World-renowned mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim and James Beard Award-winning chef Shawn McClain recently launched Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay, a next generation gastropub that celebrates the spirit of letting loose in Las Vegas.
The new outpost features Tony’s dream of bar-ception, two separate cocktail concepts under one roof, with the main bar featuring a diverse set of elevated ways to imbibe the party, and the bar-within-the-bar showcasing “forgotten cocktails” from the late 19th and early 20th century that have been left in the past.
Tony is actually the genesis for Las Vegas resorts placing such a focus on having world-class cocktails. Tony was brought to Las Vegas in the late 90s to lead the opening of Bellagio from a beverage perspective. People thought he was crazy when he insisted drinks were made with fresh juice pressed in-house daily, and demanded that all bartenders learn the classic art of mixology.
At the time, cocktails were an afterthought available for the sole purpose of keeping gamers at the slot machines and tables. That all changed when travelers fell in love with what Tony had created at Bellagio.
Needless to say, the bar was set and now you cannot step foot in a Las Vegas casino-resort without seeing Tony’s influence. Check out what Tony told Chilled about his life behind bars.
You were on the frontlines when the ‘craft cocktail movement’ was taking off. What are you most proud of with your work within this industry?
I feel like I was very fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time with the right message, working for Mario Batali in 1993, and to have met Dale DeGroff at the Rainbow Room that same year. Perhaps I am most proud of what we were able to accomplish with the opening of Bellagio in 1998, working with upwards of 200 bartenders, 29 bars, implementing a fresh, hand-crafted bar program celebrating classic and modern classics that served some 25,000 drinks per day. The thing that I was most proud of was how the bartender embraced, executed and celebrated the program and the philosophy. One bartender once said to me that after bartending in Las Vegas for over 25 years he felt like a professional bartender again.
You’ve been in this game long enough to see an evolution of the cocktail. Talk to us about today’s cocktail culture. Where do you see it headed?
As you so kindly pointed out, I have been in the game for a long time, in fact I have spent the last 36 years of my life behind bars, I have seen a lot of cocktail trends come and go, some good, some not so good. Today’s cocktail culture celebrates the classics, the bartenders responsible for creating them and the stories and antidotes surrounding them. We have gone through a very creative phase where bartenders have pushed the boundaries of esoteric ingredients in search of fashioning the next classic. What I see, or hope I see is a continued celebration of these tried and true classic cocktails prepared in a fun and festive environment, by committed bartenders who embrace the art of hospitality.
What are some trends that today’s bartenders should pay more attention to- what are some trends they should let go of?
I hate to think that the art of hospitality is in any way a trend but it does seem like a very important issue to embrace and ensure our entire team practices. We need to always remember we are in the people business and striving to ensure that each guest that walks into our establishments has a wonderful experience. Arm garters, pretentiousness and the 20-minute cocktail need to disappear, the bar should be a place that welcomes guests not intimidates them.
Do you have any advice for today’s bartender that might want to follow in you footsteps?
Work with and learn from great bartenders. The bar and bartending profession is truly one that is based on the apprenticeship process. There is only so much one can learn from books or online, all of which is crucial to one’s professional development but to become a great bartender takes a lifetime. I still strive to better myself in our profession, learning and growing each day. My personal goal is always to be just a little better today than I was yesterday.
If you plan to move on as a teacher and presenter, representing yourself or hosting demonstrations on behalf of spirit brands, I always recommend taking speech and acting classes to improve your skills as a presenter.
What are three techniques/tools that you could not live without behind the bar?
My hand held lime squeezer. Since I first meet Julio Bermejo in 1995 I have used a lime squeezer to squeeze fresh lime juice at the point of making every cocktail and still insist on it today.
My Glass on Tin Boston Shaker set. This is what I learned on and I am still a fan of putting my liquid ingredients into the 16 ounce mixing glass for everyone to see, including my guests and myself, can’t do that with tin on tin.
My citrus peeler, zester and stripper that I use for preparing my swathes, twists and spirals. As I like to say, never underestimate the importance of the garnish.
Talk to us about the cocktail culture in Vegas. What was it like before you got there?
I could not be more excited about what is happening with the cocktail community here in Las Vegas! Not only are the larger strip properties embracing, supporting and celebrating the craft and the profession but many free standing, downtown and off the strip joints have opened and our reveling in the craft cocktail movement and people living in and visiting Las Vegas are drinking better because of it!
Talk to us about the beverage programs you create- where do you find your inspiration for your creative cocktail menus?
All of the programs I have created begin with the same goal, to provide well crafted, complex, balanced cocktails that can be made in a timely fashion and consistently. I try to fashion the program around the feel and concept of the bar itself. Also, I always start with a classic approach and feature those classic cocktails that match the overall concept. Finally, my original creations, and twists on classics follow suit and generally begin by selecting the base spirits to feature and then building the cocktail offerings from there.
Tell us about your new launch with chef Shawn McClain at Libertine Social, Mandalay Bay.
I had the great pleasure to have been paired with Shawn for Battle Tropical on Iron Chef America four years ago and we formed a great friendship following that experience. Both Shawn and I approach our craft in a very similar fashion; the best fresh, seasonal ingredients, proper technique, simple straightforward recipes prepared by those who care about the end product make for great food and drink experiences. At Libertine Social both the food and drink were designed to be fun, shareable, approachable and yummy. The restaurant is designed to provide our guests a different experience each time they visit, in a very fun, welcoming environment that truly celebrates the social elements of eating, drinking and entertaining!
Can you give us one or two easy recipes from Libertine Social or Arcade Bar for the at home bartender that doesn’t have an extensive spirits selection?
A couple ingredients that find their way into many of my recipes as well as many classics are Campari and Cointreau so I would recommend stocking both of these in your home bar.
Give these cocktails a mix from Libertine Social.
- 1 1/2 oz. Orange Codka (We Use Grey Goose L’Orange)
- 1/2 oz. Cointreau
- 1 1/2 oz. Fresh Orange Juice
- 1 1/2 oz. Cranberry Juice
- 1 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
- 1/2 oz. Simple Syrup
Preparation: Shake and serve over ice in a Collins glass. Garnish with orange slices and a lemon twist.
- 1 1/4 oz. Bourbon (We Use Baker’s 107 Proof)
- 1 oz. Campari
- 1 oz. Sweet Vermouth (Martini & Rossi)
Preparation: Serve over ice and garnish with a swath (twist) of orange.
Do you know any up and coming bartenders that we should keep an eye on and why?
Javier, Sean, Chiara, Jason and Jose… the bar team at Libertine Social, they rock!