Kitchen Conversations With Norman Van Aken: Tony Abou-Ganim

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This cocktail wizard has had a fascinating life

Abou-Ganim was selected by Steve Wynn to develop the cocktail program at the Bellagio.

What was your arc in terms of the first kinds of drink making you loved and how it morphed over your career? Feel free to take it decade by decade.

1980s
I started working behind the bar at the Brass Rail in 1980 at the age of 20 although my first experience with the bar was on my 18th birthday (drinking age in Michigan was 18 in 1978). My parents took me to the Brass Rail to celebrate my first legal drink and my cousin Tony, after whom I’m named, put on quite the show in my honor. He set before me classic upon classic cocktail; A Tom Collins in the signature frosted Collins glass, a proper Old Fashioned also served in its namesake glass, Harvey Wallbanger, Posse Café, Brandy Alexander with grated nutmeg, and several others, but perhaps the drink I was most taken by was the Manhattan. Little did I know it at the time, but this early visit to the bar was setting the ground work in motion for what would become a lifelong journey. 

The 1980s weren’t the most exciting time for the art of mixology behind most bars, but fortunately at cousin Helen’s bar the focus was on whiskey highballs and classic cocktails. The bar was nothing outrageous but for a young man just starting out it could have been the Ritz. I was lucky to not only have my cousins Helen and Tony to learn the craft from but also my Uncle Charlie (who tended bar at the Brass Rail for over 50 years). I worked on and off at the Brass Rail for the next five years until I finally finished college and moved to the Bay Area in the summer of 1985.

By the time I got to San Francisco and Oakland vodka was in full swing and people were drinking lots of fresh vodka Highballs; Screwdrivers, Greyhounds, Madres, Sea Breeze, and Cape Cods served in “Buckets” were the rage. This was also when I remember the Kamikaze being really popular and frankly, a lot of fun nights were fueled by this simple libation. As the decade came to an end, the Cosmopolitan burst onto the scene and established a new type of bar in America known as the “Martini Bar.” It seemed like every new cocktail, virtually all of which were based on vodka, that were served in a cocktail glass (AKA martini glass), became known as a martini. In fact, the only thing missing from my martini bar’s cocktail list was the definitive marriage of gin and dry vermouth.

1990s
The vodka craze and martini bar drove us headfirst into the 1990s and showed little to no sign of slowing down. This was a time when highballs and mixed drinks had taken a backseat to shaken vodka-based drinks including every type of liqueur and fruit juice imaginable. In 1991, I had the great pleasure of being a part of the opening bar team at Harry Denton’s, still to this day the best group of bartenders I ever had the pleasure to work with. Our GM David O’Malley put together a small drink menu based on classic cocktails. Now this was new for me as I had never worked anywhere that offered a menu devoted to cocktails. They were mostly well-known classics, a hand shaken daiquiri, old fashioned, Manhattan, sidecar, and something new I had never tried before called a Negroni. This joint was bumping! It was busy once the after work crowd piled in straight through until we gave last call. Needless to say the “classics” were overlooked by Sex on the Beach, Cosmopolitans, and Woo Woos but that is when I first discovered and fell in love with the Negroni. Thanks David! But as fate would have it things were about to change my life forever; I would move to New York City in 1993 to pursue an acting career and have that momentous opportunity to meet Dale DeGroff. After meeting Dale and experiencing the program he had implemented at the Rainbow Room, I accepted the offer to return to San Francisco and be a part of the opening crew at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. This was to be a remodel of an iconic landmark in San Francisco with Harry Denton at the helm which provided the ideal setting for a classic, fresh cocktail program. This is also the first establishment where I was tasked with writing the cocktail menu. It would be a blend of classics as well as original creations such as the Sunsplash, the Starlight, and perhaps my best-known original, the Cable Car. We did not know it at the time but we were on the verge of this great cocktail/bartending resurgence that we are enjoying today.

After three years working behind this great bar, I was recruited by Steve Wynn (well not Steve Wynn himself) to collaborate on the cocktail and spirits program for the Bellagio’s 29 bars and restaurants. I accepted the position and in May of 1998, I relocated to Las Vegas and set out on the next chapter of my incredible journey. Little did I know what I was in for; training nearly 200 bartenders, 150 apprentice bartenders, and 100+ bar porters was incredible. We had bartenders with all levels of experience, mainly transferring from other Las Vegas casino properties with strong union backgrounds — it would be no small undertaking. The beautiful thing about bartenders is, for the most part, they love being a bartender and the program we implemented, a fresh, premium, hand crafted approach to resurrecting lost classics and featuring house made originals like the Bellagio Cocktail. But even more so the art of being a professional bartender allowed them to be proud of the drinks they served, proud of where they served them, and proud to call themselves bartenders. It was an amazing group of individuals that came together for a common goal and achieved it like no one had in Las Vegas on a scale no one had seen before. I will always be so proud of what we accomplished together on one of the greatest stages ever.

And so the 1990s came to an end with an amazing party at the Bellagio and the cocktail resurgence was gaining steam on a national front.

2000s
Well, the first three years of the 2000s saw me continuing to oversee and nurture the wonderful program that continued to grow at the Bellagio. This was a time when we placed great importance on training and education. Fresh, hand crafted libations were beginning to be more of the norm and creative cocktails, lost and forgotten classics and twists on classics were starting to show up on cocktail menus in virtually every major city in the country. By the end of the decade we would see this “trend” spread, on some level, to virtually every city in America. The “trend” had become more of the standard in many areas with fresh juices replacing artificial mixes, proper barware and technique replacing haphazard drink mixing, attention placed on the details such as the importance of ice and fine glassware, and a resurgence in bitters like we have not witnessed since pre-prohibition times. This new or revived rule would carry us into the next decade with no signs of letting up.

2010–2015
Well, to say it’s a great time to be working behind the American bar once again would be like saying a Ferrari is a nice car to drive! The craft cocktail movement has permeated virtually all of the country with great cocktail bars, lounges, and restaurants opening daily across America. The Negroni has become a staple and not a novelty known by few bartenders. A great cocktail has become the rule, not the exception. Bars across America are featuring not only hand-crafted, fresh, seasonal potations but are pushing the creative envelope with offerings such as barrel aged cocktail, cocktails on draft, bottled cocktails, punch bowls, smoked and carbonated cocktails. Bars everywhere are not only featuring classic offerings made to spec but also house specialties featuring forgotten spirits and liqueurs which are now once again readily available as well as a plethora of new and unique ingredients that seems to grow each day. As we continue to pay homage to those great bars, bartenders and cocktails that have paved the way for us to work in this wonderful profession we are constantly striving to improve on it for future generations to come. As I said, it’s a great time to be a bartender! 

What is the most important book on cocktails other than one you have written of the past 50 years in your estimation? Why?
Well, I would have to say perhaps my favorite book, and the one I feel is the most important book that every bartender should read and really study was written by David Embury in 1948 entitled The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. Now, since you said in the last 50 years I would say that would be William Grimes Straight Up or On The Rocks, published in 1993. Grimes presents a fascinating cultural and historical narrative of the cocktails journey in America. From the early stirrings of colonial America through the Golden Age of cocktails, prohibition, the jazz age, repel, right up to the book’s publication in 1993.

If you could go out for drinks and dinner with a food or drink person living or dead, who would it be and why?
There are so many but I would have to say Charles Baker. Baker was a true bon vivant who traveled the world writing about food and drink. In 1939 he published one of my favorite tomes, The Gentleman’s Companion. He would frequently travel and imbibe with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. He was a man that embraced the “sporting life” and all that it had to offer. I write a column for In The Mix magazine called The Adventures of George, which was inspired by Charles Baker but is based on my life and my constant pursuit of the perfect cocktail experience wherever that may take me. 

What are your opinions on what the bartender/mixologist of the current should wear in terms of uniforms?
This is a difficult question as there are all kinds of bars and all kinds of bartenders and one’s skills, passion, and ability are not always defined by uniform. The “craft cocktail” resurgence has seen the profession reaching new heights and great cocktail bars opening in virtually every city in America. With the opening and expansion of these bars we seem to have set aside the more classic look, waistcoats, ties, and pressed white shirts in lieu of a more casual working attire and appearance. I think a lot depends on the clientele that a specific bar is trying to reach. I am a big Harley-Davidson enthusiast, and I’ve spent all of my life riding motorcycles and spend many an hour in biker bars across America. I would not expect the bartender to make me a Negroni and I would also not expect her to be wearing a vest and tie. That said, I guess I’m a little ‘old school’ when it comes to a bartenders uniform and how he or she present themselves behind the bar. I love a sharp dressed bartender who also gets to celebrate their individuality, working behind a well turned-out bar. 

As Harry MacElhone wrote in Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails in 1919:

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“The successful barman of today is alert, bright, cheerful, and courteous, speaks when spoken to, or only so far as a query concerning the drink, and is clean and neat in dress. He should try to remember a customer’s name and their particular kind of beverage. To be abrupt, insolent, to talk too much, or to be slovenly in appearance is a definite detriment, and is inexcusable.”