This Is What Creativity Means to Marta Ess

The Toronto-based bartender on how a 25-year career in dance informs her approach to drinks, the one piece of advice she gives young bartenders and the recipe for her cocktail, The Inward Turn.

When Marta Ess was three years old, her mother put on a recording of Louis Armstrong’s “It’s A Wonderful World,” transforming young Marta into a whirling dervish, cavorting around the living room. The very next day, she was enrolled in ballet class—the first step in what became a 25-year dance career that would evolve into bartending.

Though Ess has now hung up her professional dancing shoes, she continues to find parallels between the art form and the bartending vocation. “They’re both physically demanding, they both require practice and repetition, the schedules are erratic and hectic, but mostly they’re both performative,” says Ess. “You’re performing night after night and constantly giving so much of yourself to others.”

Ess’ creative zeal is something that she inherited from her mother. “My mom was a dreamer,” she says. Her parents, political émigrés from Poland, fled in 1981 amidst the crackdown on the labor-allied Solidarity movement. They were assigned to settle in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where Ess was born.

At 18, living in Montreal and pursuing her dance career, Ess took a job in a surf-and-turf restaurant; around the same time, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential opened her eyes to the color and adventure that could be found in the service industry. But it wasn’t until her late 20s that she began considering retiring from dance and focusing all her energy on bartending, after a chance meeting with a bartender led to a job with a well-known hospitality group. There, she developed a serious dedication to craft cocktails and taking genuinely good care of guests. “I found myself surrounded by people who live and breathe hospitality,” she says. “I always tell young bartenders: Do at least one year corporate.”

Over the winding course of her career, Ess has developed a style that is intuitive, unfussy and direct. She tries as much as possible to rely on spirits and liqueurs from the backbar, as opposed to making her own syrups. “It’s easy to get lost in making syrups. I like to stay focused and simple and clean.”

She’s also generally of the “first thought, best thought” school: “I’m a big believer in not tinkering too much,” she says. “You need to mix that drink and walk away… Have confidence and go with your gut.”

In addition to drawing on her dance experience, Ess finds inspiration in travel—nearly every trip she takes is, in part, R&D, as she beelines to nearby bars to sample drinks and pick bartenders’ brains. She’s already contemplating a themed menu built around her travels over the past year, which have taken her from Chicago to Armagnac. “I’d really like for my drinks to be a kind of time capsule, so I can look back on this list and remember how crazy 2019 was.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Dance.

How does it inspire you?
Finding the parallels between the dance world and bartending world is fascinating (physicality, uncertain hours, constantly performing for an audience).

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Always double-check your work. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions.

Describe your creative process in one sentence.
Physically handwriting—putting pen to paper.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
Reminding myself of my love and passion for dance, and, now that I no longer do it professionally, that I can simply do it for fun.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
Honey, I am grown. But I’ve always said one day I’ll grow up to be Debbie Harry in the ’80s.

Worst thing you ever drank:
Probably a concoction of spent condiments mixed in a water glass after a meal out while in middle school, I’d reckon.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Nothing is weird anymore.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
I love to go to the gym and box, or—on the opposite end of the spectrum—lie in bed with my cat, Turkey, while binge-watching rubbish on Netflix.

If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Diorama by Silverchair, Ctrl by SZA, or 40oz. to Freedom by Sublime.

What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
Boxing, because never in my life did I think I’d do it and love it so much.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
Everything will work out. Just relax, darling.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Anything that asks to add “a splash of grenadine,” probably.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Old-Fashioned or Corpse Reviver #2.

Dive bar?
Pint of basic bitch lager and a shot of whisk(e)y.

The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
Pretension.

The last text message you sent:
Birthday greetings to my nephew.

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