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 September 27, 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 is Tony Abou-Ganim most proud of in his career?

    I’m most proud of what influence I’ve had on younger bartenders. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and learn from some great bartenders in my 30 years. If I can impact bartenders, if I can have some influence in making them better at their craft, more passionate and proud to be bartenders. When I started in 1980, being a bartender wasn’t really what people aspired to. It was a part-time gig, it was what you did while you finished school, it was what you did while you were working on your acting career. If one more person asked me, ‘So, what do you want to do when you grow up?’ This truly is a proud profession, and if I can impart a little bit of that passion and knowledge on young bartenders, to me, that’s what I’m most proud of.
  • On September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What does Tony Abou-Ganim think makes a great bartender?

    I had a cancelled flight, and I missed my connection. I was in New York City at the Bowery, got to my hotel, the room wasn’t ready. But the bar was open. It was just before lunchtime, and the bar was setting up. I said, "Are you open?" And the bartender said, "Come on in. Sit down. How are you doing?" I said, "Well, I’m better now. How about a Negroni?" He said, "Do you have a preference in gin?" And they were the most beautiful words I’d ever heard. He made me a beautiful Negroni, and I just unwound for about 45 minutes. So now, I try to stay at that hotel when I’m in New York City. When you’re a bartender, you never know what your guest has gone through that day before they got to your bar. To me, that’s the true gift of bartending. That interaction with a guest is what makes a great bartender.
  • On September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What does Tony Abou-Ganim think makes a good hotel bar?

    A hotel bar should be like someone’s living room. If I’m staying at the hotel, maybe I’ve had a horrific day of travel, maybe my luggage got lost, maybe the room isn’t quite ready, maybe my flight was delayed, maybe there was a long cab line, maybe I haven’t had anything to eat in 12 hours. And there, as I walk in through all of this, is that light at the end of the tunnel: the hotel bar. Once I settle in and have been greeted by the host or hostess and I land on a bar stool, that’s that make-or-break moment where I could just go ballistic, or it could be washed away and made much more pleasant and acceptable by a welcoming bartender. I have that first sip of a perfectly-made martini in an ice cold glass with a beautiful piece of cut lemon peel and the thin lips of the glass against my lips, and it’s just like, "aahhhh." That makes a great hotel bar.
  • On September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    Why didn’t Tony Abou-Ganim like the negroni when he 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, 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

    If Tony Abou-Ganim could have any drink in the world, what would it be?

    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 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 September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What does Tony Abou-Ganim wear when he travels?

    I would say my Crocs. Generally, I’m going to be doing something that involves tending bar, and my Crocs are like traveling with a bar mat. It’s going to be at a makeshift bar, or in front of a table, and it’s going to probably be at the wrong height and it probably won’t be anything but a hard cement floor for me to stand on. After three to six hours of doing this, not only are my feet killing me, my legs are killing me, my back is killing me. Having my Crocs assures me that I’m going to have some relief from all those obstacles or those situations. When I’m on the plane, it’s just really easy because if you travel a lot with security lines and you take your shoes off, put your shoes back on, it just makes it really easy to get in and out of security lines. And they’re just comfortable to travel in. It makes for an all-purpose, comfortable, that I can jam into my bar bag. I can throw them in the dishwasher at the end of the night, and they’re good to go.
  • On September 27, 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. 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. 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.
  • On September 27, 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’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. Chicago — 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 love Las Vegas, I really do. I love the desert. I mean, it could be 115 and I can be happy. 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. And I would say New York City. What’s not to love about New York City? 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. 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 September 27, 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. 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. The Bouchon here in Las Vegas at the Venetian is equally as wonderful. 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. I have a place in San Francisco that I’ve gone to ever since I moved there in 1985. 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. I always had the same thing. I have a Negroni and an escargot.
  • On September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What are Tony Abou-Ganim’s favorite hotels?

    I actually bought a Heavenly bed for my home, just so I could feel at home when I’m there, 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. I was just at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. I walked in and they greeted me by name — they remembered the last time I was there. 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. When I’m in San Francisco, the Sir Francis Drake is always home to me there. I think the Kimpton Hotel Group does a great job. So does the 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,&rsquot; 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 the 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 September 27, 2012
    Tony Abou-Ganim answered the question: Tony Abou-Ganim

    What are Toby Abou-Ganim's favorite cities?

    I would have to say that number one is San Francisco. My formative years were spent there. 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. Chicago — 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 love Las Vegas, I really do. I love the desert. I mean, it could be 115 and I can be happy. 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. And I would say New York City. What’s not to love about New York City? 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. 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.