Bartender; author; mentor; widely-regarded as one of the pioneering & leading bar professionals in the world.
Yep, clear as a bell. I was celebrating my 18th birthday – legal drinking age at the time – at my Cousin Helen’s? Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron, Michigan, with my Mom & Dad. I’d spent many hours at the Rail growing up, but that night was my first visit as a legal adult. My cousin Tony was behind the stick and prepared what felt like all the classic’s for my special day ~ A Sidecar, Tom Collins, Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and God knows what else, but it was that first sip of the Manhattan that hooked me. As Hemingway once wrote, “It made me feel civilized.” I knew in that moment I was hooked.
What is your favorite spirit, if you have to pick just one?
That’s a bit like asking a father who his favorite child is… Okay, so if I had to pick just one I have to say Campari. I love everything about Campari, from its history to its artwork. I love it on the rocks with a slice of orange, with soda in a Highball, in a classic Negroni, or in one of my original creations such as a Big Fonzie. Seriously, when it’s my time to depart this world, I hope the last thing I taste is a Negroni…
Do you have a favorite classic Cocktail?
Considering my Campari fanaticism… I first tasted a Negroni in 1991, when we were opening Harry Denton’s on Steuart Street. The wonderful David O’Malley behind the bar introduced it to me – they say you always remember your first! Seriously though, believe it no not, it was not love at first sip. It is said that even Italians need to try the Negroni three times before falling in love; exactly what it was for me. Fortunately I stuck with it, and have never once looked back – a love affair that has lasted a lifetime.
First original cocktail recipe?
I remember exactly. It was 1995 and I had just returned to San Francisco after 2 years in New York, specifically to help re-open the Starlight Room. At the time, Campari … (yep, you are starting to see a theme happening here) … Campari was doing some promotions with bartenders around the country, and had asked me to create a drink for their “Escape” campaign. Passion for classic cocktails aside, up to this point I had never really “created” a truly original cocktail. Sure, like we all did, I had my own twist on drinks like the Kamikaze and Woo Woo, but this was the first really original drink I had ever done. I called it the Starlight in honor of the newly re-opened Starlight Room. It remains one of my favorite drinks to this day.
Tell us about your first industry gig?
After my Dad pleaded with my cousin Helen David, she agreed to put me to work at the Brass Rail. This was 1980. I worked under the watchful eyes of Helen, my Uncle Charlie, and my cousin Tony. This is where I really came to understand and appreciate the classic cocktail. The Rail was a classic neighborhood joint, where on any given evening you would see nurses bellied up next to lawyers, sitting next to firemen, construction workers, police officers, the mayor… all walks of life meet and imbibed at the Rail… Seriously, a local treasure! I have so many amazing memories of those times. …The Highball was ‘King’ back in those days, and everyone had their whiskey of choice; generally blended, either Canadian or American. Helen had a special 9 oz. Highball glass that is still used to this day. She also had great ice along with a machine that made highly carbonated soda water. I guess you could say she was ahead of her time. She always said, “You only get out of a drink what you put into it!” So many tools and techniques started for me at the Rail… Helen taught me how to make an Old Fashioned by muddling two sugar cubes in a splash of water with a couple of dashes of Angostura, making sure the sugar was completely dissolved. I inherited that muddler after she passed, and still use it on special occasions.
Tell us about your most inspirational mentor, and what they passed along that has stayed with you through the years?
I’ve had so many great mentors during my career, and I’ve learned something priceless from each one. Over the past 40 years all of that amazing influence has helped me to evolve into the barman I have become. Now, if I must choose just one, Helen was my greatest mentor, yet most of what she instilled in me had very little to do with actually mixing a cocktail… I would say the greatest lesson I learned from Helen was the Art of Hospitality. She always said, “Treat your customers at the bar the way you would friends & family in your home!” Younger bartenders often ask what it takes to become a great bartender. My answer, work with and learn from great bartenders, and never stop learning. To this day, I always strive to be better today than I was yesterday. I kid you not; all these years later there is always something more to learn!
Well I think the ship has sailed on my dream of being a professional hockey player. I guess I could still take up the piano? No, really… I would say I have been living my “dream job” for a very long time. I am at my best when I am behind the bar, or inspiring others to fulfill their own passion behind the bar. I remember meeting Dale DeGroff at the Rainbow Room in 1993 – what an inspiration he has been… I had spent the previous 8 years pursuing an acting career, and I had finally made the move to the Big Apple, specifically to pursue my big break as an actor. Bartending to make ends meet, at the time I was tending the little bar at Po. Then I met Dale – low and behold, the acting dream slowly began to shift. Watching him work, and seeing everyone at the bar mesmerized by his craft … the way, he interacted with each of them like they were best friends… It’s a connection I cherished, always have, always will. A light bulb went off, and I realized that as much as I liked acting, I really loved being a bartender! From that moment on I set out to be the best bartender I could be, my destiny, and dream job fully embraced.
Outside of work, how do you most enjoy your time… a favorite activity, sport or hobby?
I’ve always been a bigger fan of two wheels over four. I am a huge motorcycle fanatic and currently own two Harley Davidsons – 1989 Softail and 1996 Road King. Living in Northern California, the back roads were the perfect location to explore by motorcycle, and I took full advantage! Now, I spend more time on my pedal bike. I live out near Red Rock here in Las Vegas, and the riding just outside my backdoor is amazing. I love being out on my bike, not only is it great exercise while out in the sun and fresh air, but it is also great for me mentally. It is a time to check in with myself, and with the natural beauty of the high desert that I call home. We work in a very demanding profession, both physically and emotionally, and we all need to find, or make time for ourselves, and our wellbeing. My back-roads rides eventually led me to help form ‘Team Negroni’ which brings bartenders together, to get out on their bikes, get some exercise, and raise funds and awareness for those in our industry who have been affected by breast cancer. Team Negroni rides on behalf of the USBG to benefit the Helen David Relief Fund. It truly is bartenders helping bartenders, and in this case while helping themselves.
Ice Hockey! Oh, to be 21 again and strap on the skates…! At this point I can just sit back and cheer on our Vegas Golden Knights, which is of course now a ritual. As a consolation though I do get to design the cocktails at T Mobile Arena where the Knights play, so in a very, very small way I guess I’m part of the team… I’ll take it!
Describe your favorite getaway/holiday?
I love the warmth and pace of the Tropics, but if I had to pick my favorite destination it would most defiantly be Paris, France. I love everything about Paris. I love the history, especially that which surrounds the Cocktail, (not much of a museum guy). I love the people, and I really love the food. I’m talking the French Bistro kind of food. Not the Michelin Star kind of joint but a great steak frites au poivre and foie gras place. I love the pastries and coffee … I really love the wine … I love a great Zinc bar for aperitifs! I could easily go on and on. My only regret is not speaking French, well maybe if I drink enough champagne..?
Tony Abou-Ganim is widely regarded as one of the pioneering and leading bar professionals in the world. He has made dozens of national TV appearances on shows including TODAY, Iron Chef America, Good Morning America, CNBC, Fox News and more. Abou-Ganim is the author of The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails (Agate, 2010) which offers readers an in-depth look into spirits and ingredients available to today’s mixologist, both professional and amateur alike. This entertaining and informative journey will take readers from the early stages of the cocktail to what Abou-Ganim has come to deem “Modern Mixology.” Abou-Ganim also has hosted two shows about cocktails including Modern Mixology: Making Great Cocktails at Home, and the Fine Living program Raising the Bar: America’s Best Bar Chefs. Abou-Ganim has also won three Iron Chef America competitions; pairing cocktails with Iron Chef Mario Batali; with Iron Chef Jose Garces and most recently with challenger Chef Shawn McClain. Abou-Ganim has partnered with McClain Camarota Hospitality to open Libertine Social (inside Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Las Vegas) and Highlands and Hearth 72 (located on the 71st and 72nd floor of Detroit’s most iconic landmark, The GMRenCen). Abou-Ganim he sat as a judge for the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition since 2001, serving as the Director of Judging for the past 11 years. His signature branded line of Modern Mixologist bar tools and his second book, Vodka Distilled (Agate, 2013), are available at www.modernmixologist.com
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