Tony Abou-Ganim: An Interview with The Modern Mixologist

Image Source: ORACLE Arena

The 2016 VIBE Conference will be hosted by featured emcee Tony Abou-Ganim. Widely regarded as a pioneer and visionary in the hospitality industry, Tony grew up in the bar business and is the author of The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails (published in 2010) and Vodka Distilled (published in 2013). He has many impressive accolades to his name, one of which is being tapped by Steve Wynn in 1998 to develop the cocktail program at Bellagio Las Vegas. During his time at the Bellagio Tony created several cocktails, including one particular signature beverage, The Bellagio.

“I’ll never forget the day I served it to Mrs. Wynn,” Tony says about this iconic cocktail, “She was the one who signed off on it. Steve asked, ‘So how many things are you showing Mrs. Wynn?’ I said, ‘Just one.’ He said, ‘But what if she doesn’t like it?’ And I said, ‘Well, then it’s been nice knowing you.’”

Just a few weeks ago, Tony was visiting the Petrossian inside the Bellagio and watched four of the signature drinks go out on a tray to guests. The Bellagio has now been on the menu for 17 years.

Tony has been busy on multiple massive projects, one of which is the cocktail program at ORACLE Arena, home of the Golden State Warriors.

“We’re doing something really unique there,” he says, “I’m working with a company called RIPE out of Connecticut. RIPE does cold press fusions and we’re doing really exciting, fresh tap cocktails. Not batched but cold-pressed bag-in-a-box where we then add the liquor.”

The program has proven incredibly successful. RIPE Bar Juice is America’s first cold-pressed, fresh juice bar mixer. The juices are cold pressed each day and are never heated or frozen. Partnering with Tony, RIPE makes it possible to offer batched cocktails with fresh ingredients.

“I’ve found in my research it’s temperamental to do batched tap cocktails,” says Tony, ”You really have to make a commitment to it and oversee it to make sure you’re serving the best end product to your guest.”

With one arena under his belt, Tony has returned to Las Vegas for another project.

“I’m so committed to Las Vegas. I just love being here and being a part of the community, seeing how the community has embraced the bartending and mixology movement,” Tony says, “I’m so proud of everybody and I’ve wanted to come back and do something here, get back behind the bar, and have it come full circle. This opportunity will definitely provide that.”

This opportunity is Las Vegas Arena, a joint venture between MGM and AEG.

“What is really exciting is that MGM has built a new arena here in Las Vegas. The hope is to get a professional hockey team,” explains Tony, “And they’ve hired me to do a very progressive, cutting edge cocktail program which will be really unique to that arena environment.”

Las Vegas Arena visitors can expect batched cocktails on tap. While there will likely be classic cocktails and variations thereof on the menu, Tony is working on a signature drink for the arena.

“Our goal is to create a signature cocktail for the arena that one day has the presence that the Mint Julep has at the Derby,” he says, “That is our goal, to create that property-wide drink that when you go to the arena you have to have the ‘Mint Julep.’ It won’t be the Mint Julep, obviously, but what The Bellagio cocktail has become 17 years later. So, we’re working on that – to create something really unique and special.”

Fresh batched tap cocktails are ideal for the arena environment. They allow bartenders to quickly and efficiently handle the onslaught of sports fans and event attendees in between periods, half-times and intermissions.

“In the arena environment where you get slammed in between periods or at halftime, you can pump out a high quality of drink, but it still needs to be garnished properly and have the right ice and the right vessel,” says Tony, “You have to think out all those details or someone will say, ‘Nah, I’ll just have a beer.’ And then if it tastes great and looks great, people will say, ‘I’m gonna leave 5 minutes early so I can get in line and get a Scratch Margarita at the Atrium Bar. It becomes a destination”

This partnership between Tony Abou-Ganim and RIPE Bar Juice is truly visionary. And arenas are not the only venues that can benefit from fresh pre-batched tapped cocktails. Theaters, concert venues, chain restaurants and bars, and high-volume bars can all take advantage of this opportunity, as long as it’s executed correctly.

“Spirits themselves will behave well in batched or bottled cocktails or tap cocktails, depending on how you are dispensing that batched cocktail,” Tony explains, “It’s when you start adding volatile ingredients like citrus into the mix that I find you have some issues. I’m a huge fan of the Negroni and there’s a drink that really works well when batched and served on tap from a dispenser. Spirit-only cocktails – Manhattans, Boulevardiers, things like that – tend to work well in batched tap applications.”

With the success of the fresh batched tap cocktail program at ORACLE Arena, Las Vegas Arena’s own program is one to watch in 2016. And while Tony warns that he isn’t in the habit of predicting trends, he thinks that there are a few more things to watch next year.

Whiskey and whiskey-based cocktails will likely continue to ride their wave of popularity, with Japanese and Irish whiskey leading the way.

“It wasn’t that long ago there were 2 Irish distillers and I think we’re at 7 now with a few more in the works to open,” says Tony.

Mezcal and lost and forgotten spirits and liqueurs (along with lost and forgotten cocktails) will also be in high demand. Better-educated consumers (and the use of Google) lead to an insatiable curiosity and the desire to be on the cutting edge of what’s authentic and different, and by extension, what’s cool.

Tony also hopes that the industry will see more spirit pairings on food menus. Food and beverage pairings in the United States tend to be focused on wine and (recently) craft beer. However, in European countries it’s common to see smoked, dried, and pickled foods accompanied by recommendations for vodka or specific cocktails. Looking at the “skinny” trend, Tony would like to see that fall to the wayside. In his eyes, trading calories often means giving up quality ingredients.

“Just drink less and drink better. It’s a simple equation,” he says.

Indeed. We’ll see you in San Diego for the 2016 VIBE Conference!

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