Renowned cocktail expert, Tony Abou Ganim, was winner of Iron Chef America 2007 with Mario Batali, is the National Ambassador of the US Bartenders Guild, and Associate Member of the Museum of the American Cocktail. Obviously a world-class bartending connoisseur, Tony passes on his knowledge to wannabes and drink-lovers alike. Learn how he rose to fame, as well as tips for creating the perfect cocktail!
When did you begin bartending? What did you want to be when you were younger?
My Cousin Helen David first put a cocktail shaker in my hands in 1980 at her Brass Rail Bar in Port Huron, Michigan. I was in the middle of college and did not have an eye on a career goal so my father thought I might make a pretty good bartender. A couple of years later I returned to college and got a degree in business with plans to move to San Francisco and pursue a career as a stock broker. All this time I continued to tend bar, loving it more and more. After realizing I was not cut out to be a broker I switched my focus to my second love of theatre, again continuing to bartend full time. In 1993 I moved to New York with dreams of Broadway but instead I met Dale DeGroff working behind the stick at the Rainbow Room. After meeting Dale I had a career revelation and came to the conclusion that being a bartender would became my career choice and I set out to become the best bartender possible.
Do you ever struggle to come up with fresh new ideas for cocktails?
I refer to my style of cocktail development as “Contemporary Classics” meaning I take a fresh, seasonal approach to developing new recipes inspired by classic recipes. It can sometimes be difficult to spontaneously create something new, generally I get inspired by a new spirit or liqueur, a fresh, seasonal fruit, a new flavor or combination of flavors.
What is your favorite drink to make? What is the most difficult cocktail to make? Do you have a favorite cocktail to drink?
I would say the perfect Dry Martini is my favorite cocktail to make. I have made this one simple drink for over 30 years now and feel I am still pursuing the elusive perfection that is the Dry Martini.
There really is not a drink that is difficult to make if you are prepared. That said I would say that the love and effort involved in making a great Ramos Fizz would put it towards the top of the “Most Difficult” list.
My personal favorite cocktail is a Bombay Sapphire Negroni, if I could only drink one thing it would be a Negroni but thank goodness that is not the case as variety is truly the spice of life and there are so many wonderful cocktails and so little time so I try and mix it up and try as many of them as possible.
What kinds of people make the best customers?
The best customers are those that are happy to be at your bar and have an understanding and respect for the profession of bartending. They are the ones who know what they want but are also willing to experiment, try something new. They understand that Tipping is not a city in Japan.
What is one of your most unique recipes?
Most of my recipes are relatively simple concoctions as it is my hope that people will want to re-create my drinks. That said a drink I created which was inspired by my father, called George calls for a blend of gin, Arrack, rhubarb bitters, fresh lime and pineapple juices. It is a very unique combination of ingredients but collectively they work, they complement one another and the result is a complex yet balanced tipple.
What tips do you have for starting bartenders? Do you have any suggestions for mixing flavors?
I always tell young, up and coming bartenders that to become a great bartender you need to work with and learn from great bartenders. I truly believe that the profession of bartending is truly one based on the apprenticeship approach to training. That the only way to truly gain experience is to do the time. That said one should also immerse themselves in study and practice. I have been at it 31 years and I continue to learn, continue to grow and expand my base of knowledge.
With regard to flavor combinations the words of my mother ring true “Never trust a skinny chef” which means you have to be continuously tasting and understanding individual flavors. It is hard to blend flavors if we don’t have a great understanding of flavors. Which gin is best mixed with raspberries or for my Negroni? Is there a sweet vermouth better suited to rye whiskey in my Manhattan? Does lemon or lime go better with fresh blackberries? The only way to know what things taste like is to taste them.
Mark Twain once wrote that the secret to happiness is to eat what you like, I believe the same applies to cocktails and drinking. Creating great cocktails is a journey…enjoy the ride!
Which cocktails give the worst next-day hangover? Which are hangover-free?
The worst thing for causing a hangover is cheap spirits, artificially flavored liqueurs, mixers high in sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
The best thing to prevent a hangover is moderation. That said I always recommend drinking a lot of water when imbibing and eating a good meal.
Perhaps the best thing to drink to avoid a hangover is straight vodka as it is distilled to 192 proof and free of most of the congeners that contribute to a hangover. Stay away from sugar laden mixers and opt for something like sparkling water and a squeeze of fresh lime or lemon.
What can people learn from your book, The Modern Mixologist?
My book is geared towards the consumer and inspiring them to make great cocktails at home. I break down the myths surrounding mixology and bring the art of mixology into the home. What glassware you need, bar tools and how to use them, seasonal fruits and vegetables and what spirits they mix best with. (You can buy it here for $35!)
Any last parting words?
Mixing cocktails is an art, a science, a skill and a passion but an art we can all embrace and celebrate. There is a pleasure in sharing cocktails you have crafted with your friends, it is the art of hospitality, and it’s fun, it has to be fun, because you need to love to make cocktails because if you don’t love mixing them your guests won’t love drinking them.