This is a continuation of our interview with Tony Abou-Ganim. Please read Part 1 here.
Total Wine: We’ve been reviewing your new book Vodka Distilled over the past few weeks and enjoyed it very much. Why vodka? Why did you feel the need to come to its rescue and give this particular spirit a boost?
Tony: Despite being the #1 consumed spirit by far in the US, I decided to write a book about vodka to give it the headlines it deserves. Bartenders, especially craft bartenders, have stuck their noses up to vodka. Though one of the oldest spirits in the world, vodka is misunderstood and not as well-known in the US as other spirits. Appreciation is on the way up, overcoming this true lack of understanding about just how versatile vodka can be.
Total Wine: There are lots of vodkas and lots of cocktails in your Vodka Distilled book. Where does the intimidated reader start when wanting to do some mixing at home?
Tony: There are not many classics with a vodka base. But the Frozen Mudslide took me back to the 1980s and specifically a time I spent with my cousin Helen in Cancun. Don’t over-think cocktails. Don’t put in esoteric ingredients. Just make delicious cocktails.
How about you try the cocktail created for Dean Martin, the Flame of Love, which celebrates vodka. Dale DeGroff always used a grain-based vodka, specifically Finlandia, to make this great drink. Legend says that Sinatra liked Dean’s drink so much, he ordered 200 for the guests at Chasen’s in West Hollywood. That was not likely a happy moment for the bar staff, lighting that many orange peels.
Or how about the Vesper, seen in Casino Royale. It’s this kind of drink that using vodka can be used to soften or stretch more intense spirits.
Total Wine: When judging vodka, you taste it neat at room temperature, correct? Does it really matter when you’re mixing a cocktail, though? Does that flavor really show through in the mixed drinks?
Tony: It’s about the “character” of the vodka! If you give me six Bloody Marys made with different vodkas, I probably can’t tell you which vodka is in that drink. I can probably tell you the character of the vodka used. Give me the six vodkas used first, and I will choose the best ones to compliment the drink!
Total Wine: Vodka is having a resurgence now. Are there cocktails you hope tag along? How about cocktails you hope take a few years off?
Tony: I’m hoping the Harvey Wallbanger makes a comeback. It’s such a great cocktail. The Sour Apple Martini, though–Thank God it seems to be dying off.
Total Wine: How about Beer Cocktails and their recent surge in popularity. Have you experimented in making any yourself?
Tony: I’ve tried it a little, but I think the movement will be short-lived. The amazing craft-beer movement has really impressed me. I’ve traveled the world loving new beers from Belgium to Germany. And don’t forget that part of being an excellent bartender is knowing about great beer. I just think adding beer in with classic cocktails is trying too hard to improve something that doesn’t need improving.
Total Wine: Tales of the Cocktail is coming up next month. Will you be attending again this year?
Tony: Actually, I won’t. I only missed the first year. It’s such a great event. But this year I will miss again, to launch a charity close to me. My cousin Helen David, who taught me a lot of what I know about bartending, was a two-time breast cancer survivor. She died at the age of 91 in 2006. This charity will support bartenders who are victims of cancer, and it is so important to me to be there!
Total Wine: Are there new books we should look forward to? Are you on a three year schedule? The Modern Mixologist in 2010, Vodka Distilled this year in 2013.
Tony: We are hoping to speed up the pace for our next book. This year’s book, Vodka Distilled, was received so well that it was nominated among four books for “New Cocktail Book of the Year.” We are very proud of this first book as it’s the start of a series of companion books to go with the original The Modern Mixologist. We hope to cut the time for new books with one focused on American Whiskey next in 2015 followed by gin and rum.
Total Wine: Anything else you’d like to add to our conversation?
Tony: Look me up next time you are in Las Vegas. We’ll taste some vodkas vertically to show the range they have with flavor profiles.
I write to educate the consumer while not overwhelming them with information. Take time and experiment. We’re not curing cancer but we are making life more enjoyable!
Total Wine: Thank you, Tony, for an excellent interview.