In the last two decades, Las Vegas has gone from offering cheap buffets and watered-down drinks to gourmet meals and classic cocktails. Somewhere, Frank Sinatra is, no doubt, smiling!
Just like a sports book and a poker room, every casino on the Strip now boasts at least one bar with serious mixological credentials. And that’s not to mention the other watering holes that have popped up all over town.
Tony Abou-Ganim has seen the city’s transformation first-hand. Back in 1998, Vegas impresario Steve Wynn hired him to helm the cocktail program for the soon-to-open Bellagio resort and casino. It was a massive job involving the creation of 22 bars on the property from scratch. In the process, Abou-Ganim ushered in a whole new era of Vegas drinking that featured fresh ingredients, hand-crafted drinks, and traditional recipes.
It reflected his own training at his cousin Helen David’s bar in his native Port Huron, Michigan, where he worked as a teenager.
After college, just as the cocktail revolution was taking off, Abou-Ganim tended bar on both coasts, including posts at Mario Batali’s first New York restaurant Po and the famed Starlight Room in San Francisco.
Today, Abou-Ganim is well known for his two books, The Modern Mixologist and Vodka Distilled, as well as his 3-and-0 record on Iron Chef America (he paired cocktails with the famous chefs’ creations). He still lives in Vegas and is now working on a third book and consulting on bar programs, most recently the brand-new Libertine Social in the Mandalay Bay casino.
No surprise, his favorite three drinks in his adopted hometown are all classics.
Boulevardier at Sage
Abou-Ganim discovered the Negroni back in 1991 and has been one of that bitter concoction’s biggest supporters. But the Boulevardier, which simply swaps the Negroni’s gin for whiskey, “eluded me until about four years ago,” he admits. This restaurant inside Aria was one of the first places Abou-Ganim enjoyed the classic, and it’s also one of his favorites. Sage is “another one of those hidden gems,” he says. “You’d never suspect that it has one of the greatest whiskey selections in Las Vegas.” Abou-Ganim prefers high-proof whiskey in his Boulevardiers, such as Baker’s Bourbon.
Cable Car at Petrossian Bar
The Cable Car is Abou-Ganim’s own creation, a twist on the Sidecar using spiced rum in place of Cognac that he dreamed up in the mid-’90s in San Francisco. He introduced it to the Bellagio when he came to Vegas, and it’s still on the menu at the resort’s lobby bar even though he’s not the boss anymore. “They really embrace the art of hospitality at Petrossian,” Abou-Ganim says. “The drink and the bar both hold a special place in my heart.”
Holland House at Herbs & Rye
This old-school Italian steakhouse located way off the Strip is an unexpected spot for Las Vegas’ top mixology bar, but Herbs & Rye is justifiably well-known among cocktail geeks nationwide, and just this year, it won the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for best high-volume bar in America. That’s thanks to owner Nectaly Mendoza, who worked his way up from busser and barback, and who Abou-Ganim has known for years. Abou-Ganim’s pick here comes from the Prohibition era, a mix of Dutch genever, maraschino liqueur, dry vermouth, and lemon juice that’s fairly hard to find nowadays.
“It’s a trip back in time cocktail-wise,” he says.