The inaugural Tony Abou-Ganim Southwest Spirit Summit kicks off this weekend at Casino Del Sol in Tucson, Arizona, to celebrate the best of the best when it comes to spirits. From top-notch mixologists to charity events, this three-day bash is stirring up all kinds of excitement. We recently spoke to the man behind it all, Forbes Travel Guide Tastemaker Tony Abou-Ganim, to get the lowdown on everything from the motivation to do the Summit to the weekend’s must-see events.
What inspired you to do the Tony Abou-Ganim Southwest Spirit Summit?
I’ve been coming down to Tucson for about the last seven years, speaking at the Tucson Culinary Festival. Last year, I was hired by Casino Del Sol to do the staff training and menu development for the new expansion of the casino as well as the existing property. So, I’ve got a very deep love and special place in my heart for Tucson; and Tucson really needed to have something like this — something where we get to showcase not just great spirits and cocktails, but the overall profession of bartending. I partnered up with Aaron DeFeo and Casino Del Sol, and Norma Gentry, who is the director of the festival, and put this together — this three-day celebration of all things cocktails.
What kind of events can people attend?
You can attend the welcome reception, have a cocktail with me and get a copy of my book signed. You can go to the barbecue that’s being sponsored by Beam Global — have some of Bobby Gleason’s fabulous cocktails and some of the fabulous barbecue that will be out by the pool. This time of year it’s beautiful in Tucson, so it’ll be gorgeous out by the beautiful pool at Casino Del Sol.
You can attend seminars and learn the history of punch. You can compare vodkas in my vodka seminar. You can learn about gin cocktails with Charlotte Voisey. So there’s a host of things. We’re also including the Southwest finals of Speed Rack, a women’s bartending competition, with all benefits going to breast cancer awareness.
Then we finish up the whole thing with Dale DeGroff on Sunday afternoon and evening, when he presents On the Town, which is his musical storytelling of his 40 years behind bars. There’s something for everybody.
What are the can’t-miss seminars?
I would say they’re all can’t-miss. Like I said, there’s something for everyone. If your interest is in gin, we have the lovely Charlotte Voisey doing the gin seminar, gin cocktails. We have Bobby Gleason, who is — I think — one of the most knowledgeable bourbon authorities in the world, presenting whiskey cocktails. We have Steve Olson, who is an amazing presenter, going to do a seminar on agave spirits, tequila and mescal, along with Ron Cooper and Dave Graphshi.
I’m doing my favorite seminar — “Making Great Cocktails at Home – Hands On with Tony Abou-Ganim – Ladies Only.” People will actually make drinks with me; so not only will I instruct people, but they will get up and make cocktails themselves. It’s a seminar that I’ve done for years, and it’s always a big hit.
I mentioned the punch seminar with Jason Asher presenting that. We have Julie Reiner and Brian Miller coming out from New York to do “American Tiki,” which will be great. And Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails — they’re the same people that sponsor Speed Rack — will be doing “Women Behind the Bar.”
So we’ve got some great things to pick from, and we’ve staggered them so you can pretty much attend everything.
What other charities does the Southwest Spirit Summit benefit?
This is the official launch of my charity that I’ve been working on now for the last three years called the Helen David Relief Fund. It’s for bartenders affected by breast cancer. Helen was the first woman to put a cocktail shaker in my hand in 1980. She ran the Brass Rail bar in Port Huron, Michigan, from 1937 until her death at the age of 91 in 2006 — just shy of 70 years, which is a pretty amazing feat. She was a two-time survivor of the disease and a staunch advocate toward breast cancer. I thought, ‘What a great way to keep her memory alive and honor her.’ She was a very philanthropic person. If I learned nothing more from her, I learned that it’s very important to give back; so I thought this was a great way to pay tribute and honor her contribution to our profession.
Do you see the Southwest Spirit Summit being an annual event?
That’s the plan — to grow it. This year, it’s going to be contained entirely to Casino Del Sol. Obviously, it’ll depend on a lot of elements. One will be how well it’s received here in Tucson. We’ve gotten a lot of media behind it. We’ve had a lot of marketing and promotion about it. Hopefully, the people of Tucson will come out and celebrate with us, it’ll be a success and we’ll bring it back as an annual event, but expand it next year so that it encompasses more of the Tucson bar and restaurant scene, as well as Casino Del Sol.
Photos Courtesy of Tony Abou-Ganim and Casino Del Sol Resort