To call it a given that Tony Abou-Ganim would end up a professional bartender might be a little strong, but considering his lineage, it wasn’t exactly a long shot. He learned to bartend from his cousin Helen David, who owned the Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron, Michigan. He worked for famed bar owner Harry Denton in San Francisco and led Mario Batali’s cocktail program at Po before attracting the attention of Steve Wynn, who hired him to oversee all 22 cocktail programs at the Bellagio, beginning in 1998. Tony Abou-Ganim started his beverage consulting firm in December 2003, and since then, he’s averaged approximately 150,000 air miles per year as part of his efforts to tout “Modern Mixology.” He trains bar staffs, develops cocktails and leads product education. He also took time to write a book on modern mixology, which hit the market last year. We’ve met more than once in Los Angeles, and he recently shared deeper insights about his background and approach over the phone.
What is it that inspires you about cocktails?
What inspires me even more than the cocktail itself is the profession of bartending. It’s been so wonderful to see this resurgence we’re enjoying, to see young bartenders enter the profession as a career instead of while finsishing school or working on an acting career. I know the bar has been raised in this country, and our guests are enjoying a better experience at the bar, and certainly a better cocktail experience. Really the cocktail is a small part of the experience. I don’t think much has really changed in that respect. The bar is the place to go to escape the daily grind. Dale DeGroff said it best, “I don’t go to bars, I go to bartenders,” whether it’s a shot or beer joint or sports book. If I have any worries at all, it’s any kind of arrogance bethind the bar. You can get a great Negroni, all the better.
Did you become interested in cocktails or spirits first?
I’m now 30 years in the business, and I grew up in a family that ran a bar. My cousin, Helen David, opened Brass Rail in 1937 and ran it for 70 years. Now my cousin Roone runs the bar. I fell in love with the business. I’m not really a wine or beer guy. It’s almost all spirits and cocktails. I was lucky, because she had a classic bar. I learned the Sidecar, Old Fashioned, Poussse-Café, classic drinks, and it wasn’t about specific brands, necessarily, it was more about the category. In 1980, we had three different vodkas behind the bar, four or five gins and about 600 Canadian blended whiskeys. Highballs were all the rage at the time. People were most specific in calling their blended whiskies by category. A Kessler’s drinker was a Kessler’s drinker. A Seven Star drinker was a Seven Star drinker, For the most part it was a whiskey sour, a martini.
I would probably say it was the mixing of drinks, more so than spirits. I spent years not even understanding what sour mash whiskey was. At the time, there was not a lot of importance put on training or education of what was put in those bottles. It was brandy, or gin. A martini was gin and vermouth. A manhattan was whiskey, vermouth and bitters. It wasn’t as specific as when somebody now specifies a Bombay Sapphire martini. Look at the old books, things are rarely called for by name.
What’s your first cocktail memory?
My cousin Helen david owned and operated Brass Rail in Port Huron, and my father persuaded her to teach me bartending. She was resistant, because at that time in 1980, it wasn’t something you wanted your kid to aspire to as a profession. She wanted me to be a chef, but finally gave in and taught me the craft. At the end of the night, she’d drink a B&B. It required taking a pony glass, ¾ ounce Benedictine, and carefully over the back of the bar spoon, floating ¼ ounce of Cognac over that. And that was her nightcap cocktail. At the time, I was only 20, and the drinking age was 21, so I was able to work behind the bar and not be able to imbibe on the creations. Now that she’s passed, I have a Brass Rail cocktail that I did in her honor, and it features a B&B.
Was there a moment where you transitioned from being a bartender to being a mixologist?