Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe
Vegas bar legend Tony “Modern Mixologist” Abou-Ganim is a product of the 60s. And, since his mother’s name is Mary, a cocktail called Just for Mary seemed the textbook choice to commemorate his birth year, 1960, the year The Beatles played Hamburg, Muhammad Ali won his first fight and John F. Kennedy became president.
Yet Abou-Ganim, who made his name first at the Starlight Room in San Francisco and then at Las Vegas' Bellagio, has more than one Mary in his life. And it was Mary Faulkner, co-author of his first two books, who inspired the cocktail.
"When we were working on the first book, The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails, we were coming to the end of a long day of writing, and we were in need of a drink - a strong drink!" Abou-Ganim recalls.
Manhattans were Abou-Ganim's first thought - but he was out of sweet vermouth, so substituted Lillet Blanc. To balance the drink, he added first orange bitters then Cherry Heering. "I played with that combination, tried different proportions, and came up with just what we needed: a lovely boozy end to a couple of days writing about cocktails," he recalls. "We liked it so much that we added it to the book."
The combo of whiskey and aromatics in the Just for Mary is a classic mid-century flavour profile, from an era when offices had bars and drinking and smoking in the workplace was commonplace, at least for men. "In the 60s, the husband or man of the household had the tools, they had the ingredients, they had the bar - and it was kind of a rite of passage into manhood to be able to make a Dry Martini or a Manhattan," says Abou-Ganim. "Then we went through the light beers and spritzers and Chardonnays and Pellegrino water, and those home bars disappeared - as did the ability to make a cocktail at home."
While cocktail craft may have been men's work in the 1960s, it was another strong woman, his cousin Helen David, who introduced Abou-Ganim to cocktails. David ran a neighbourhood bar, the Brass Rail, in the little city of Port Huron, a ferry ride from Canada when the lake isn't frozen. "Helen and her mother opened the Brass Rail in 1937, three years after the repeal of Prohibition, and in the throes of the Great Depression," Abou-Ganim recalls. "She was an only child, and her father passed away unexpectedly, leaving her and her mother with an ice-cream parlour."
During the Great Depression, ice-cream was far from a household priority. "Her mother said, 'We're going to be put out on the streets if we don't turn the parlour into a saloon,'" Abou-Ganim relates. "Helen, then aged 21, said, 'Proper ladies don't run saloons.' And her mother replied: 'A lady is a lady wherever you put her, but she's gotta have a buck in her pocket.'"
After that rocky start, David would work in the Brass Rail for a jaw-dropping 70 years: she was taken from her bar stool to the hospital where she passed away. She remains an inspiration for Abou-Ganim, who has established not only the Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award, presented at Tales of the Cocktail each year, but the Helen David Relief Fund in her memory.
It was Helen's husband, Charlie, who first introduced Abou-Ganim to the Singapore Sling, served in high style in a frosted Collins glass with dangling mermaids. Almost 20 years later, at the Bellagio, he set out to resurrect the original 1915 recipe. "The drink was so popular we pretty much used the state's entire supply of Cherry Heering," he recalls. "Our orders were so large, we'd have bottles coming in as 375s, ones with the price tags on them from liquor stores, all dusty...!"
Not long after winning the Martini Grand Prix in 2002, Abou-Ganim bid farewell to the Bellagio and branched out into freelance work - in a time when consultancy work was very far from common. While he works with clients as diverse as Caesar's Palace and the T-Mobile Arena in Vegas, has hosted his own TV show and won Iron Chef three times, he is proudest of remaining independent. "The thing I'm most proud of is that it's now been 14 years I've never had to look for a job: work has all come to me," he says.
And, though the red rocks of the Vegas desert seem as far from the watery expanse of the Great Lakes as it is possible to get within a single country, Abou-Ganim is passionate about his adopted home. "The Strip has its own beauty. A lot of people who live here say, 'I never go to the Strip,' but I love the Strip," he says. "But if you get on a bike, either a motorcycle or a bicycle and head out of town, the High Desert is so beautiful." For, even as his age rises to match his birth year, this self-confessed "two wheels guy" is far from slowing down.
Garnish: Burnt orange zest twist
Method: Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into chilled glass.
30ml / 2oz Straight rye whiskey
15ml / ½oz Cherry Heering
15ml / ½oz Lillet Blanc
2 dash Angostura orange bitters