Welcome to a special Cocktail Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater Vegas interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
Tony Abou-Ganim has worked his way up from reluctant bartender who wanted to be an actor to embracing the industry and becoming one of its leaders. While he learned his initial bartending skills in Port Huron, Mich., with his cousin Helen David at the Brass Rail Bar, he honed them at Jack Slick's Balboa Café in San Francisco and then during the opening of Harry Denton's, a bar that became a legendary hangout in Fog City. He even created cocktails at Mario Batali’s first restaurant, Pó in New York City. While he was working at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room in San Francisco, he created his most popular cocktail, the Cable Car, when he was called upon to develop the cocktail program for the 22 bars at the Bellagio before it opened in 1998. Since, he’s authored two books and earned the title The Modern Mixologist. He keeps those acting skills fine tuned with appearances on the Today Show, Good Morning America, and even Iron Chef America, where he’s paired cocktails with Mario Batali, Jose Garces and Shawn McClain, winning all three bouts. Here, Abou-Ganim talks about those early days when he went from thinking of bartending as a side gig and what made him embrace it as a career, how the cocktail scene has changed in Las Vegas and when Tony’s Place may finally become a reality for him.
Can you tell me how you got hooked on the cocktail business?
I kind of sum that up as my three revelations. I met Dale DeGroff in the Rainbow Room in 1993. I had been a bartender for 13 years at that point. The thought was that I was going to be doing something else. At 33, I moved to New York City to be an actor. You tell people you’re an actor and they ask, "Where do you bartend?" I was the Alka Seltzer Plus Cold and Flu guy in 1993. I thought I had it made. I had all my cards. It was really a wakeup call for how difficult the industry is.
I was the first bartender at Mario Batali’s restaurant Pó when he was still slamming pots and pans six nights a week. He introduced me to Dale. I sat at his bar at the Rainbow Room and a light bulb went off. From that moment on I’m a bartender.
I can tell you the suit I was wearing and remember the orange peel over the Negroni. I was watching him and his passion for the guests. And in 1992 there were none of these craft bars. That was the moment I realized I wanted this to be a career.
I kept acting. Since then I haven’t actively worked behind the bar and I haven’t done a piece of theater since 1998. Every time I do a presentation it’s acting. The interaction with the guests I miss. Those are two things I’m striving to do again.
My goal wouldn’t be to be working until 4 a.m. three deep. I would be very happy working that afternoon shift and letting people know I’m there. That would allow me to do some community theater. I don’t have many high aspirations to be discovered at 54. I love that whole process of theater from reading the play for the first time and developing the character.
Having that theater background has been beneficial for the career path I was on. I haven’t tried to map this out.
What made you come to Las Vegas?
The Bellagio opened in 1998. I had been with Mario in New York for two years. Even though I had a great job with Mario, I went back to San Francisco for the Starlight Room reopening. I needed my core of friends in San Francisco. They were my family away from family.
I never had my sights set on moving to San Francisco. We built a great program at the Starlight Room. The movement with the resurgence in craft cocktails was still in its in its fancy. It was nothing like today.
Dale DeGroff recommended me to the opening team at Bellagio. They called me and that’s how I got to Las Vegas.
It’s funny how life is. You turn right and your whole life could be different. Never in my wildest dreams could I envision what happened in my career and the profession. I’m doubly proud of what’s transformed in Las Vegas.
Can you tell me about some of the cocktails you’ve created over the years?
I’m proudest of creating the Cable Car. That was just a drink that follows a drink from the New Orleans sours in the mid-1800s Brandy Crusta.
It’s a simple recipe that can be reproduced at any bar. You don’t have to worry about sourcing esoteric ingredients. It’s an easy-to-drink cocktail that lends itself to being enjoyed by anyone.
I’m proud of its popularity. I had no hand in inventing it but I might have had a small hand in promoting it.
The Negroni is my favorite drink, so celebrated in the mixology world. That wasn’t the case even five years ago. It’s a drink I’ve been championing since 1991 working at Harry Denton's on Stuart Street. It was a little before it’s time. I didn’t care for it the first time I tried it. Like the Italians say, you have to try it three times to love it. The only credit I can take is a small amount of promotion and encouragement.
That drink shows how the profession has evolved and continues to evolve. You expected to find that in San Francisco and New York. Now you’re seeing great cocktail bars in virtually every city.
How do you keep up your enthusiasm for the bar business?
I would say if I worked this hard at a job I didn’t love I couldn’t do it. Almost same time I had that revelation at Dale’s bar was the last time I felt like I worked.
I was with a group of bartenders from the Venetian in France and Italy. It really is an American creation. The cocktail was being being celebrated in Rome. To share in that, you can’t put a price on those types of things. On this tour the way they welcomed by bartenders. It’s amazing and I never take it for granted and always feel doubly blessed. I never get tired of the next cocktail whether making it or drinking it. The reaction you get from your guests and that interaction with guests, giving them that experience. I’m pumped up all the time.
What are some of the biggest changes in the bar industry in Vegas?
It would have to be on the Strip. Virtually every casino serves fresh cocktails and that’s the norm. Crafting fresh cocktails. Even all the great little places like Oak & Ivy and Downtown Cocktail Room. Nectaly’s commitment with Herbs & Rye and sticking with it through tough times. Just seeing how locals and tourists have embraced it.
A great cocktail is not about the journey but the destination. It’s about let’s give them the same experience in the glass as diners have on the plate.
How did opening Petrossian compare to Lobby Bar at Caesars?
With the renovation of the Lobby Bar, they really wanted to make it a showcase. Hopefully that can lead to other projects with Caesars, one of the iconic resorts in Las Vegas. With all the amazing things with their dining offerings, it was time to update and elevate their cocktail offerings with a showcase lounge.
I’m very proud of the program and how they embraced the program. Without the enthusiasm of the bartender, it’s not going to be a successful program. They’re the ones who bring the cocktail program to life. And the servers as well.
Petrossian was part of the overall plan. It wasn’t a one-off consulting program. I was there. Everyone thought I was crazy at first. Squeeze fresh lime juice? Sixteen years later that doesn’t seem very cutting edge. They were serving 25,000 drinks a day. We set up a new standard in Las Vegas. I was there walking the floor. Finally everyone said he’s just not a Cornell grad telling us how to do our jobs. He cares about what he’s doing. It was the ongoing training and support and the belief in what we’re doing that got 200 bartenders on board. I think it was summed up best by one bartender who said, "I’ve been waking in this town over 30 years. You gave me back my profession." Day to day you don’t realize the impact on someone’s life and career.
The great thing about Bellagio is that it was a new property and starting off with this philosophy day to day that became the norm, crafting drinks and taking pride in the drinks you were crafting.
What’s the toughest part about coming up with a new cocktail menu?
There’s a lot of things that go into it. You have to create a drink that can be executed consistently. Seasonality is key. I like in Vegas that you don’t have to change it up four times a year.
You have to have ingredients that are not so esoteric that you’re out of something. It needs to have good variety for the vodka lover, the gin lover and the whiskey lover. You have to have lighter drinks in the warmer months.
It’s difficult not being there all the time. A consultant really needs to hire a hero and take ownership of this program and nurture it. Once you’re up and running, I move onto the next gig.
What’s next for you?
I’d really like to have Tony’s Place. We have been so close. Last time we talked, I had a handshake deal with the Mirage. I’m doing some work with the new arena in 2017.
I’m ready to stay in Las Vegas and I love being in Las Vegas. I’m not so sure that it has to be in a casino. If it was the right partners in the right location.
Right now I’m working on a new book. I have a couple other projects in the works. Then we’ll see. That’s the goal for next year. More time in Las Vegas. Hopefully that means being part of some bar project.