Interview: Modern Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim
Was there a moment where you transitioned from being a bartender to being a mixologist?
I think without really knowing the term mixoloigst even existed, it would have happened in the fall of 1993, when I moved from San Francisco to New York City. I have a theatre background, so I moved to New York to hopefully work on Broadway. That was the year I met Mario Batali and I was the first bartender at Po. From that meeting, I met Dale DeGroff and remember sitting at the Rainbow Room and watching him make a Negroni with his signature burnt orange twist. He’s a great showman, great host, great mixologist. A lightbulb kind of went off. There I was, working 12-13 years in this business…in that brief moment, if there was a revelation, it happened right then. Here I was chasing this profession of acting, but I had this profession of bartending that I had much more control over the outcome. At that time, I set out to be the best bartender I could be, so it stopped being a job and started being a passion….In 1998, it was Dale who recommended me to Steve Wynn for the position to the Bellagio. That was the end of my acting profession.
Why do you continue to keep Las Vegas as a base of operations, even though you no longer work for the Bellagio?
When I took the job in 1988 at Bellagio, obviously, I didn’t realize the enormity of the job. I was loving San Francisco and didn’t think I’d stay more than two years, but by the time I blinked, two years had gone by and I started to really enjoy Las Vegas and the job was wonderful and demanding. The next thing I knew, five years had gone by. I’ve gotten to love Las Vegas. I love the desert, the climate, and think there’s great opportunities here. That said, most of the work I’ve over the past seven years has been out of Las Vegas. Besides, I have two German shepherds who love it here, so I can’t uproot them.
What do you think it will take for the Vegas Strip to become a cocktail destination? Are there barriers to greatness that don’t exist in cities like New York or San Francisco?
I don’t know if they don’t exist in those cities, but there are a couple things here. It’s a very strong union town and once a casino’s open, it’s very difficult to implement significant change. A lot of establishments are set in their ways, open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. When we opened the Bellagio in 1998, the concept of fresh juice was unheard of. Cocktail menus were very rare. Creative, fresh, unique house cocktails were unheard of. That was a moment to impact a big change on how cocktails are served. We ran up against, shortly after that, the onslaught of nightclubs, with people able to spend $500-$600 for a bottle of vodka, there was very little interst in cocktail culture in this clubs. Bartenders Guild has done a lot to change that. Southern Spirtis with their Academy or Spirits and Fine Service, has graduated thousands of bartenders. The Cosmo, the opening of their property, their commitment to training, programs and glassware, they have embraced cocktails, and on a property wide level, have taken it to the next level.
With the Bellgagio, the food and beverage team, headed by Gamal Aziz, supported the program. The cost of the glass will go up with fresh juice and premium spirit, but people will respond to the spirit instead of just the drink as a means to an end. You have to have that support and philosophy in place. The Wynn, with what they accomplished, made strides. But I’m still waiting for that pinnacle cocktail bar to open in Las Vegas. I’d like to be involved in it. That way I wouldn’t have to travel so much and people could come to me to have my cocktails.
Do you have any plans to open your own bar in Las Vegas?
Nothing confirmed at this time, but check back in six months.
What was the most recent cocktail you developed, and what was your approach?
I’m doing a program with Disarrono called The Mixing Star. I’m giving a seminar as well as acting as one of the judges for the cocktail competition on the history and role of liqueurs in cocktails. We’re getting much better, but the liqueur and the quality fo the liqueur has been overlooked in the anatomy of a well made cocktail. People will spend $50 on a bottle of tequila and use a $7 domestic Triple Sec as the modifier. I’m deconstructing the anatomy of a cocktail to show the importance of balance in a drink and how each ingredient is chosen for a purpose. The cocktail’s sweet, bitter, tart, and how they all they work together to give you more thatn the sum of the parts.
The Madonna is a very simple cocktail. I try to make cocktail recipes that can be created at most bars and reproduced fairly consistently. Because if I come up with a drink with lavender foam and homemade bitters, it’s unrealistic anybody can make it. Bacardi 8 rum, Disarrono, fresh lemon juice and pineapple juice. Taste of all those separately and blend them together. Add ice and show how ice opens up a drink. Very simple twist spiral of lemon to show how aromatics add to the overall complexity of the drnk. Never overlook the importance of a good garnish because it can define a cocktail.
It’s a very simple cocktail consisting of ingredients available at virtually any cocktail bar…It dodsn’t matter how esoteric I get with my ingredients. It has to be recreated easily, in a short amount of time and enjoyed by the most important element, which is our guests.
When you’re not at work, where do you like to drink and what do you like to drink?
My favorite cocktail is a Negroni. We assume now that everyone knows a Negroni, at least in cocktail bars and good restaurants. You can get a fairly well made Negroni. When I moved here 12 years ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case…as simple of a cocktail as it is, it’s still a treat to find someone who embraces that drink…you have to love to make cocktails, because you don’t love to make them, your guests won’t love to drink them. I still love the Petrossian bar at the Bellagio. The new Vesper bar at the Cosmo. Andrew Pollard has a great staff, and they really love to make cocktails. A little Italian restaurant called Nora’s on Flamingo, Sean and Anthony behind the bar, it’s just a welcoming feeling. One of the thing I enjoy most is when Julie Reiner is at Flatiron lounge in the spring and summer when she’s making her Hibiscus Swizzles. I always stop in when I’m in New York just to have one. She’s very busy and is not at the bar as much, but if I tell her I’m coming, she’ll swing by and make one for me.
Who are some other bartenders who you really respect, and how come?
Truthfully I have respect for every bartender standing behind the stick…What I miss the most about what I do now is not being behind the stick on a regular basis. Obviously Dale had a great influence. I grew up in a bartending family. My uncle Charlie, my cousin Tony and Helen David, who’s also my cousin. She was the first person to put a cocktail shaker in my hand.
When young bartenders ask me what makes a great bartender, it’s the opportunity to work with and learn from great bartenders. I’ve had an opportunity to learn something from all of them. To floating a pousse-café to the B&B. Francesco Lafranconi, who I had an opportunity to meet when he came over to work for Southern, his love and passion is unequaled, and he’s had the opportunity to affect thousands of bartenders nationally. The guys at Employees Only. They did my TV show four years ago, I fell in love with their bar and philosophy. Sasha [Petraske] with how many people he’s affected. IN San Francisco, Harry Denton had a great impact. Even though he wasn’t a bartender, he was consummate host and I learned a lot about hospitality. The list would just go on and on and on. Audrey Saunders and Gary Regan, who first published two of my drinks back in the mid ‘90s. Younger people, Bridget Albert, who worked us at the Bellagio and is now doing incredible things for the Chicago cocktail scene. Charlotte Voisey, with William Grant, who came over from London, just the most charming and talented bartender. I was at Tales [of the Cocktail] a couple years ago, I was at the Bartenders Breakfast with Plymouth Gin. Simon Ford hosted. Everybody was excited and happy to be there. Things are changing.