Chatting Cocktails with “The Modern Mixologist” Tony Abou-Ganim

Take one part tradition and one part fresh, premium ingredients, shake it up with some passion and panache, and you’ve got a recipe for Modern Mixology!  At the helm of this cocktail movement is Tony Abou-Ganim, author of the upcoming book “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails.”

Now entering his 30th year behind the bar, Tony was introduced to the craft of cocktail preparation by his cousin while growing up in Michigan.  After graduating from college Tony honed his skills in San Francisco and New York, and in 1998 was chosen by Steve Wynn to create the cocktail program at the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas.  This February he’ll be shaking up drinks and sharing the art of mixology at the 2010 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival.

I had the opportunity to interview Tony to learn more about Modern Mixology and what makes a great cocktail, plus his take on Miami’s most popular drinks.

Amateur Gastronomer: Growing up in the bar business, what was it that attracted you to cocktails?

Tony Abou-Ganim: I think the fascination of the environment.  There was something kind of magical about being in the bar.  There was a kind of romance that was behind opening that door.  There was a rush because I wasn’t supposed to be there.  And then, when I walked in and saw the mirrors, the red onyx pillars, the mahogany, the Tiffany chandeliers and my uncle standing behind that great bar . . .

AG: What do you consider the difference between a mixologist and a bartender?

T: First of all, I think we are all bartenders.  At the end of the day, I consider myself a bartender.  That being said, there are all different kinds of bars and all different kinds of people that tend those bars.  A mixologist is someone who has become more proficient in the art of preparing cocktails in his knowledge and understanding of the cocktails and their preparations and the spirits and products that compound those cocktails.

AG: What makes a good cocktail?

T: A good cocktail is made from premium spirits and the freshest seasonal ingredients, the proper balance of ingredients, and the love and passion of the individual mixing it.

AG: Why are classic cocktails making a comeback?

T: As more consumer interest is placed on the enjoyment of cocktails and more bartenders aspire to the profession, they are delving into the history of our profession.  By doing so, they are rediscovering many of these lost and forgotten treasures and are returning them to their rightful place.

AG: What are your favorite or must have liquors and ingredients?

T: Campari, sweet vermouth, a premium bottle of gin, Cointreau, Angostura bitters, fresh lemons, limes and oranges and really good ice.

AG: Do you prefer cocktails or wine with food?  And how do you suggest pairing cocktails with food?

T: Personally I wouldn’t order a cocktail instead of wine, unless the food lent itself to the cocktail — such as margaritas and tacos.  What I do is order a cocktail in addition to a wine.  The nature of a cocktail is to stimulate and inspire, and should act as an aperitif to prepare the appetite and the senses for the upcoming meal.

AG: What is your favorite cocktail to drink?  When you are not enjoying a cocktail, what do you drink?

T: The Negroni is my favorite cocktail.  If I am not drinking a cocktail, I am pretty much an equal opportunity imbiber.  I enjoy a proper pint of Guinness or a nice glass of rosé Champagne.  I also enjoy a good glass of junmai ginjo sake.

AG: What is your idea of the perfect martini?

T: As [Bernard] DeVoto stated, “the martini is the perfect marriage of a 94 proof gin and a harmonious vermouth at 3.7 to 1.”  I personally agree with Mr. DeVoto although I find it a tad arrogant to order 3.7 to 1 from a bartender and have thus “rounded up” to 4 to 1 (2½ oz gin to ¾ oz French vermouth . . . and make sure it is fresh).

AG: This February you’ll be mixing things up at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, at the new Cocktail Clinic Tent inside the Whole Foods Market Grand Tasting Village.  What can festival goers expect?

T: I will be conducting two seminars — one entitled “Vegas Cocktails,” bringing a little Sin City to the beach, and the other is “Scotch Cocktails.”  I am very excited about bringing attention to the enjoyment of scotch as an ingredient in cocktails instead of just using it on the rocks in a highball.

AG: What are you favorite bars or restaurants for cocktails in Miami?

T: John’s cocktails at the Florida Room, Santiago’s cocktails at Nobu.  I used to love the little side bar at the Raleigh.  The Telephone Bar on Ocean Drive made a pretty good Mojito.  The Mandarin, I believe had a good collection of cachaça for caipirinhas.

AG: Is there a cocktail that may seem easy to make that bartenders just can’t seem to get right?

T: The mojito is probably the simplest, most difficult drink to make perfectly.

AG: Speaking of mojitos and caipirinhas, South Floridians (and visitors) can’t seem to get enough!  Do you have a twist to make them more interesting?

T: Everyone makes these drinks slightly different.  For both I employ the use of simple syrup in place of granulated or raw sugar as I feel it blends better and makes a more consistent drink.  In the caipirinha, I muddle the lime wedges with the syrup and shake with cachaça and crushed ice as opposed to simply building the drink in the glass.  For the mojito, I never muddle the lime itself.  I use only hand-extracted lime juice at the point [of] making the drink, to insure the freshest possible juice.

AG: What advice do you have for home mixologists in terms of stocking a bar and creating cocktails?

T: First of all you should stock the bar with the things that you and your drinking buddies like to drink.  Also, buying the proper bar tools and glassware will enhance your entire cocktail experience.

AG: Do you have suggestions for good value liquors?

T: Tasting is the best way.  I believe that enjoying a spirit is about the journey, not the destination.  It is hard to put a price on that.  You need to go out and taste.  A good bartender on a slow day will be happy to do a tasting for you to determine what you like the best.

AG: What is a cocktail that looks impressive but is relatively easy for the home mixologist to create?

T: A stirred cocktail, such as a Manhattan or Negroni, when properly prepared in a sexy martini beaker and served in a beautiful crystal cocktail glass, fresh from a frosting in the freezer, is simple, elegant, swank and sure to impress.

AG: What can cocktail fans expect in “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails?”

T: The book is a fun, festive, entertaining journey into what it takes to make a great drink.  It teaches you more than just following a recipe and also helps the reader to understand what makes a great cocktail great.  It combines my anecdotes of my 30 years behind bars with stunning drink photos by Tim Turner.

AG: Do you have a favorite toast?

T: This is compiled loosely from David Embury’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks:” “In the presence of a well-made cocktail, taut nerves relax, taut muscles relax, eyes brighten, friendships deepen and the whole world becomes a better place in which to live.”  Or if time is of the essence, I defer to my cousin Helen David and her single word toast, “happiness!”

AG: What will the new year bring for you?

T: It is such an exciting time right now in the American bar.  2010 will bring in my 30th year working in this fine profession of bartending.  I have been witness to many changes in the industry and I have been a small part of this cocktail resurgence that we are enjoying today.  I am proud of the contributions that I have made and I am so excited to see what comes next.  “What’ll you have!”

Tony Abou-Ganim is the author of “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails,” out in February 2010.  For more information on Tony and to see his cocktail recipes visit themodernmixologist.com.

Tony’s recipe for a Negroni:
1 oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Cinzano Rosso Sweet Vermouth

Directions: In an ice filled mixing glass (Martini pitcher), add Bombay Sapphire gin, Campari and Cinzano Rosso. Stir until well blended. Strain into a chilled Cocktail Glass. Garnish with a burnt orange twist.

For details on the 2010 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival visit sobefest.com.

photo credit Arnaldo Studio

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