"My birth surname is Polish, so there's a lot of letters in it," says Marta Ess, who's representing Canada at the Patrón Perfectionists global final, explaining her unusual surname. "I was working as a professional dancer through my mid to late 20s and going to auditions. Constantly I would hear from casting directors that my last name was a disaster for the stage, so I started going by Marta S."
Ess built her bartending reputation in her native Toronto, most notably at the regarded (but now closed) restaurant Chantecler. She is currently based in the town of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, working at Drift, a new restaurant in nearby Halifax. "I needed to be somewhere where it was a bit smaller and a little less chaotic," she says. "Toronto served me well in my 20s, but now I'm firmly pushing 40, so I needed a change of pace."
From the Barre to the Bar
Ess started bartending at events as a way to support herself while dancing professionally, and began to take it seriously as a career as her body showed the strain of dance. "It all came together at the right time: I was ageing out of dance and finding new opportunities in the world of bartending, all wrapped up in a bow of: I need to be able to eat," she recalls. "It was a nice confluence of circumstance that found me going down the career bartending path instead of the dancing path."
Yet, Ess believes, the two careers have more in common than you'd think. "There's a lot of parallels that exist between the world of dance and the world of bartending," she says. "It's all about muscle memory, repetition, constant practice. You need great spatial awareness, your schedule can change a lot and the things you have to do from day to day can vary a lot, but the fundamental core of what you do remains the same."
And dance has contributed assets that come in handy while bartending. "It gave me a pair of really strong legs, which is great because you have to be on your feet all the time," Ess says. "The audition circuit gives you a thicker skin, which is something that you really need in general, but especially when you work in the hospitality industry as a female bartender. It helps to be able to let things roll off your back a little more easily."
Competing for Perfection
Ess has been entering bartending competitions for several years now, regularly making national finals, and this was her second attempt at Patrón Perfectionists. "The way that I've always approached competitions is that the competition should be able to make you a better bartender," she says. "And if it can't make you a better bartender or a better person in some way then it is probably not actually worth doing."
As her winning cocktail demonstrates, Ess is undoubtedly a perfectionist. "Most bartenders who do this as a career at this level, we all share certain traits. One of them is that most of us do tend to strive for perfectionism," she says. "That can plague you and make you doubt the way you do things. And it can be stressful."
At 37, however, Ess is more comfortable with that element of her character than she was in her 20s. "The reality is that being perfect is something that's unobtainable," she says. "But one of the great things about life is that we're constantly striving towards unobtainable things."
Marta Ess's Winning Cocktail: the Golden Ratio
Marta's winning drink is inspired by the Golden Ratio, a mathematical term where the ratio of a short line to a longer one is the same as the ratio of the longer line to the total of the two lines. The number-which is, like π, an irrational number, and even has its own Greek letter, φ-begins with 1.6.
"It's kind of funny that I thought of this concept when I'm not a maths person at all," Ess says. "But something like the Golden Ratio just strikes me as interesting." Renaissance artists including Leonardo Da Vinci used the Golden Ratio to define perfect proportions, both in rectangles and in spirals, making it a natural fit for a competition about perfection.
"Whenever I think of a concept, I latch onto it, and I run with it," Ess says. "When I make cocktails for my cocktail programmes, I'm very much: 'First thought, best thought, go with your gut and just make it work.' I don't like the idea of hemming and hawing and tinkering with something for too long, because I think it's just going to waste your time."
Appropriately enough, however, the Golden Ratio cocktail took some perfecting. "It was a lot of R&D-a LOT!" Ess says. "Trying this recipe again and again and again, tweaking it by an eighth of an ounce here and there to make the measures work in the equation but also create a really delicious drink."
In the final drink, the liquor and the juices represent the long line and the short line of the Golden Ratio: there is roughly 1.6 times the amount of liquor as juice, while juice plus liquor is roughly 1.6 times the amount of liquor. "I'm very happy with it," Ess says. "It's one of the tastiest and most accessible drinks that I think I've ever made in my career."
1.5oz (45ml) Patrón Silver tequila
0.75oz (20ml) Martini Rosso vermouth
0.125oz (5ml) Amaro Lucano liqueur
1oz (30ml) Fresh pressed pineapple juice
0.5oz (15ml) Freshly squeezed lime juice
0.5oz (15ml) Rich sugar syrup (2:1)
Method: Pour first five ingredients to a shaker tin, add ice, shake till chilled, then strain ingredients back into the tin. Add rich sugar syrup and dry shake (no ice!), then fine strain into a Nick & Nora cocktail glass. Cover two-thirds of the drink with card or paper and grate fresh nutmeg over the exposed third.