How the Cable Car Became a Modern Classic

December 08, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Photo: Kelly Puleio


How the Cable Car Became a Modern Classic

December 08, 2020

Story: Robert Simonson

Art: Kelly Puleio

For the spiced rum Sidecar riff, it all started in San Francisco.

Today, it’s not uncommon to find a classic Manhattan occupying the same menu pages as a house Manhattan riff. In 1996, however, offering a modern interpretation of an old, nearly forgotten drink like the Sidecar was as unusual as encountering the Sidecar itself. But that’s just what bartender Tony Abou-Ganim did when he dreamed up the Cable Car, a drink that would go on to become a signature for both the man who created it and the place where it was born, as well as the only modern classic to showcase spiced rum.

“Back in 1996 it was still rather unique to create ‘original’ or ‘specialty’ cocktails, and feature them on a menu,” recalls Abou-Ganim, who worked as the head bartender at the 1920s-inspired Starlight Room when the opulent lounge was relaunched atop San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel that same year.

The seed that became the Cable Car was planted when representatives from spiced rum brand Captain Morgan approached Abou-Ganim about developing a new drink featuring their product. “I was not a consumer of spiced rum,” admits Abou-Ganim, but the challenge presented an opportunity to experiment.

A fan of the Sidecar, Abou-Ganim thought he might be able to breathe new life into the neglected classic by swapping out the base spirit. The only other change he made was to add cinnamon to the traditional sugar rim. But those two alterations made all the difference. The cocktail was put on the Starlight Room’s second menu, which launched in the spring of 1996, and quickly became a hit.

“All the bartenders, especially Tony, got behind it and sold it as an updated version of a classic,” remembers David O’Malley, the influential San Francisco bar manager who ran the Starlight Room during its early years. “It also played well to the crowd who wanted a classic-looking cocktail in their hand.” O’Malley notes that, at the time, spiced rum was much easier to sell to customers than brandy. (As for the name, the Starlight Room advertised itself as being “Between the cable cars and the stars.”)

When bartender Marco Dionysos moved from Portland to San Francisco in 1996, it didn’t take long for him to get wind of the city’s new favorite cocktail. “The pairing of cinnamon sugar with a spiced rum was a simple, yet brilliant, move,” says Dionysos.

A few years later, in 2002, Dionysos himself was working at the Starlight. The popularity of the Cable Car had not fallen off in the least. “There was no question the Cable Car would stay on the menu,” he recalls. “Not only was it an iconic cocktail for the Starlight Room, but it was consistently a top seller.”

By then, Abou-Ganim had moved to Las Vegas. In 1998, he was tapped to operate the many bars at the sprawling Bellagio Hotel & Casino. A year-round hive of visitors, the Bellagio was an ideal forum to bring the Cable Car to a wider audience, but Abou-Ganim wasn’t sure he wanted to feature the cocktail at all.

“The cocktail had such a history in San Francisco, I wasn’t sure if it would work the same in Las Vegas,” he says. “And frankly I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it out of its home.” Of the 29 bars at the Bellagio, Abou-Ganim initially put the drink on only one menu. But the staff of more than 300 people championed the cocktail, and it soon became one of the resort’s most popular requests.

“I made thousands of Cable Cars at the Bellagio,” says Bridget Alpert, who worked at the resort from 1998 to 2005. “This drink was well-beloved by our guests and us, the bartenders. Customers would call the Bellagio to get the recipe to make at home.”

The drink received an additional profile boost from Gary Regan, one of the few prominent cocktail writers working in the 1990s. He wrote about Abou-Ganim and his Cable Car in his “Cocktailian” column in the San Francisco Chronicle—“That drink stuck to this city like glue,” he quipped in 2003—and included the Cable Car in his influential book The Joy of Mixology, published the same year.

Since leaving the Bellagio in 2003, Abou-Ganim has seen the drink appear on cocktail menus at a handful of other Las Vegas bars, as well as in the Bay Area, Florida and Detroit. He’s likewise witnessed the development of every imaginable iteration of the sour, including a molecular Cable Car made with liquid nitrogen, an updated Cable Car with a caramelized rim and, of course, a frozen Cable Car.

Moreover, as the craft spirits market boomed in the aughts, a wave of spiced rums hit the shelves, bolstering the drink’s popularity. “When I created the drink there was pretty much only Captain Morgan—today it is a category,” explains Abou-Ganim. “Spiced rums can be featured in many drinks, but there are not a lot of drinks that have been created especially based on spiced rum.”

For bartender Dale DeGroff, a longtime colleague and supporter of Abou-Ganim, the Cable Car formula checked many of the boxes then needed to convert a new cocktail into a modern classic. “In 1996 that formula was right down the middle of the alley in its appeal to taste preferences in the general market,” explains DeGroff. Meanwhile, its Sidecar origins gave it credibility among the then-growing craft-cocktail community—as did Tony’s insistence on using fresh lemon juice, a novel approach at the time.

“The recipe isn’t overly complicated, the ingredients aren’t exotic or rare,” says Dionysos of the Cable Car’s inherent simplicity. “And,” he adds, noting the drink’s amber-hued appearance, “it photographs beautifully.”

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