“I was looking for a slower pace of life, a lower cost of living situation,” says bartender Marta Ess. It’s a late fall day and Ess is sitting at a window table just inside Dear Friend bar on Portland Street in downtown Dartmouth. The sun appears to be setting even though it’s barely 4pm, but thankfully the warm lights from behind the bar spill into the quiet, cozy restaurant.
“I’ve been working in the restaurant industry for 18 years, I’ve been bartending for almost 10 of them,” Ess explains, raising a glass of white wine to her lips and taking a sip. “I announced on Instagram that I wanted to leave Toronto and move out to Halifax.”
It was the middle of the third wave of COVID-19—much worse in Toronto than in Halifax. Dear Friend had opened a year previously, in summer 2020, and Ess knew co-owner Matt Boyle through industry events. After seeing her post, Boyle reached out to recruit her to become a new east coaster.
“Something in my gut was like that sounds pretty perfect,” says Ess. “And so we had our interview over Zoom in March or something, and they toured me virtually around the bar. And everything I’d read about them and this place, it checked out.” It’s probably no coincidence that Dear Friend’s early promise spawned multiple Best of Halifax honours when the awards were announced last week, including a gold win for Best New Restaurant in the city.
Arriving in Halifax, Ess fit in perfectly with the crew at Dear Friend. “The thing that we’re really big on here is there’s no hierarchy,” she says. “I specifically came out here not wanting a management position. We all work on an even playing field and I really like that about the culture here.”
And now that bartending competitions are able to take place again, albeit with a few changes, Ess is representing a whole new region.
“I knew the level of talent and caliber of service that existed out here beforehand,” she says. “When you do a competition for this, it’s like yeah, you win for yourself, sure. But you win for your bar, you win for your market and you win for your country. It’s not just about me, it’s about this market and representing where I am now.”
Patrón Perfectionists is a competition that began in the UK but reached global status in 2017, now involving over 1,200 bartenders. This year’s theme is simplicity, and creating cocktails that can “easily be replicated by home bartenders” anywhere in the world who are still in COVID-induced lockdown.
For a competition that used to be about seeing who could do the absolute most, it’s a big change.
“Anyone can get these ingredients, you can recreate this drink at any bar across the planet,” says Ess. “And that has always been a central tenet to how I make drinks, is that if you cannot just make it, there’s something wrong, there’s something you have to rethink, so this is a drink that people can literally make in their own homes.”
For Ess, that accessibility is routine. “When I make drinks for a cocktail program, I actually don’t use syrups, I don’t use infusions,” she says. “I reach for modifiers off the back bar first.”
This means coconut rum instead of coconut simple syrup, elderberry liqueur instead of elderberry infusion, and flavoured brandies rather than spending hours simmering a pot on a stove.
“Because I come from a very small program with not a lot of people and not a lot of space, I had to stay really really conscious of how much prep time we really have, how much energy we really want to expend.”
So when it came time to make a drink for Patron Perfectionists, Ess fell back on what she knew. There is a simple syrup, but it’s not flavoured. Other ingredients are Martini Rosso, Amaro Lucano, pineapple and lime juice and, because it’s their competition, Patron silver tequila.
The inspiration behind the drink came to Ess when she was living with her sister in Kingston, Ontario, saving money to move to Halifax. “The whole province was shut down so even if I wanted to do something, I couldn’t,” says Ess.
The drink is called the Golden Ratio, and it’s named after the mathematically mesmerizing image found often in nature and art.The whole drink is based around Amaro Lucano, one ingredient that will soon be taken off shelves in Ontario. “When it comes to our liquor stores, you hear there are certain products that are going to be delisted, and you’re not going to be able to work with anymore,” says Ess. That’s why there’s only a “bar spoon” full of the herbaceous, cola-style liqueur in her competition recipe. “It’s one of my favourite amaros,” says Ess. “I was like ‘we’ve got to be smart with the volume.’”
Hence the Golden Ratio—of Lucano to Patron and to other ingredients—was achieved. The drink is finished off with freshly grated nutmeg and served in a coup glass (full recipe below). Ess compares it to the classic drink the Jungle Bird, which she says is “a 1970s loungey kind of tropical-type cocktail.”
When finalists were announced in early summer 2021, Ess had almost forgotten she’d applied to Patron Perfectionists at all. “They narrowed it down to the top 30 of Canada. It was right before I moved to Halifax I made top 30, and that was really exciting,” she says.
This year, the pandemic forced all stages of the competition leading up to the finals to move online. Usually, the top competitors in Canada would travel to Toronto to make their drink recipe in person, but this year, the pandemic moved Canadian championships online, and Ess watched from a packed table of supporters at Dear Friend, along with co-competitor Andrew Keyes.
“It was a very weird thing to watch a video of judges tasting your drink when you were not the one to be there to make it,” she says.
But the detailed instructions Ess sent allowed the championship bartenders to craft the Golden Ratio perfectly for the judges, and Ess won the chance to represent the whole country.
“Winning a national is a really weird feeling,” she says. “It’s not the first one I’ve won, but every time it happens, you try not to think about the scope of it too much. For my own sanity,”
The next and final stage will come in spring 2022, when Ess travels to Guadalajara, Mexico to represent Canada alongside 13 other national winners.
“The last step of the Patron Perfectionists journey is that you go to the Hacienda, which is the Patron property,” she says. “It’s basically like tequila Disneyland. I’ve been wanting to go for years, so hopefully everything will track and we’ll all be able to go down there.”
And whether or not she walks away with the title of Patron Perfectionist 2022, Ess is happy to be representing Canada, Nova Scotia and Dartmouth.
“There are just so many incredibly talented, passionate people out here doing really wonderful things,” she says of the local cocktail scene. “It’s getting the attention that it absolutely deserves, so I’m just happy to be here and be part of it.”
The Golden Ratio recipe
1.5 oz Patrón silver
0.7 5oz Martini Rosso
1/8 oz cola-style amaro (Amaro Lucano if available)
1 oz fresh pineapple juice
0.5 oz fresh lime juice
0.5 oz rich simple syrup, to be added after dilution of first five ingredients (2:1 by volume of regular white granulated sugar:water. Bring to simmer on stovetop. Reduce for seven minutes. Chill completely before use.)
Garnish: freshly grated nutmeg
Build all ingredients minus simple syrup and nutmeg in shaker tin. Add ice. Shake to dilute and chill. Strain liquid back into shaker tin; discard ice. Add 0.5 oz rich simple syrup, and dry shake gently to incorporate. Strain in chilled coupe. Cover two thirds of surface of drink with notecard. Over exposed surface, grate fresh nutmeg to dust. Remove card. Enjoy.