a bar. It’s a working cocktail college. Dozens of newer bartenders train in the back half of the facility and behind the stick, studying service principles, taking on recipe tests, developing “flair” bottle acrobatics and practicing ice carving. Then they have the opportunity to put their skills, and recipes, in play upfront.
“We support trends around us but keep it unique and personal,” says Miladin. “It’s a process, and our top bartenders get final say, but our younger bartenders will tell you it’s truly collaborative and collective.”
More than 120 students attend annually, largely from Serbia, but also Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia. More than 2,000 people have graduated, earning the international diploma certified by the International Bartenders Association from the only Serbian organization qualified to bestow it.
“Learning off Instagram and the internet is one thing,” says Perić. “With materials in front of you [for] a master class, it’s a different thing.”
Miladin and Perić launched the venue after Perić spent years in London mastering the bar craft, eventually chairing the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild and realizing there was a vacuum for that sort of training- and networking-driven organization in his native country. He has gone on to become a brand ambassador for Suntory, which frequently takes him to Japan, where he has fallen for the region’s garnishes, tools and techniques.
“We wanted to invest in the future of the industry,” says Perić. “And it’s important to us that bartenders starting out and working for a wage can look at us and say, ’Bartenders own our bar. They’re doing it. I can do it too.’”
The Bartenders’ Association of Serbia also sends its standout students to competitions around the world. Its biggest win to date came when Janošević Miloš took first place in the Bartenders’ Choice category at the 2016 World Cocktail Championships in Tokyo. More recently, Danilo Trifunović represented Serbia and Bar Central at the 2019 “flairtending” competition Zante Flair Open in Zakynthos, Greece.
While Perić bemoans the predictable offerings at Serbian bars—“I don’t want to name any brands, but when you go to 80% of bars in Belgrade, you have the same supplier”—he sees it as added incentive to hone their game. “There’s an audience that likes new, different things,” he says. “We want to bring more premium products, different ingredients, more quality than quantity. Everything is picking up: speed, quality, demand, trends. People are checking what’s going on.”
Miladin is bullish about building on their success. Bar Central is planning new workshops featuring guest lecturers from across the continent, building out a database of its graduates now working around the world, developing a sugar-free menu, deepening its gin list and scheduling local bartending competitions.
“We believe the world of cocktails offers the most impressive drinking experience,” says Miladin. “And that Bar Central is the next top cocktail place to visit in Europe.”