Meet Tony Abou-Ganim: The Master Mixologist
Tony Abou-Ganim is the cocktail connoisseur who is leading the movement to bring craft cocktails back into vogue, and into the restaurant and bar spotlight. As a sought after author, award winning cocktail craftsman, celebrity TV mixologist, consultant and educator with the U.S. Bartenders Guild and Museum of the American Cocktail, there is not much Tony has not accomplished in the bar and beverage world. He’s opened some of the most prestigious lounges and bars from San Francisco to New York City to fabulous Las Vegas. To say he is a trendsetter is an understatement…he is no less than a visionary.
The bar industry’s premier party for the crème de le crème of bar managers, bartenders and servers in the industry could not do justice to the art and craft of creating cocktails without Tony’s presence. Suitably, he is the honoree as Beverage Blowout launches its inaugural event and will receive another award to add to his rock star resume: The Beverage Blowout Lifetime Achievement Award. Those rare men and women who revolutionize their industries, elevating them to a level beyond the imagination of their peers and fans, are born. Or are they made? To help us at Beverage Blowout decide, we slid down the rabbit hole to take a peek inside the enchanting and fascinating mind of Tony Abou-Ganim.
BB: How did you develop your intense passion for mixology?
Tony: I grew up in a bar family, my Cousin Helen David opened the Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron Michigan in 1937 and ran it until her death in 2006. Helen was the first person to put a cocktail shaker in my hand. I guess I just have it in my blood.
BB: What are you most proud of having accomplished during your career?
Tony: Wow, that is a tough one! I would have to say Opening the Bellagio in Las Vegas at the request of Steve Wynn. Also, setting up the Helen David Bartender Relief Fund for bartenders affected by breast cancer.
BB: How long have you been crafting cocktails and how did you get started?
Tony: I started in 1980 at the Brass Rail in Port Huron, my cousin Helen taught me the trade along with my Uncle Charlie and my Cousin Tony. I continued to work as a bartender supporting myself through college, all the time thinking this would not ultimately be my final career. Then in 1993 I met Dale DeGroff at the Rainbow Room in NYC and my whole outlook on bartending changed. From that moment forward, I set out to be the best bartender I could be. It was Dale who recommended me to Steve Wynn’s people for the Bellagio job which changed my life…again!
BB: After all these years, what continues to inspire you every day about mixology?
Tony: The profession itself! Every day I try and better myself, to learn or try something new. Also, I love to see young, passionate bartenders aspire to our great craft as a true profession, and not just as a part time gig. What inspires me? Bartenders inspire me!
BB: What has been the biggest obstacle you have faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
Tony: The stigma that bartending was not a “real” job, but was something you did while you finished school—as a part-time job, or to tide you over between acting gigs. Once I came to the realization that this was indeed the profession I was going to commit my life to, I held my head high and said with pride when asked what I do for a living…”I’m a bartender”.
BB: As a leader in the industry, what is the most inspiring change you’ve seen occur throughout your accomplished career?
Tony: To witness the resurgence of Classic Cocktails and Classic Mixology on a broad scale! The renewed interest among young bartenders committing themselves to the craft is inspiring. The appreciation and interest with consumers in craft cocktails and their histories and stories excites me. That the bartender today is rivaling the chefs of 10 years ago! That there are now over 200 different bitters available and some bars stock them all! And that we are once again caring about ice!
BB: Which current trend in the business excites you most?
Tony: Without hesitation, I would say it’s the opening of Craft cocktail bars across the country! Not that long ago you would hear of a craft cocktail bar in New York or San Francisco, now great bartenders are branching out and opening great bars all over and our guests are drinking better than prior to Prohibition. We are currently experiencing the second coming of the Golden Age of Cocktails.
BB: Where do you see the craft of mixology in 10 years?
Tony: I feel that we are truly just scratching the surface of what’s to come. As mentioned, we are seeing great cocktail bars opening all over this great country and that will continue. Maybe one day it will even be possible to get a great, hand crafted cocktail at the airport!
BB: What is your favorite Sunday cocktail?
Tony: Well, every day is a great day for a Negroni…but I would have to say that Sunday’s scream “Ramos Fizz”. The only problem is they are hard to find, so I usually end up making them at home!
BB: What is your favorite Friday night cocktail?
Tony: My favorite Friday night cocktail (Did I mention every day is a good day for a Negroni?) would have to be a 4-1 perfect dry Martini, stirred, straight up with a twist of lemon and 2 pearl onions.
BB: TGIF! That sounds sublime.
BB: Tell us a little about your charity you are starting: What was the inspiration? Who will the organization benefit?
Tony: The Helen David Bartender Relief fund is being set up to assist bartenders and their families who have been affected by breast cancer. It was inspired by my Cousin Helen David who owned and operated the Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron, Michigan from 1937, until her death in 2006. Helen was a two time survivor of breast cancer and was very committed to the cause. Helen spent her entire life in the bar industry and always instilled in me a sense of community and the importance of giving back. I had the idea two years ago when I turned 50 and wanted to start a charity and pay tribute to Helen. In lieu of gifts, I asked friends to donate to the Helen David Memorial. My hope is that in ten years many bartenders, who have been affected by breast cancer, and their families, will have some of their needs met through the HDBRF.
BB: In closing, there are some people who are still unclear as to what Mixology encompasses. Who better to ask than a Master Mixologist himself…what does the craft of “Mixology” mean to you?
Tony: David Wondrich supplied me with this definition of the word Mixologist from a story by Charles G. Leland in an issue of Knickerbocker, dating back to 1856: “with no word for a bartender who has unusual interest and expertise in mixing drinks, people started using ‘Mixologist’.”
I like this definition, but at the end of the day, we are all bartenders and first and foremost we are in the hospitality business—and whether we’re pulling pints or crafting fresh, seasonal, culinary-style libations our goal should always be to make our guests day a little better when they leave our bars then it was when they first walked in.
Born or made? You make the call. Beverage Blowout is sticking to making the drinks. You can find out more about Tony’s intoxicating talent at http://www.themodernmixologist.com.