Q&A: Tony Abou-Ganim
Tony Abou-Ganim has been a pioneer of the cocktail revolution for nearly four decades, honing his craft in some of the classiest bars on both coasts before becoming an author, television personality and globetrotting consultant. The gregarious and unassuming master mixologist came to Vegas to create the cocktail program at Bellagio before joining chef Shawn McClain at Libertine Social. Now he mixes drinks in person as often as he can at a bar where he can be clearly seen by pleasantly surprised guests promenading through Mandalay Bay’s restaurant row. He spoke recently to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen.
I like straight bourbon, but I had an appreciation for Boulevardiers for a while after you made one for me at Libertine Social. Has educating bar patrons always been part of your job or did that develop over time?
I think it really started at Bellagio because we put so much work and love into our cocktail program. We really wanted people to enjoy our cocktails. If I’d walk into Petrossian Lounge and see too many people drinking wine, I would feel like, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t we having them drink our cocktails?” I look at (it) as an experience, an experience you’re not going to get in a lot of places, and through recommendations I think we can accomplish that, so for instance with your Boulevardier, you said you like bourbon and I said “We do this fantastic barrel-aged Boulevardier,” and I like to say I offer a money-back guarantee because I don’t want to you to pay for and drink something that you don’t like that I recommended. I do think in a lot of things we kind of get stuck in a rut. I go to Starbuck’s, I drink the same thing every time I’m there, and they’ve got a plethora of things to try. I feel the same way, and maybe even stronger, about cocktails. Depending on what your mood is, what you like, let me take you on a little journey and expose you to some things that may be new to you.
That really pulled me into the experience. It made it different than sitting in a bar and just ordering a drink. You get the energy immediately and it pulls you in.
Thank you. Here at Libertine Social we really encourage our bartenders to do the same thing. I’m behind the bar as much as I can be, but really they’re the ones … some of our greatest compliments that we’ve gotten so far have been on our staff, on their knowledge and how hospitable they are, friendly In the words of Dale DeGroff, one of my mentors, he said “I don’t go to bars. I go to bartenders.” That’s really what we wanted to instill in our bar team: “This is your bar. When you’re behind this bar, it’s your bar.” No pretentiousness, no arrogance.
Not only do you need good bartenders, but they have to complement you if you’re going to be here a lot. Somebody can’t come in here and get service from you then come back and get a bartender that has half your dedication.
We probably worked on that collectively, but without hammering into their heads. The way I instill this message to our staff I think translates to the guest experience that you’re referring to. Through training, through education, through ongoing training, product knowledge … I can teach you to make a great cocktail. I can’t teach you to be passionate about making that cocktail. That comes from within, so we were very fortunate in the staff that we were able to hire. I can teach you to make the drink, I can’t teach you to love to be bartenders.
It is intuitive to see the potential that somebody has to work in the kind of environment your creating.
To a point, yes. I always say I’ll hire passion over talent. We did really get a staff that wanted to be here, first and foremost. I think that’s so important. When you’re excited about coming to work every day it makes it like not coming to work. We really wanted to nurture than environment and send that message, because ultimately out guest experience will be enhanced through that.
I didn’t expect to see you behind the bar. Knowing how well traveled you are, my first impression was that it kind of felt like this was your home base now and it was sort of pulpit for you as a mixologist to evangelize.
(Laughs) I’m glad you picked up on that because that’s absolutely true. I started my business in 2004 and since then I’ve flown over a million and a half miles to a lot of points all over the world and definitely all over the country. And it’s been fantastic that I’ve gotten to go out and learn and teach and grow, but what’s been missing is that homebase, that bar that I can feel a part of. You go in and consult for a few weeks then leave, it’s kind of like having a new child and then letting someone else raise them. Yeah, this is really a dream come true for me and to be able to do it with Shawn McClain and MGM (Resorts) has just been fantastic.