Memories of arena cocktails don’t exactly excite mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim. The result of trips to the concession stand at concerts and sporting events have, for him, typically been lackluster. “In a word, disappointing,” he says. “Subpar drinks, long lines—not an experience to look forward to.” And that’s precisely what the Las Vegas-based consultant, author and barware designer intends to change when the T-Mobile Arena opens on April 6 with a comprehensive cocktail program of his creation.
With this arena set to host everything from UFC, boxing and hockey to award shows and concerts, what was your approach to making this menu all things to everyone?
My philosophy, regardless of outlet, is to build a great foundation. A great drink is a great drink. My drinks are relatively simple. I don’t try to out-geek people. I just try to “make a better wheel” using great technique, great product, fresh juices, premium spirits, great ice and paying attention to details.
You’ve heard me say it before: “The chain’s only as strong as its weakest link.” That’s the case with a well-made drink. Once you’ve built that foundation, it’s easy to flex and adjust. Because cowboys at a rodeo probably aren’t drinking Cosmopolitans. But if Madonna’s doing a concert, we definitely want Cosmopolitans. We’ll have flexibility, depending on the event. But throughout, this consistent, premium fresh program will lend itself to a little something for everyone.
Your arena cocktail program promises signature cocktails on tap at concession stations, a robust ice program, punch service and barrel-aged cocktails. Why does the arena need this level of service?
The initial vision was to create the best drinking experience anywhere in sports and entertainment— a pretty lofty goal to achieve. It’s Las Vegas. All eyes will be on the opening of this arena. I compare it to another small project I was involved with in 1998, when Bellagio opened. That vision was to bring the best drinking experience to a casino. You can’t do that with just another frozen drink.
We will have frozen drinks, and I’ve paid great attention to crafting the recipes for the drinks that will be frozen, so every element has been addressed to create the best experience. Not only in sports and entertainment, but anywhere. I want people to come to the arena as a destination, much like they’d go to their favorite bar, and say “We’ve got to have that scratch Patrón margarita first thing when we get to the arena!”
Has the consumer palate evolved since 1998?
Absolutely. In 1998, it wasn’t just Las Vegas; finding a fresh handcrafted drink anywhere in America was still hard to do. Today, with what’s happened nationally and internationally on the cocktail scene, virtually anyone has access to a great cocktail bar. These will be educated drinkers, both our locals here in Las Vegas and those visiting us from out of town. When they come to the arena, they’ll almost be expecting that level of service, because they’ve been exposed to it. Today’s drinker is much better educated, much more knowledgeable and much more willing to try something and spend for that.
I can now have a craft beer at the movies and bottled craft cocktails at 30,000 feet. In addition to the cocktails, food wise, we’re being promised hand-carved pork hoisin bahn mi, a made-to-order ahi tuna poke bar, artisanal charcuterie small plates with handcrafted cheese and chef-carved sandwiches. Will having the “craft” experience everywhere eventually cheapen it?
I hope not. I don’t know about you, but I can’t drink a bad cocktail now. I was just at an arena and ordered three Negronis. We left them on the bar they were so bad. A bartender tried to fix them—I don’t know how you screw up that drink twice. But $48 worth of Negronis sat on the bar. That is alcohol abuse if I ever saw it. No, as we become better drinkers, [we become] more picky. And if people don’t respond, you’re going to go someplace else. Or you’re going to get, “I’ll have a Budweiser.” Not that there’s anything wrong with a Budweiser, but we’re asking people these days to spend $12, $14, $18 for a drink. It better be a damn good drink.
Tell me about the tap-cocktail program.
The signature cocktail [the Atomic Fizz] will be property-wide and in most concession venues it will be served on tap. TenderPour has developed a high-pressure system to preserve fresh, cold-pressed juice so that we’re able to not only have this juice available, but available in a bag-in-the-box format. Ripe Bar Juices developed these units where we can mix fresh bag-in-box cocktails on tap. I’ve never seen anything like it. To the best of my knowledge—and I know at least on this scale—there won’t be anything like it. I can’t make it better à la minute than we’re able to make it on tap. Because most of the tap cocktails I’ve had just don’t deliver. They get oxidized. That’s why for us to do it, we have to be able to do it as well as I can do it à la minute or it’s just not worth it.
That’s actually really surprising. You’re a big proponent of “all-fresh.” That was the gospel that you brought to the Bellagio in 1998. How does this Ripe system jive with your career obsession with freshness?
I would do nothing to jeopardize that. It’s been my mantra from the beginning, and I continue to preach it. For us to be able to pull off draft cocktails and for me to be involved, they had to be fresh. We’ve achieved that with Ripe. I’ve been to their plant in Connecticut. I’ve seen the process. I’ve tasted the juice. I’ve worked with them on developing the recipes for our One-Two Punch, which will be another drink that will be available in certain locations on draft with the margarita. We’ve worked very closely with Patrón to do a scratch margarita throughout the property.
One of the things I was so proud of at Bellagio wasn’t the great drink experience at one bar, it was the consistent drink experience at 29 bars. That’s the goal we’ve set for ourselves with the arena. You’ll get this wonderful Patrón, Cointreau, fresh lime and lemon margarita either à la minute, on draft or bottled. It will be that consistent experience throughout. That’s what’s so important. You can’t go to one bar and have a drink one way and go to another bar, expect that same experience and be let down.
In the past, you’ve said, “Instead of plunking down $500 for a bottle of vodka and few cans of Red Bull, I’m advising clients to make a crafty punch. Something to heighten the communal drinking element. Punch service is definitely cool.” What are the Arena’s punch service details?
Did I say that? That was very well spoken. The only place we’re offering punchbowl service to start will be in the suites. All the ingredients will be put together with a big, beautiful punchbowl. It is Las Vegas, so we’ll have two lovely young punch girls who will roll the cart to your suite and put the punch together over a big, beautiful three-inch-by-three-inch block of crystal-clear ice—we’re taking ice very, very seriously. As I mentioned so eloquently [laughing], it becomes this beautiful communal drinking experience in your suite. I believe we’re starting with a choice of four punches. Again: Build that foundation and then we can do special offerings.
One of your many nicknames is “Tony Negroni,” so it goes without saying that you’ll have a Negroni at the arena.
The Patrón lounge will have a Rosita, which is being made with Patrón añejo tequila, a tequila-version of the Negroni. For the Boulevardier, one of my favorite drinks, we’ll be using Baker’s Bourbon. That will be available in the Optimum Lounge, down in the event-level which is where our real whiskey focus is going to be. Then, at the Goose Island Bar is where you can get the Tony Negroni. That’ll be a Bombay Sapphire, which, I guess, you know they asked me, “If you had to pick one Negroni, what would it be? What would the recipe be?” I’m a Bombay Sapphire compare and Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth guy, equal parts, so that’s what we’re putting in the barrels tonight.
Is this a one-time cocktail menu-consulting gig for the opening, or will this be an ongoing relationship with the arena?
This isn’t just a consulting gig for me. My hope is that it’s hugely successful and they see the value in keeping me involved. Especially with a hockey team supposedly coming to town. That’ll be another 40 events that we’ll have to have a hockey cocktail. I’m very much involved, and I hope to be in as many events as possible. If it’s arranged in advance and it works for everyone’s schedules and budgets, I can visit some suites, mix a few drinks. We’ve filmed some little vignettes of me teaching how to make drinks. The suites are going to offer kits, all the ingredients to make margaritas or make Manhattans, or whatever the drink might be. Then I’ll pop up on the screen saying, “Hi, I’m Tony, We’re going to make Cosmopolitans together.” People love to entertain, and they love … it’s empowering when someone has the tools and ability and a little opportunity to show off and make drinks for their friends. Especially in their suite.
How does this project fit into your personal brand as “The Modern Mixologist”?
It was a collection of things, one being that it’s in Las Vegas. The collaboration with Levy [Restaurants], AEG and MGM was exciting for me, to be able to again work on an MGM project. I’m so excited about the potential of a hockey team and a professional sports team coming to Las Vegas and being involved with that. And just something brand-new; for the most part I’ve never worked in sports and entertainment arenas before. It’s funny—I’ve now been approached by two other companies to do beverages in arena environments, so the word must be out there. At the end of the day, if our guests drink better because of it, all ships rise in high tide.
Where else in town can we experience menus that you have had a hand in? The first that comes to me is Lobby Bar in Caesars Palace.
There are still the remnants of Tony throughout Bellagio. I did [a menu for] Eye Candy in Mandalay Bay, but you wouldn’t know it by what the menu looks like today. Sushi Roku in the Forum Shops at Caesars, they still might have one or two of my drinks from the initial opening and trainings. Since my departure from Bellagio, most of what I’ve done has been outside of Las Vegas, which is why I’m so excited to be coming back, coming home if you will. This is going to be a fantastic and different stage from which to perform, but it’s quite a grand stage.
In that same article with the punch mention you said, “The dream I’ve always had is to move to Hawaii, open a bar, and have it open only three days a week so I can really enjoy the life.” Is that still your dream?
I think it is. I don’t know if it has to only be open three days a week, but I only want to be there three days a week. I love Hawaii. The only thing I miss in Las Vegas is the ocean. If there were an ocean here I would never leave. I’m hoping to be able to accomplish that and go back and forth. If I can live in Hawaii part time and Las Vegas the rest of the time, that’ll be a good way to retire. Because I’ll never stop bartending. To me, that’s not work.