South Beach Wine & Food Festival: Modern Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim

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Abou-Ganim’s Wizard, from the new book Vodka Distilled

Although this week’s Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival is principally about those title attractions—namely, wine and food—one can’t overlook their delicious and equally multifaceted cousin, the cocktail. Many events are shining a spotlight on distilled liquors, but true aficionados have set aside Saturday afternoon for a pair of demonstrations from America’s sultan of the spirits, Tony Abou-Ganim. Renowned as the Modern Mixologist, Abou-Ganim has been championing the cocktail cause since he first gained attention in early-’90s San Francisco at the iconic lounge Harry Denton’s.

After a stint with Mario Batali at his first restaurant, Po, in New York’s West Village, Abou-Ganim returned to San Francisco to create a specialty drink menu for the new Harry Denton’s Starlight Room perched atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, where he debuted his now classic rum and orange Curaçao concoction, the Cable Car.

His passion for fresh ingredients, premium liquors and creative concepts drew the attention of Las Vegas mega-mogul Steve Wynn, who lured Abou-Ganim to Sin City in 1998 to oversee the cocktail menu for his new resort the Bellagio. His reputation bolstered by triumphant appearances on Iron Chef America—pairing drinks with dishes from Batali and Jose Garces—and winning the Bacardi Martini World Grand Prix (one of only two Americans to do so), Abou-Ganim began to travel the country educating consumers about the cocktail. In 2010, he published The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails and appeared in an accompanying DVD, Modern Mixology: Making Great Cocktails at Home. Just last week, his latest book, Vodka Distilled, was released by Agate Surrey.

For the Wine & Food Fest, Abou-Ganim will host two Bank of America Lifestyle Seminars: At 1 p.m., Stocking & Tending Your Home Bar not only details what one needs for a fully equipped private bar but also features rare techniques demonstrated by the Modern Mixologist. An hour later, he pairs cocktails with caviar dishes created by the new Coral Gables dining hotspot Dome, on Miracle Mile. Here, he muses on his favorite subject with Vault.

After decades of offering wine or beer, why have Americans returned to the idea of serving spirits in their homes?

It’s funny how things go full circle. After a couple of generations turned to Chardonnay and light beer, we are returning to the art of not only serving spirits but also fashioning cocktails for guests visiting our homes. Let’s face it: It’s a lot sexier to elegantly stir a perfect dry martini in a crystal beaker with a sterling-silver bar spoon and strain it into a frozen, thin-lipped glass garnished with just the thinnest slice of lemon peel than to pop the cap on a light beer!

What should every home bartender always keep on hand?

This is a tough one because there are so many simple yet overlooked elements needed to make and serve a great drink to our friends. But I would have to say the most important and always overlooked element is great ice. Not only will ice factor into virtually every drink you prepare, but it will also contribute that all-important 20 percent of water through dilution to the drink. We want not only hard, cold, fresh ice but also the proper grade for the desired libation: large cubes for a Highball, crushed ice for a mojito, cracked ice for a caipirinha, block ice for a punch. Never underestimate the importance of ice and the impact it has on your cocktails!

What elements must all perfect cocktails have?

As I mentioned, virtually any drink begins with great ice. After that one must have the proper serving vessel, premium spirits, fresh ingredients and the right barware—and never overlook the garnish. The chain is only as strong as the weakest link, so pay attention to every detail and you’ll find it will become very easy to serve perfect cocktails.

What glassware is best for which cocktails, and why?

I can’t stress enough the importance of great glassware. It should be of the highest-quality crystal, all the glassware should match, and you must select the proper glass for each chosen drink: a highball glass for your whisky and soda, a Collins glass for a Tom Collins, a cocktail coupe for a Daiquiri, a cocktail glass for a martini or Manhattan, and an Old Fashioned glass for a Negroni or your favorite Scotch on the rocks.

How do cocktails reflect the time and place of their invention?

A cocktail, well fashioned and presented, should transport the imbiber to another place and time, perhaps the era of the drink’s invention. One can imagine being at a baccarat table in Monte Carlo sipping a Vesper, or in Venice drinking Bellinis at Harry’s Bar. Perhaps Paris, having Bloody Marys at Harry’s New York Bar, or warmed on a cold winter’s night by an Irish coffee at The Buena Vista in San Francisco.

What makes vodka such a pure base for a cocktail?

Vodka is, in its most basic state, a rather neutral spirit, the perfect foundation for building flavors upon which to create cocktails. For me the true art is to feature vodka in a cocktail and retain its integrity and character, accent it, enhance it, but in the end celebrate it and allow it to show through and become the featured element of the tipple.

What new innovations are you seeing in cocktail preparation?

We have seen most everything attempted or applied to cocktail preparation—liquid nitrogen, molecular mixology, barrel-aged cocktails, edible cocktails, cocktails on tap….At the end of the day I quote my dear friend Armando Rosario: ‘Keep it simple, and make it fresh!’ I also quote my cousin Helen David: ‘There is no substitute for quality!’ In other words, pay attention to the details—classic recipes, proper techniques and great ingredients—and most important, make it fun!

What is the perfect drink for Miami?

There is a reason so many mojitos are muddled and consumed in Miami: It is a drink, when made perfectly, which hits on all cylinders. It’s delicious, refreshing and restorative, or in other words, the perfect drink for Miami. That said, I would also recommend the Monkey Shine from my new book, Vodka Distilled, as the perfect refreshment for any hot Miami afternoon!

What is your best hangover remedy?

Moderation! I like to say, ‘Enjoying great libations is about the journey, not the destination, so enjoy responsibly!’ But to help along the way eat a good meal before imbibing, drink a glass of water with each and every cocktail, stay away from sugary mixers, and still, if after all of that precaution, you feel a little left of center in the morning, the only true cure is time, hydration and sustenance. Maybe a greasy cheeseburger will help ease the pain.

To order tickets or for more information, please visit

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Abou-Ganim’s Vesper, from Vodka Distilled

Monkey Shine

Abou-Ganim’s Monkey Shine, from Vodka Distilled