Old Man Winter may still be lingering, but we’re daydreaming about the culinary heat that will take over Miami February 21 to 24 at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Tony Abou-Ganim, the lauded “Modern Mixologist,” will showcase his new book Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails at the festival during an exclusive launch party at The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach. We caught up with the cocktail guru to chat about his book and his spirit du jour.
How do you think your new book will influence not only South Beach, but consumers and bartenders all over?
I just spoke to a group of bartenders and consumers in Scottsdale yesterday afternoon, and gave my vodka presentation and discussed the book. It was very well-received. I think it opened up a lot of eyes, both with consumers and the trade. The No. 1 consumed spirit in the United States and worldwide is vodka. And there’s a lack of understanding, really, about vodka. I think people sometimes select vodka because of marketing, or advertising, or because it’s what P. Diddy’s drinking. I’m hoping to dispel the myth that all vodkas are the same, that they all taste the same, that they’re all made the same. Instead, I’d like people to really look at it as a category, and expand the character scale from light-and-approachable-style vodkas to the busting-with-character, Eastern European, traditional-style vodkas, and to think about the raw materials that they’re made from.
It sounds like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival is going to be a lot of fun.
It should be great. I started going to South Beach the second year — and this has been, I believe, 10 or 11 years ago, just as cocktails were starting to get a little attention. I was the last seminar of the last day in the tasting tent, and it was packed. I’ve been back every year except for one since then. It’s just a fabulous festival. I’m very proud to be presenting two seminars this year. The first is my “Stocking and Tending Your Home Bar” seminar, which I always love to do because it’s for the consumers who are fascinated with the idea of making cocktails at home for their friends, but may be apprehensive. So, we break down a lot of the myths surrounding mixology and make it fun and approachable. And then the second seminar will be “Pairing Vodka with Food and Caviar.”
Which vodka-based drink would you recommend to go with caviar?
I would go with straight vodka with caviar. If you are going to serve a cocktail with caviar, choose something that is very vodka-forward, like The Flame of Love, or one of my original recipes in the book, called The Wizard. Those are both great vodka-forward drinks, so the vodka really shines through; it’s not there just as a foundation for the other ingredients that you’re mixing with it. But really, I’d say with caviar, leave out the blini, the sour cream, the onions, and just serve it with a mother-of-pearl spoon and a glass of frozen vodka.
How much taste testing did you have to do to prepare for this seminar?
Oh, oodles. I had to taste all these wonderful vodkas and pair them with these delicious caviars, just over and over again to get it right. I know you’re feeling sorry for me. It was brutal.
I tasted over 100 vodkas. We settled on 58. We tasted them all blind, which was really interesting because I think when you taste blind, you take the perception out of the equation. I address that in the book. I always recommend that if you really want to get to know vodka, do it all blind; you might be surprised that the vodka that you drink may not be your favorite in a blind tasting.
Can you speak to any of your updates to classic vodka cocktails, such as the Vesper or the Black Russian?
I don’t know what the creators of the Vesper had in mind when they developed the recipe, but it’s a beautiful segue for a vodka drinker who wants to experiment with a gin martini. The Flame of Love, which I mentioned earlier, is made by rinsing the glass with sherry and then applying the burnt oils of the orange to the glass. It has a toasty nuttiness with the sherry and the orange oils, playing beautifully on a rye or potato vodka. That enhances the vodka, instead of masking it. But the one cocktail that I’m really excited about, of all things, is the Cosmopolitan. I think that when made well, it’s a really great drink. And it’s a shame that it’s been bastardized by using bad cranberry juice and bad lime cordials instead of fresh, hand-squeezed lime juice, Cointreau and Ocean Spray. When those ingredients come together in beautiful harmony, it’s just a gorgeous, well-balanced, delicious drink.
Is there anything else that you’d like to share in regards to Vodka Distilled or your time at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival?
Well, if anyone comes to one of my seminars, please come up and say hello, introduce yourself and let me sign a book for you. I think the real message with the book is to explore the category, and to really put your perception aside of what vodka is. Put it in a glass, taste it blind and enjoy it for the love of vodka.
Photos Courtesy of Tony Abou-Ganim, Hyatt Corporation and iStock-Jeremy Edwards