Mix Masters

Dale Degroff, Tony Abou-Ganim, Simon Ford and Julie Reiner.

Mixology, in its basic form, means mixing drinks or tending bar. So, what’s the difference between a bartender and a mixologist, you ask? Generally speaking, bartenders must know how to whip up a lot of common, popular drinks in order to accommodate bustling bar patrons. Mixologists, on the other hand, focus their energy on the refined art of crafting cocktails. They also tend to be avid experimenters, innovators, and often, inventors of groundbreaking libations that influence the taste-making world of spirits.

Last weekend, I had the unique opportunity to spend some time with Dale Degroff, a name commonly heard here in Hawaii and the man behind the Halekulani Hotel’s renowned cocktail program, and three other notable master mixologists who were in town crafting cocktails for the Art of the Cocktail weekend. Passionate cocktail patrons got the chance to get up-close and personal with the “dynamo quarto” during events and interactive seminars. And, as you’d expect with anything held at the Halekulani, the three-day affair was a huge hit.

Following the weekend “cocktail-palooza,” I wanted to learn more about the master behind mixology and had the pleasure of hanging with all four mix masters: Dale Degroff, Tony Abou-Ganim, Julie Reiner and Simon Ford. Spending time with the crew off-duty gave me a glimpse into their passionate, exciting lives and also allowed me to witness a certain special camaraderie within the spirits industry as a whole. Here’s what I learned from my after hours “groupie” encounter:

Dale Degroff

Dale Degroff a.k.a. “King of the Cocktail”

Since being credited with reviving and reinventing mixology, Dale Degroff is known throughout the industry as the “King of the Cocktail” (aka Daddy D, the Godfather). He pioneered a gourmet approach to recreating great classic cocktails and even invented the Cosmopolitan (would “Sex and the City” have been the same without it?). During the ’80s, he headed the beverage program at the mega-popular Rainbow Room. And, in addition to consulting for the Halekulani, Degroff lists many notable clients including Match Bars of London, Emerils Demonico, St. Regis Hotels and Bemmelmans Bar-Ritz Carlton in New York. The ultimate “mix master,” Degroff is undoubtedly an inspiration to mixologists-in-the-making and a mentor to fellow masters-in-training.

Tony Abou-Ganim

Tony Abou-Ganim a.k.a. “The Modern Mixologist”

Tony Abou-Ganim’s introduction to the business was inevitable after learning the craft from his cousin Helen David at the Brass Rail Bar in his hometown of Post Huron, Mich. Often dubbed the West Coast cocktail warrior, Abou-Ganim assisted in the opening of Harry Denton’s in San Francisco along with the Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, where he created his first specialty drink menu featuring several of his original cocktail recipes including the Cable Car, Sunsplash and Starlight. In the late ’90s Abou-Ganim was hand-selected by Steve Wynn to create the cocktail program at the Bellagio and soon after, started his own beverage consulting firm, The Modern Mixologist, specializing in bar staff training, product education and cocktail development. It’s not all business for this nouveau bar master. Abou-Ganim has a consta-pleasant disposition and toasts with the word happiness over the standard cheers or chin chin.

Julie Reiner

Julie Reiner a.k.a. “The Local Girl”

While growing up in Hawaii, Julie Reiner fell in love with Lanikai Beach and fresh island fruits. She attended the Hawaii School for Girls before heading off to college in Florida. After earning a degree in communications, Reiner moved to San Francisco and worked as a bartender at the famous Red Room. Shortly thereafter, she moved to New York and managed the C3 Lounge in Greenwich Village. While there, she began experimenting with fresh fruit juices inspired by Hawaii. Ahead of the current trend, Reiner created seasonal cocktail menus and her forward approach was so well received that she landed on the front page of the New York Times for her signature metropolis apple-infused martini. This acclaim was the catalyst that sparked Reiner’s entrepreneurial spirit so she decided to enlist help and open her own cocktail spot, The FlatIron Lounge. Almost a decade later, Reiner is also co-owner of Pegu Club and Brooklyn’s Clover Club. And Hawaii remains an inspiration to her. Next month, Reiner’s new cocktail lounge, Lani Kai, will debut. “The mood is fun and Hawaii-inspired with a modern feel. Not tiki.”

Simon Ford

Simon Ford a.k.a. “The Gin Guy”

Simon Ford has come a long way since his humble beginnings as a small wine shop proprietor in England. Ford is highly regarded as the International Ambassador for Plymouth Gin and Brand Education & Trade Outreach Manager for Pernod Ricard USA. For the last seven years, Ford has traveled the globe, making mass media and special event appearances. He’s assisted in opening some of the most renowned cocktail bars in England, judged international spirit competitions and marketed some of the biggest brands in the liquor industry. Simon recently received the award for Best USA Brand Ambassador at the Tales of the Cocktail Spirit awards 2009 and also won Best International Brand Ambassador at New Orleans Tales of the Cocktail in 2007. Just as gin was considered king in the ’20s and martinis remain a hit, Ford is sure to remain a fresh, charismatic pioneer with a well-respected stance in the spirits industry.