Tony Abou-Ganim

Mixologist

Las Vegas

Tony Abou-Ganim is the author of the books Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails and The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails. You may recognize Abou-Ganim from Iron Chef America, where he tag-teamed with Mario Batali to clinch the 2007 competition. Often a guest on the Fine Living Network program Raising the Bar: America's Best Bar Chefs, he grew up in the bar business, learning the craft from his cousin Helen David at the Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron, Mich. Though he got an appreciation for a well-made cocktail using the freshest ingredients at Jack Slick's Balboa Café in San Francisco. In 1990, he helped open Harry Denton's, a legendary Fog City hangout. Then in 1993, he moved to New York City, where he worked with Batali at Po in the West Village. He returned to San Francisco in 1995 to open Harry Denton's Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. It was here that Abou-Ganim crafted his first specialty drink menu featuring several of his original recipes, including the Cable Car and Starlight. Steve Wynn handpicked the mixologist to create the cocktail program at his Bellagio resort in 1998. Today, the Las Vegas resident operates his own beverage consulting firm and serves as the national ambassador of the United States Bartenders' Guild.

  • On January 9, 2013
    Jordan Lawson is now following Tony Abou-Ganim
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What does Tony Abou-Ganim think is an underappreciated spirit?

    It's fabulous to see gin get its second coming, if you will. I'm a fan of the Harvey Wallbanger — I know this is going to sound crazy. It's kind of a fun, silly drink. I read somewhere that the Harvey Wallbanger helped spur this resurgence in classic mixology. It’s a drink that goes back to the '70s when people really weren't drinking very well. I understand it's just a simple, fun, refreshing drink but best when made with Galliano.
     
    If I had to pick one drink, I would say the Jack Rose. I'm so happy that the Applejack has stood the test of time, one of the oldest American spirits. I think Applejack is a fabulous product that, within the mixology community, has gotten some love of late. It's one of those cocktails that everyone has the ingredients for. During the quick rise of the apple martini, which I rebelled against (unsuccessfully), but I would try to turn people onto sidecars made with Applejack or the Jack Rose. People always liked it, but they wanted the Jolly Rancher-tasting fluorescent green thing with the maraschino cherry at the bottom. 
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What cocktail startled Tony Abou-Ganim?

    Negroni — I didn't like it when I first tried it. In my defense, it is a proven fact that even Italians have to try Campari three times before developing a liking for it. With that said, it was 1985, I had just moved to San Francisco and had never seen Campari before. I poured a glass of Campari with my best friend Greg and we both shot it down. And, yes, I thought it was one of the worst things I had ever tasted in my life.
     
    It wasn't until five years later when I had the great opportunity to work with Harry Denton, and he opened Harry Denton's on Stuart Street and I met a gentleman by the name of David O'Malley, who is bringing me back from classics and were tasting through some drinks and he made Negronis for everyone, and I was like 'Oh my God, this is fabulous!'
     
    It's funny, when I first moved to Las Vegas and went out to try and find bartenders who knew the drink and knew how to make it and who got as excited about making it as I did about drinking it. Generally, I was greeted with, 'Dude, we just ran out of Negroni,' or the best was, 'I don’t have Negroni, but I have Peroni.' 
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What does Tony Abou-Ganim always order when he dines out?

    If I'm somewhere like Balthazar, I go for something that I can't make as well, or at all, at home. And it's usually going to include French fries. I cook a lot at home, but rarely do I cook fish. My third favorite thing is pickerel, where if you're from Chicago, you've probably heard of pickerel. You come out here and it's a freshwater fish. You don't really see people eat pickerel, but that would probably be my number three. There's a place in Port Huron, Michigan called the Palms Krystal Bar that does fried pickerel with French fries — imagine that! If I ever see pickerel on the menu, that's what I’m ordering. It’s one of those things that’s hard to find and when you find it done well, you order it. First thing I do when I come home is go the Palms Krystal and have a pickerel dinner.
     
    Steak tartare is another thing I love to get when I'm out. I like the showmanship, the romance, especially when they do it tableside. I guess I'm a little old-school that way. I still like Caesar salads done tableside, or bananas foster. Dining out needs to be fun. When it gets stuffy or pretentious in any way, it's probably not the place you're going to find me.
     
    Now, if I'm in Paris I'm probably eating foie gras with every meal and I feel my arteries harden by the time I get back on the plane. When I'm in Paris, I eat a lot of snails; I eat a lot of foie gras; I eat a lot of cheese — things I can't readily get here.
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What are Tony Abou-Ganim’s favorite restaurants?

    I would say that if I were going to the box tomorrow, I've got a list of five favorite restaurants. But my favorite, I would have the steak pomme-frites at Bouchon in Napa Valley or here in Las Vegas. I haven't been to the one in Los Angeles, but the one in Napa would probably be my first choice, only because I could ride up there on my motorcycle. Bouchon here in Las Vegas at The Venetian is equally as wonderful. And, again, you walk in, 'Tony, how are you? How have you been? Can I get you a Negroni?' They remember my favorite cocktail. Paul, the wine guy, always has something great to drink that's a little out there, but never crazy pricey. I had my 50th birthday party there. They put a little table card up that featured my favorite drink. You know, it's just special little things that make you want to go back. For me, it's the service and being at home and feeling welcome like someone is welcoming you into their house. The beauty and gift of hospitality. That would probably be my favorite, and that’s what people ask: If they're going to have one meal, where should it be? And Bouchon is probably it for me.
     
    I have a place in San Francisco that I've gone to ever since I moved there in 1985, and I've been making effort I can to go there for lunch. It's called Le Central. It's a French bistro that’s been there forever. The front room is kind of where all the 'who's who' of San Francisco would lunch. Willy Brown would be in there, the late Herb Caen. There's a plaque over his table now. Louie, who's a dear friend of mine, has been a waiter there for as long as I've known him, which is probably 20 years or more. I always have the same thing. I have the escargot. I don't even have to get a menu or order — Louie just knows. I have a Negroni and an escargot. He picks out a nice, dry white wine and then I have the chicken pomme-frites, so you've seen that French fries are definitely important in my diet.
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What are Tony Abou-Ganim’s favorite hotels?

    I kind of try to spread it out a little bit because I do spend a lot of time in hotels. I actually bought a Heavenly bed for my home, just so I could feel at home when I'm home since I spend so much time in hotel beds. Starwood hotels have always been a favorite. I think Marriott does a fabulous job with their hotels, Renaissance and Ritz. Those are all fabulous places.
     
    I was just at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. I was in Dallas for a day doing a seminar, and I walked in and they greeted me by name. They remembered the last time I was there. They had a cold coffee drink and a warm cookie for me, took me to my room, showed me around. To me, it's about feeling at home when you're on the road.
     
    Places that don't charge for Internet — I'm always a big fan of that. All the places I mention, I'd like to have a little gym. It doesn't have to be a real exclusive, expensive gym, but I need to have something that I can at least kind of break a sweat, so I look for that. But really, Starwood has a beautiful collection of hotels in their family, something for every budget. Usually, that's the place I look first.
     
    I was just in Los Angeles and stayed at The Roosevelt. They're dog-friendly, so I drove down and I took my dog. He had a great time. I have a friend that runs a bar there. Good restaurants. It was a good feel. When I'm in San Francisco, Sir Francis Drake is always home to me there — it's an older hotel. I think the Kimpton Hotel Group for smaller, boutique-y hotels does a great job. Again, very good at remembering your name and how you like your pillows. Free Internet. Coffee in the morning is always a plus in the lobby. I always like places that put out coffee. You know, I think I just like places that go that little extra mile for you.
     
    I stayed in South Beach at the W, which was great. They've got a Living Room there, which is really wonderful. I was there for a week, and it was great — so much so, that I was in New Orleans for a week and I stayed at the W. So, I think, I don't know why, but I kind of lean towards the W. But, if there's a Kimpton Hotel around, I love the Kimpton Hotel group out of San Francisco.
     
    And I guess I kind of buy into the Starwood hotels, trying to accrue points. You know, I know some people that are very anal about that. A lot of times, my hotels are booked by clients, so I get to stay in some pretty nice places. Again, Halekulani in Waikiki. It's one of those places where, the minute you get out of the cab from the airport, and the bellmen greet you at the guest stand — 'nice to see you,' your name, they're ready for you at the check-in. They take you up to your room; they've got a little something for you. When you stay at Halekulani in Waikiki, you pay a little bit more for it; but, to me, if for a nickel more you go first class, then definitely go first class. 
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What are Tony Abou-Ganim's favorite cities?

    I would have to say that number one is San Francisco. My formative years were spent there. I got rid of the winters of Michigan, so I guess my respect and understanding for food, for drink, for wine, for culture. I'm a motorcycle guy, and the motorcycle riding in and around San Francisco is fabulous. I think it's a city that offers a little bit of everything. People are great; the restaurant community is fabulous. I felt welcome there, and it felt like home from the minute I moved in. Truthfully, I never thought I'd leave until I got a call from Mr. Wynn to come to Las Vegas and do the program at Bellagio in 1998.
     
    Chicago — I think if we could have spring and summer year-round, I'd be sold. I love Chicago. Again, a great restaurant community; a great bar community. There is, I think, a true love for our profession and the overall hospitality industry in Chicago. There are no prejudices, no arrogance. It's just really fun and the people are really real. I almost tried to buy a boat and live my summers in Chicago, but I found out how difficult it was to get slip to dock a boat in.
     
    I love Las Vegas, I really do. I love the desert. I mean, it could be 115 [degrees] and I can be happy. Love the dry climate. I'm also a big bicycle rider, so I just actually came back from a 30-mile ride under the Red Rock Canyon, which is absolutely stunningly beautiful this time of year. The only thing I really miss here is a body of water. I feel very close to the bar community here in Las Vegas — coming in here in 1998 and being part of the resurgence, the renaissance of drinking in Las Vegas. I feel very proud and connected to that and to that community.
     
    And I would say New York City. What's not to love about New York City? As Frank said, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. I had the pleasure of living there for a couple of years and experiencing it first-hand. I was the first bartender at Mario Batali's restaurant in 1998, so I was kind of ingrained in that restaurant community, that restaurant industry, obviously what Mario's gone on to do, but the people that came out of that restaurant, his partner Steve Crane and Jason Jensen. People have spun great careers out of that little 35-feet restaurant. Today, I'm a partner at a restaurant called Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca, so I'm in New York a fair amount. What's happened in the bar industry in New York City is now spread through the entire United States. There's probably not a major city in the United States that you cannot find a good cocktail bar in. I feel very excited and proud to be a small part of that. I think we're all drinking better because of it.
     
    The next stop for me is Maui. I'm a warm weather guy. I like the thought of 82-degree weather year-round. I hope to learn to play golf and continue to ride my bicycle and maybe even do a little surfing — get back the water I've been missing since I've lived in Las Vegas. My retirement plan is to look for a nice little cocktail bar in Maui who is looking for a part-time bartender a couple nights a week who can make a pretty good Negroni, weave some tales, tell some stories, do what I love to do.
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    When is the best time to visit Las Vegas?

    Anytime from about late April to late October. But I'm a glutton for hot weather. I really, really love the hot weather. If you're not as big of a fan of the hot weather as I am, spring or fall. You can get the top down on your car or go out on your motorcycle, go hiking. Las Vegas really has a lot to offer besides just sitting in front of a slot machine. Getting outside, there's so much to offer. Again, in the spring, the weather is just starting to break and get warmer and warmer. For me, turn it up to 115 and get me poolside.
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What does Tony Abou-Ganim think is the best time to visit Las Vegas?

    Anytime from about late April to late October. But I’m a glutton for hot weather. I really, really love the hot weather. If you’re not as big of a fan of the hot weather as I am, spring or fall. You can get the top down on your car or go out on your motorcycle, go hiking. Las Vegas really has a lot to offer besides just sitting in front of a slot machine. Getting outside, there’s so much to offer. Again, in the spring, the weather is just starting to break and get warmer and warmer. For me, turn it up to 115 and get me poolside.
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What is the best Las Vegas nightlife?

    They just opened what has probably become my favorite bar at The Cosmopolitan called Vesper, just like the cocktail. Crack staff of bartenders who love being bartenders. Andrew Pollack, who oversees the program is continually leading with education, pushing the envelope both for classics resurrected and original cocktails. In a casino environment, he sticks to the classics. I would say, prior to that, my favorite — partially because I opened the Bellagio — but it’s the Perugia Lounge inside Bellagio. It’s an oasis away from the mayhem of the casino itself, even though it’s just off the gaming floor. There’s no video poker, you’ve got bartenders there today that started with us in 1998 who will remember your name, what you’d like to drink. They’ll have a story for you, something new to try, fresh hand-crafted cocktails, you can get a little something to eat. You can get an ounce of caviar with some Cristal champagne.

    Off the strip, I would go to Herbs and Rye on Sahara. Nick Holly has really resurrected a pre-prohibition feel in there. The cocktails match it. They’re all classics. If I were going to make a trip downtown, I’d go see Jeremy at the downtown Cocktail Room. Again, it’s got that funky, need-to-know vibe. No pretention, fabulous hand-crafted cocktails and a great respect for the perfection. To grab a Negroni and have some dinner, I have to give a shout out to my friends at Nora’s [Cuisine]. It’s a family-run Italian restaurant on Flamingo. Antonio, the bar manager there, runs a spot-on bar program. The drinks are made with love and fresh ingredients, and it shows.
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What is the best Las Vegas nightlife?

    They just opened what has probably become my favorite bar at the Cosmopolitan called Vesper, just like the cocktail. Crack staff of bartenders who love being bartenders. Andrew Pollack, who oversees the program is continually leading with education, pushing the envelope both for classics resurrected and original cocktails. In a casino environment, he sticks to the classics. I would say, prior to that, my favorite — partially because I opened the Bellagio — but it’s the Perugia Lounge inside Bellagio. It’s an oasis away from the mayhem of the casino itself, even though it’s just off the gaming floor. There’s no video poker, you’ve got bartenders there today that started with us in 1998 who will remember your name, what you’d like to drink. They’ll have a story for you, something new to try, fresh hand-crafted cocktails, you can get a little something to eat. You can get an ounce of caviar with some Cristal champagne.

    Off the strip, I would go to Herbs and Rye on Sahara. Nick Holly has really resurrected a pre-prohibition feel in there. The cocktails match it. They’re all classics. If I were going to make a trip downtown, I’d go see Jeremy at the downtown Cocktail Room. Again, it’s got that funky, need-to-know vibe. No pretention, fabulous hand-crafted cocktails and a great respect for the perfection. To grab a Negroni and have some dinner, I have to give a shout out to my friends at Nora’s Italian Restaurant. It’s a family-run Italian restaurant on Flamingo. Antonio, the bar manager there, runs a spot-on bar program. The drinks are made with love and fresh ingredients, and it shows.
  • On October 22, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What are Tony Abou-Ganim’s favorite Las Vegas bars?

    They just opened what has probably become my favorite bar at the Cosmopolitan called Vesper, just like the cocktail. Crack staff of bartenders who love being bartenders. Andrew Pollack, who oversees the program is continually leading with education, pushing the envelope both for classics resurrected and original cocktails. In a casino environment, he sticks to the classics. I would say, prior to that, my favorite — partially because I opened the Bellagio — but it’s the Perugia Lounge inside the Bellagio. It’s an oasis away from the mayhem of the casino itself, even though it’s just off the gaming floor. There’s no video poker, you’ve got bartenders there today that started with us in 1998 who will remember your name, what you’d like to drink. They’ll have a story for you, something new to try, fresh hand-crafted cocktails, you can get a little something to eat. You can get an ounce of caviar with some Cristal champagne. Off the strip, I would go to Herbs and Rye on Sahara. Nick Holly has really resurrected a pre-prohibition feel in there. The cocktails match it. They’re all classics. If I were going to make a trip downtown, I’d go see Jeremy at the downtown Cocktail Room. Again, it’s got that funky, need-to-know vibe. No pretention, fabulous hand-crafted cocktails and a great respect for the perfection. To grab a Negroni and have some dinner, I have to give a shout out to my friends at Nora’s Italian Restaurant. It’s a family-run Italian restaurant on Flamingo. Antonio, the bar manager there, runs a spot-on bar program. The drinks are made with love and fresh ingredients, and it shows.
  • On September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What cocktail startled Tony Abou-Ganim?

    Negroni — I didn’t like it when I first tried it. In my defense, it is a proven fact that even Italians have to try Campari three times before developing a liking for it. With that said, it was 1985, I had just moved to San Francisco and had never seen Campari before. I poured a glass of Campari with my best friend,Greg, and we both shot it down. And, yes, I thought it was one of the worstthings I had ever tasted in my life. Five years later, I had the great opportunity to work with Harry Denton, who opened Harry Denton’s on Stuart Street. There, I met a gentleman by the name of David O’Malley, and we were tasting through some drinks. He made Negronis for everyone, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is fabulous!” When I first moved to Las Vegas and went out to try to find bartenders who knew the drink and knew how to make it, and who got as excited about making it as I did about drinking it, generally, I was greeted with, “Dude, we just ran out of Negroni.” Or the best was, “I don’t have Negroni, but I have Peroni.”
  • On September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What is Tony Abou-Ganim’s ultimate drink?

    As I mentioned, the Negroni is my favorite cocktail. One drink? It would have to be the Hemmingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris and having Colin Field’s take on his French 75. I think it’s been the most memorable drink that I’ve probably ever had, also the most expensive drink I think I’ve ever had. But a close second would be Julie Reiner making me her Hibiscus Swizzle at the Flatiron Lounge.
  • On September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What does Tony Abou-Ganim think is an underappreciated spirit?

    It’s fabulous to see gin get its second coming, if you will. I’m a fan of the Harvey Wallbanger . It’s kind of a fun, silly drink. I read somewhere that the Harvey Wallbanger helped spur this resurgence in classic mixology. It’s a drink that goes back to the ’70s when people really weren’t drinking very well. It’s just a simple, fun, refreshing drink but best when made with Galliano. If I had to pick one drink, I would say the Jack Rose. I’m so happy that the applejack has stood the test of time — it’s one of the oldest American spirits. I think applejack is a fabulous product that, within the mixology community, has gotten some love of late. It’s one of those cocktails that everyone has the ingredients for. During the quick rise of the apple martini, which I rebelled against (unsuccessfully), I would try to turn people onto side cars made with applejack or the Jack Rose. People always liked it, but they wanted the Jolly Rancher-tasting fluorescent green thing with the maraschino cherry at the bottom.