Total Wine recently had the opportunity to speak with renowned bar professional Tony Abou-Ganim. Tony has appeared on (and won) three battles of Iron Chef America, made numerous appearances on daytime TV including the Today Show and Good Morning America, and is the author of two books, The Modern Mixologist and Vodka Distilled. (P.S. Tony will appear on NBC’s Today Show again this Thursday, July 4, 2013 at 7 am EST to do a cocktail demonstration; tune in!) He developed a specialty cocktail menu for the famous Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, worked as bartender for Mario Batali at Po in New York City, and developed the cocktail program for the Bellagio Hotel and its 22 bars. Tony is a winner of the Bacardi Martini World Grand Prix as well. Favorite Cocktail: Negroni.
Thank you so much, Tony, for taking the time to talk to the Total Wine & More readers about your career and more specifically, bartending and cocktails.
Total Wine: Have you ever been to a Total Wine?
Tony: There’s one off Charleston at Boca Park in Summerlin (Las Vegas). I sent my nephew there today for some Everclear so we can make some homemade limoncello. I like the stores and selection. I’d actually like to do a demonstration there to help consumers that might otherwise be intimidated feel like they can create great cocktails in their homes.
Total Wine: Can you tell us how the bartender that was schooled with traditional classics became known as “The Modern Mixologist”?
Tony: That nickname is a play on words. I do have a foundation in the classics, but original ingredients are the new tool to make cocktails more modern. I’m still a traditionalist at heart. I think it’s funny that the term “mixologist” is so common today. When I got my first promotion at the Bellagio, I helped create my title, Master Mixologist. The term, however, has roots in the 1800s, earned when a bartender learned to mix properly.
Total Wine: You seem to be a stickler with the types of ingredients you use in your cocktails. Do you have a certain philosophy when it comes to what you put in your drinks?
Tony: I do. I believe that you only get out of a cocktail what you put into it. And that the cocktail must be more than just the sum of its parts. I only use fresh, seasonal ingredients and believe in the integrity of the drink. I want people to make my cocktails. I use the classics as a starter since they have stood the test of time and try to make re-creating my cocktails simple for people to achieve.
Total Wine: You’ve created many of your own cocktails over the years. Can you tell us about some of the famous ones and where you get your inspiration when getting behind the bar? Or does inspiration come in a dream?
Tony: It’s been said that there will never again be a totally original cocktail. All new ones are based on the classics. So I start with great drinks and take license to imagine them in a different light. Take my Cable Car, for example. It’s a riff off of the Sidecar cocktail, where I switched spiced rum for cognac. But the Sidecar is itself a riff from the classic Brandy Crusta cocktail, an evolution of drinks.
Total Wine: We know that you do a lot of presentations. We were wondering if presentations with fancy bottle tricks are common, or just the things you see in movies like Cocktail?
Tony: Flair Bartending is a style that I have not practiced. If you’re good at it, I am not going to say it doesn’t have its place. But for me, performance is the flair, the techniques are the tricks. I want to create drinks that are a culinary masterpiece and be the best bartender I can be.
Total Wine: What predictions do you have for bartending as an industry in general? Would you encourage someone into a bartending career?
Tony: This is a fantastic time to be in the industry, if you are willing to do your work and taste the different drinks and teach yourself about the different spirits. Taste the different vodkas and know how each will work when mixed. I recently judged the World Class Bartender of the Year finals by Diageo, both in the US and Canada. The biggest compliment was that the Canadian winner was flown to my home in Las Vegas for training and to learn techniques. I take the mentoring aspect as an obligation, to inspire and educate a new generation of bar professionals.
Part 2 of our interview with Tony will be published shortly.