Friday, June 2, 2017

Campari America Spirited Connections Interview Series: Tony Abou-Ganim & Negroni Week

Many moons ago, when I was at the beginning of this boozy journey, the Manhattan Cocktail Classic was the ultimate party of the year.  It was hosted at the New York Public Library, everyone was dressed up in sequins and tuxedos, and the cocktails flowed like water in the Trevi Fountain.  It is fair to say that party is what that got me hooked on the cocktail world…

One of the clearest memories from that evening was meeting Tony Abou-Ganim who was making Negronis that night under the twinkling Campari sign.  It was my first introduction to Tony, a undeniable legend in the bartending world. 

When Negroni Week started a few years ago, Tony was one of the first high-profile bartenders to get behind the philanthropic mission, and organized a bike ride to fundraise for his charity, The Helen David Relief Fund.  This year, the ride is hosted in 7 cities (I will be riding the Santa Fe ride – you can sponsor me here), and will be raising money one Negroni at a time at bars nationwide. 

Since my next interview in the #SpiritedConnections series sponsored by Campari America focuses on philanthropy, it was a natural fit to chat with Tony about how he started the ride, how he got his start bartending, the inspiration behind the Helen David Relief Fund, and his favorite Negroni variation.

Without further ado, Tony Abou-Ganim:

Gastronomista:  You were bartending before many new cocktail fans understood the difference between an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. How have you seen the cocktail world change over the years?

Tony Abou-Ganim:  I started my bartending career in 1980, and I was very lucky to grow up in a bar family. I learned under my watchful eye of my Uncle Charlie and Cousin Helen David who ran the Brass Rail in Port Huron. It was a neighborhood bar that served the classics so I learned the difference between a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned very early on.

Back then, when you told someone you were a bartender for a living, they would follow that question with, "Well, what do you want to do?" It really wasn't looked upon as a career choice or a profession to aspire to. It was a part-time job, or that gig you had while you finished college or worked on your acting career.

Technique was lacking. Education was nonexistent. And there were a lot of artificially-flavored cocktail mixes out there. I had a very fortunate beginning, and then a lot of jobs along the way featuring everything from juice on the gun, to mixing gallons of margaritas with powdered mix, to tequilas and artificial triple secs.

Today, a young bartender maybe has only worked at Pegu Club or Herbs & Rye or one of these craft cocktail bars, and doesn't know anything about artificial imitation mixes and crappy spirits. It's a really great time in the American bar today to see the evolution and journey.

I never would have dreamed we'd see the bar profession embraced the way it has been and how far it’s come. It’s virtually harder to get a bad drink today than it is to get a good drink from a knowledgeable, professional bartender.

Gastronomista:  It's changed so much even in my short tenure in the industry so I can only imagine how shocking it is to you to see it change so drastically.

Abou-Ganim:  Yeah, and I was lucky along the way to work with some really great bartenders in some really great bars that might have been a little ahead of the curve. Like, Jack Flick at the Balboa Cafe. Boz Scaggs at the Blue Light in San Francisco back in the early and mid '80s.

I was lucky to land in some places that embraced cocktails before it was, I hate to say, “cool” or “trendy” to do so. But that was the way it was always done in those bars. Again, I think I was very lucky. When young bartenders ask me "What does it take to become a great bartender?" I say, "Work with some great bartenders." It's not going to happen overnight, and it's not going to happen in five years or ten years. It's a lifetime commitment.

My goal is always to be better today than I was yesterday, and better tomorrow than I am right now. I never really rest on any laurels, and there's no shortage of things to learn. If anybody thinks they know it all, let them do something else.

Gastronomista:  How did you get your start as a bartender and what continues to be the most rewarding part of your job?

Abou-Ganim:  I grew up in a bar family. My cousin, Helen David, opened the Brass Rail Bar so I was always around it. My father was able to convince her to make me a bartender in 1980. She was hesitant to do it because she wanted to send me to culinary school. Being a chef was a much more respected profession in the culinary arts than a bartender at that time.

Thank God she let up and took me under her wing. She's always been my number-one inspiration and mentor. I'm quite sure if it wasn't for Helen and the rest of my bartending family, I would be doing something totally different today.

Gastronomista:  Why is she your number one inspiration?

Abou-Ganim:  Not only did she teach me the business of the bar and bartending, but the most important element of the bar business: being hospitable. She always treated her guests at the bar like she would guests in her home. She considered the bar to be her living room, not a place of employment. She always said, "Treat all your guests like ladies and gentlemen until they prove they're not."

It was always a smile and a “hello.”  She remembered everyone's name and what they liked to drink.  She always offered a kind word, helped out, sponsored all the charitable organizations, did softball, hockey, basketball. I mean, she was philanthropic. She was very committed to the community.

It was more than just a job or a business, it was a life-long commitment. Those lessons are what drive me today, forty years later.

Gastronomista:  Philanthropy has been a major focus for you throughout your career.  Can you share more about your inspiration to start the Helen David Relief Fund and how you got involved with Negroni Week?

Abou-Ganim:  Well, like I said, Helen opened the Brass Rail Bar in 1937. Three years after the repeal of prohibition. We went through the Great Depression. Her father died, and left her and her mother with an ice cream parlor. Her mother said "During the Great Depression, no one's spending money on ice cream. We have to turn the ice cream parlor into a saloon or we're going to be put out on the street." Helen said, "Mom, proper ladies don't run saloons." And her mother said, "A lady's a lady no matter where you put her, but she's got to have a buck in her pocket."

So, on June 15, 1937, they opened the Brass Rail Bar, and she ran it nearly 70 years until her death at the age of 91 in 2006. Along the way, she survived breast cancer twice.

I, selfishly, wanted to do something to keep her memory alive. She was always so good about giving back, I thought, “We could do something in her memory help those less fortunate in our industry.”

In setting up the Helen David Relief Fund, it really is by bartenders for bartenders. It benefits bartenders and their families who've been affected by breast cancer.

Now we're in a position, finally, where we've been able to help three or four people that are coping with breast cancer. It's not with the medical costs—we really can't help with that—but the rent still needs to get paid, the electric still has to get paid, groceries need to be bought, your kid needs a new pair of glasses. Those are the expenses we're assisting with. That way we let the person and their family concentrate on the most important thing: getting better.

The Negroni is my favorite cocktail, and has been for most of my bartending career. I was very lucky to learn it from David O'Malley in 1991, long before anyone knew that it wasn't an imported beer.

It's been part of my journey. So when Negroni Week started with a philanthropic mission, I said, “This is absolutely perfect.” I've been a bicycle rider on and off for a long, long time. I thought, "Well, why don't we do a bike ride to raise awareness and funds for the Helen David Relief Fund during Negroni Week?"

Three years ago, the first year we hosted a ride, we had one ride in San Francisco. It started at the Campari America offices at Levi’s Plaza, we rode over the Golden Gate Bridge, finished where we started and had food, Negronis and camaraderie. It just clicked. I knew it had legs and that we could expand.

Last year we expanded to four cities, and this year we're slated for seven. I've had inquiries about how to get involved from another half a dozen different chapters or individuals in different cities asking, "How can we participate? How can we get involved?"

The goal: to have a ride in every major city in America one day. Like you said, awareness is so important. If we can help a lot of bartenders, we’re achieving the mission.

Gastronomista:  Are you riding all the rides?

Abou-Ganim:  I'm riding six of the seven. I'm going to miss Chicago, unfortunately, but for the other six I will be out there riding. It was virtually impossible to do all seven. I booked the tickets the other day, and it's the craziest ticket I've ever seen in my life. I rode in all four last year.

Gastronomista:  Negroni Week is now in its fifth year and it has become the spirit industry's signature global philanthropic effort. How do you think the Negroni Week bike ride has helped create awareness for Negroni Week and the important of philanthropy within the cocktail community?

Abou-Ganim:  That would be hard for me to quantify. You know, Moniek [Pullen at the United States Bartenders’ Guild] has really stepped up and is helping quite a bit.

I would say that promoting Team Negroni and our bicycle rides has brought more attention to Negroni Week.  Whatever charity you choose to donate to is great, as long as you actually make those donations and not just say you're going to do it.

Moniek has done a great job. Hopefully a lot of people and a lot of accounts will choose the Helen David Relief Fund as their charity, and will be accountable and send in those donations.

You don't need to be a USBG member to benefit or participate. You don't even have to be a bartender to ride. You can be a bar enthusiast, a customer, a friend or a relative. We only ask each individual rider to raise a minimum of $250.00, which probably could cover the cost of the Team Negroni kit. The kits this year are absolutely gorgeous.

It seems like the Team Negroni bike rides are starting to get momentum. If you can’t participate in a ride, I encourage you to get involved by raising funds and awareness. Make a donation, or sell Negronis during Negroni Week at your establishment. We'd love it if you chose the Helen David Relief Fund as your charity of choice. Then next year, we can get you on board and schedule a ride in your city.

Gastronomista:  Healthcare has taken a place in the forefront of our national dialogue, and it has been notoriously difficult for bartenders to get and afford health insurance. In part, do you think that your charity, and its efforts to help bartenders, encourages bartenders to focus on their health and taking care of themselves (both with the ride and to support those battling breast cancer). Can you speak to why you believe that it is especially important right now?

Abou-Ganim:  I think it's always been important. Unfortunately, in the bartending industry (for the 37 years I've been involved) has always struggled with benefits. If we did get healthcare or health insurance, it was expensive or it wasn't good. It was rare that you got a benefit package similar to other career professions, if you were a doctor or a lawyer or a truck driver, for instance.

You touched on something that was the other half of the coin of setting up the bicycle team. Yes, it's about raising awareness and funds for the Helen David Relief Fund to help bartenders that are struggling with breast cancer, but it's also to say, "Take a look at your own health." Here's the opportunity to take a positive stance on making you a better person.

That’s why it's not a five-mile fun ride. It’s a 40-mile ride. It is an achievable distance for everyone, but you’re not going to simply jump on your mountain bike that you haven't ridden in six years and join the ride! It's about making a commitment—like anything in life—to make yourself better and to make bicycle riding a part of that journey.

Gastronomista:  That wasn't one of my initial questions but while talking to you, it made me think that over the years, you've probably seen people really struggle and maybe yourself have really struggled, just trying to get health insurance.

It seems like Negroni Week (and Campari America as a company), especially with its philanthropic mission, is trying to bring a lot of these issues to the forefront and starting a lot of discussions that haven't previously been talked about. That was why I wanted to touch on that point.

Why do you think philanthropy is especially important for the cocktail community and especially now?

Abou-Ganim:  I wish I could find this exact quote, but someone once wrote, "The best thing you could do for yourself is to give back to others."

I feel very blessed. The bar business has been very, very good to me. I've never been rich, but I've lived richly because of this industry and this profession. Because of that, I feel philanthropy is becoming more and more important to me, and I am putting more and more focus and time into it.

Bartenders are great people. They're great human beings, for the most part. And part of being a great human being is being philanthropic and generous with your time and resources. It's not a profession like professional athletes or stock brokers. You don't get into bartending to become wealthy. I haven't been able to achieve that, but it's never been my goal either. I've been extremely fortunate to have lived a better life than most, and I feel a personal responsibility and a fulfillment from giving back.

Like I said earlier, Helen was such a special person to me that if I'm able to maintain her legacy a little bit through philanthropy, that makes me feel really good, too.

Gastronomista:  The other thing that I'm hearing as well is that it was important to Helen, and also to you, to maintain those community ties.  It's almost as though, through this bike ride and through our actions of being aware and conscious of other people and giving back, it strengthens the community, and the hospitality that this industry's really known for.

Abou-Ganim:  It's all about hospitality. There’s a great poem “The Man Behind the Bar” that illustrates the point perfectly. It talks about how everyone in the community always goes to the man behind the bar in times of need, and the bartender was always there to help.

And that spirit has been embedded in the community among hundreds of bars and bartenders. Bartenders are beautiful people. I never hear a “no” as an answer.

Gastronomista:  Even for a crazy request?

Abou-Ganim:  I don't get very many crazy requests! [Laughs]

Gastronomista:  So, how do you continually inspire that sense of community among bartenders?

Abou-Ganim:  I really try to encourage bartenders to think about philanthropy. Every time I see them I ask, "Are you riding? Did you get a bike yet?" We have a bartender, she showed up for the very first ride on this old, rusty mountain bike. She made it about two miles. The second year, she got a motorized bike to help her up the hill, but got two flat tires during the ride. Last year, she bought a bike and has incorporated some modest training. She finished the 40-mile ride, and she was the top fundraiser. She's already leading the fundraising for this year's ride.

Another story is Sheila Rosaria. I challenged her to start riding, and she thought I was nuts. 40 miles? She called me she said, "I barely did four miles today." I said "You got on the bike, right on. That's great." Within six weeks, she called and said "I just did 40 miles." And she was out of her mind happy. She rode the Orlando Negroni Week ride and finished, and then flew out in October and did our breast cancer 40-mile ride here in Las Vegas. Sheila accomplished something she never thought she could do.  I encourage bartenders to look to themselves and say, "You're going to be better because of this."

Gastronomista:  Do you have any good training tips for bartenders who might be reading?

Abou-Ganim:  Consistency. Like anything, you have to make time to do it. You can't ride twice one week and then skip the next three weeks and expect to pick back up. You need to make the time and you need to rest. Like serving drinks at your bar, you need to be consistent.

Don't try to do too much too fast. Be realistic. Do a little homework. The web has endless information on how to train and how to buy the right equipment, the right seat, and the right shoes so you can be comfortable.

You don't have to spend three grand on a bike. There are a lot of great used bikes out there, but enlist the help of someone in buying the right bike. Try having one less beer at night, and getting up an hour earlier so you can get out and ride. And find some good rides in your area to train. I'm lucky here in Las Vegas; there are some beautiful rides.

For me, the travel’s been the hardest thing for my training. I just turned 57, and I'm riding 300 miles next week. I look at my schedule and say, "I need to ride ‘X’ amount or I just won't be ready." It's been fulfilling for me personally to lead by example.

Gastronomista:  It's a good motto for life: just be consistent.

Gastronomista:  What are some of your favorite bars right now?

Abou-Ganim:  I'm partial to Libertine Social here in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay. I've always been a big fan of Julie Reiner. I love Flatiron Lounge. That was always one of my favorite stops when I was in New York, and I think she's even elevated that with Clover Club. She really brings the art of hospitality to life. The craft cocktail bar craze happened really fast, and a lot of great bars opened up quickly. I think some opened and skipped the importance of hospitality, but Julie was always one that embraced it. I always enjoy going to her bar.

I love Nectaly Mendoza, and what he did here in Las Vegas with Herbs and Rye. He committed to it, and his story is one of perseverance, persistence and believing. He's done as much for the cocktail community here in Las Vegas as anyone.

I love going to San Francisco. That's really my second home, I think, more so than anywhere else. Trick Dog; I love those guys. I love everything they stand for, and they're philanthropic through and through. They believe in community.

I like going to bars that I feel comfortable. I don't need to go to the hippest, coolest, hottest new bar. I need to go to the bar that makes me feel welcome and makes me feel like I want to be there. I quote Dale DeGroff all the time. He says, "I don't go to bars. I go to bartenders." I think that gets back to the art of hospitality. I wish I had said that, but I have to give Dale credit on that!

There was quite a bit of pretentiousness behind bar for a period of time, and I think that's easing up. We're getting back to the art of hospitality. Remember, it's never about the drink. There’s no drink good enough to make me want to deal with an arrogant, pretentious bartender. I want to leave every bar feeling better than when I walked in.

Gastronomista:  It's all about people.

Abou-Ganim:  It's all about people. At the end of the day, it's all about people.

Gastronomista:  If you could visit any bar, anywhere in world, at any point in history, what bar would you visit and who would you have a drink with?

Abou-Ganim:  I've been to the La Floridita in Cuba, stood next the Hemingway statue and drank a daiquiri. I think it would be fun to have visited during its heyday and had a drink with Ernest Hemingway. I think that would have been very cool.

From that same year and same group, I was always a big Charles Baker fan. If he showed up, that'd be cool.

I would also go back to 1980 with Helen, my Uncle Charlie and my cousin Tony who are both career bartenders—and who I'm named after actually! My full name is Charles Anthony Abou-Ganim—and have a drink with my dad. That would be it.

Gastronomista:  What drives the creative process for you when you're creating cocktails? Any tricks of the trade you can share?

Abou-Ganim:  Much like chefs, bartenders have a style. I'm not really “boozy.” My style's not spirit-forward, not really strong in brown-spirit-based drinks. I do make some of those, but my style is more defined by the long, refreshing, citrus, balanced cocktail.

If bartenders haven't realized their own style, maybe they haven't been doing it long enough or even considered the concept. They should go back and look at their body of work. They’ll see some stylistic similarities they can embrace.

I always start with flavors. Like my mother said "Never trust a skinny chef. You got to taste everything." Steve Olsen once said, "Put a book in your mind and every time you taste something, make a note in there." I have this massive encyclopedia of flavors now. It's fun.

When I try something new, I might think, "This would work really well in the summertime. It's watermelon season. They need citrus and maybe a fun sweetener, so I'll do something with a tea reduction as a sweetener.” We have such a plethora of ingredients available today, both spirits and liquors, and bitters. It's endless what's available commercially. If you're so inclined, you can really create just about anything.

But, it has to make sense. I judge a lot of cocktail competitions, and I often think "Who are you making this drink for?" Are you trying to out geek everyone or are you really making it for your guests? I think a lot of times bartenders forget who the end user is. The person who’s going to sit down, buy the drink, pay for the drink, enjoy the drink and, hopefully, recommend the drink and come back and have it again.

I keep coming back to less is more. Keep it simple, keep it balanced. I'm not a huge fan of homemade ingredients anymore because there is such a great array of products available. The reason cocktail recipes and cocktail books started were so we could have consistent drink preparation from bar-to-bar and bartender-to-bartender.

Still, it's all about embracing and recognizing your style, and having fun. If it's not fun, it's way too much work.

Gastronomista:  This series is sponsored by Campari America, would you mind sharing a recipe for your favorite Negroni variation with us?

Milano Sesquicentennial

Created by Tony Abou-Ganim

¾ oz Campari
¾ oz SKYY Infusions Citrus vodka
½ Grand Marnier
½ oz fresh blood orange puree (Perfect Puree)
1 oz fresh lemon sour (2 parts freshly squeezed lemon juice – 1 part simple syrup)
1 teaspoon egg white
Chilled soda water

In a mixing glass of a Boston shaker set add Campari, SKYY Infusions Citrus, Grand Marnier, blood orange puree, fresh lemon sour & egg white; shake until well blended. Strain into an ice filled 12 ounce Collins glass. Spritz with chilled soda water.

This interview has been edited.

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