Fresh off the release of his second book, Vodka Distilled, the "Modern Mixologist" Tony Abou-Ganim is preparing to make his second visit to the Austin Food and Wine Festival from April 26-28th, where he'll be leading seminars on the drink catalogue of Ernest Hemingway, Latin-inspired libations and maybe even squeezing in some quality time with, of course, vodka.
Catching up with Eater from San Francisco, Abou-Ganim says he's looking forward to educating festival attendees on the proper use of prohibition-era Pisco in cocktails, getting his fill of breakfast tacos and checking out seminars from Alamo Drafthouse beverage director Bill Norris.
You were at the Austin Food & Wine Festival last year; was that your first trip to Austin?
Well, it wasn't my first time. I've been a couple of times before. I'm good friends with Tito Beveridge, so I've been out to visit Tito and do some seminars for the United States Bartenders' Guild in the past. I love coming to Austin, and I'll come any time they invite me.
What have you got planned for this year?
I'm doing two seminars, and something they call "Chasing Ernest Hemingway." Ernest Hemingway was? well, he was notorious at a lot of things, but drinking was one of them. He took his drinking very seriously, and would drink anything from Bloody Marys at the Ritz in Paris to Bellinis at Harry's Bar in Venice; all the way to the cafes were he drank absinthe. So he really kind of covered the gamut, if you will, of drinking. It's kind of fascinating. I'm a big fan of his work, so I've read and reread all of his stuff. It's neat to kind of follow the stories as they closely followed his own personal life. He would drink Green Isaacs on his boat, Pilar, in the Bahamas, and that's one of the drinks I'm going to be sampling [at the festival].
Hemingway was a diabetic, so he didn't take much sugar. Even his daiquiris, he drank with no sugar. But the Green Isaac was made with bitter green coconut milk, angostura bitters, and gin. But since I'm not anticipating a room full of diabetics, I'm going to add a little bit of sugar to my Green Isaacs. Just makes it a little more balanced.
So this is kind of a boozy trip through Hemingway's world?
We're going to travel. Forty-five minutes goes really quick in one of my seminars. I do love to tell a lot of stories, and I love to get people up mixing with me. I'll touch on a lot of things. It would not do Hemingway justice to not bring in the martini that he mentions in so many of his writings. He was very particular about how he drank his martini, so we'll talk about that. The beauty of my job: I have all the booze! I get thirsty; I'll make myself a drink.
The other drink that we'll serve as a sample is the Hemingway Daiquiri, which was created in his honor. With respect to his diabetic diet, it was made with Ruby Red grapefruit, a double portion of rum, Maraschino liqueur, and fresh lime juice. I also plan to add a little syrup to that, just to balance it out. That way, you can make it not quite as tart has Hemingway would have drank it. But, it should be a fun, entertaining journey.
It's especially interesting to go beyond the basic logistics of a cocktail and really tell the stories behind them.
I did it down in Miami a couple of years ago, which is close to where Hemingway spent most of his remaining years: down by Key West. It was very well received, and a lot of fun. So often, we tend to forget that a lot of these really great classic cocktails, that have survived the test of time, have these really great stories and anecdotes that people attach to them. If you ask someone where the Mai Tai was created, most would say, unless they actually knew the story, that it was in Polynesia or Hawaii. But no – it was actually created in Emeryville, California. I think these stories make the drinks more special.
And your other seminar is on Latin drinks?
Yeah, I thought the Latin Libations seminar would be fitting for Austin; especially as the weather starts getting a little bit warmer. Generally, those types of drinks are warm weather drinks.
Are you going to teach Austin something new about the margarita?
I don't think so. I wasn't actually going to sample the margarita this year, but maybe I will. I was going to do a classic drink from San Francisco that's made with Pisco. You might think, how do Pisco and San Francisco line up? Well, San Francisco used to be one of the largest consumption spots for Pisco right up 'til prohibition. Ships would come in to dock here, and they'd bring Pisco from Peru. There was a place called the Imperial Bank Saloon, which was run by a gentleman named Duncan Nichol, who created a drink called the Pisco Punch. It was a very secret recipe – he would go down into his basement to put the whole thing together, and it had to sit overnight. When prohibition came along, the recipe died with him, but we pretty much have been able to piece it together and resurrect the recipe.
Again, great, fun story. Peru and Chile battle over who gets credit for creating Pisco. I personally lead toward Peru a little bit. But that'll be the first welcome drink. I'm still trying to figure out the second welcome drink, but I'm leaning toward Brazil and thinking of maybe making the batida. Do you know the batida?
It's just a light, fluffy, creamy, yummy drink. When I was in Rio, I was drinking them with cashews. I don't know if you knew this, but with every single cashew nut, there's actually a fruit grown above it, that looks kind of like a small, yellow bell pepper. I don't know how you'd ever export it anywhere, so I've only seen it where they grow cashews, but it has a real kind of nutty, fruity flavor. It's wonderful in a batida, and that's the wonderful thing about batidas: you can virtually use any type of fruit or nuts or almost anything. You're only limited by your understanding of flavors. I'll probably use coconut. So I think that's going to be the second sample drink of the night.
That seminar's quite early in the morning, like 10 a.m. What a way to kick off the day.
I'll be kicking the day off? Well, a batida is a wonderful way to do that, because it's kind of light and fluffy. It's almost like drinking a pillow.
Your new book is, of course, about vodka. Does Tito's get a nod?
Tito is definitely featured in the book. His is one of the 58 vodkas that are featured in the book. I just did a signing with him in Las Vegas, for the Nightclub and Bar Show. We were at this party that was tombstone and Western themed, so I made, from my book, my Bloody Bull recipe. It seemed like a fitting drink for the theme, and we did it with olives that were stuffed with chilis. Everybody loved the drink, and it was great to be with Tito.
He came to the festival last year, and last year I did vodka. He sat through the tastings with the audience – everybody loves Tito, you just can't not love him. So I'm hoping to do something for the bartenders on Thursday before the festival starts. I'm working with the United States Bartenders' Guild to get a little vodka tasting and presentation put together. It's a good excuse to come into Austin a day early.
What are you going to be eating while you're in town? Besides all our breakfast tacos.
I'll probably only be eating breakfast tacos here. I mean, when in Austin? [laughs]. But maybe a little barbeque would be nice. I'm sorry I'm going to be missing the big Taco festival they do here, but I have to be in Orlando Sunday morning. Unfortunately, after my seminar on Saturday, I have to leave, so that's why I thought that I'd come in early.
If you're headed in early and want some fantastic drinks, you really should check out Weather Up and Midnight Cowboy. Or get David Alan to take you on a drink tour.
Ok, so Weather Up, Midnight Cowboy? David [Alan, the Tipsy Texan] has an event in Houston on Thursday night, so I might be on my own. I'm actually very excited to be coming back. I think that Bill Norris is doing an event this year, isn't he? [He is!] That was my one criticism from last year; I said, "you need to get some of these local cats involved!" I don't know if they listened to me or not, or if they had the idea at the same time.
It's going to be great. I'm so glad they invited me back. I couldn't be more excited. Definitely come up and say hello, and we'll share a Hemingway Daiquiri together.
—Emma Kat Richardson
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Tony Abou-Ganim. [Photo: Austin Food & Wine Festival]