London Bartender Talks Coffee, Cocktails, and Competition
Martin Ball shares on his start in bartending, plus his mixology inspiration
Last fall, Auchentoshan Three Wood Scotch Whisky held the competition of a lifetime — the Auchentoshan Switch. One U.S. bartender would be sent to London to work at the awarded 69 Colebrooke Row for two weeks, while one U.K. bartender would be sent to New York City to work at the esteemed Apotheke. We recently had the opportunity to meet and chat with winner Martin Ball, who works in London at Burger & Lobster, about his experience working in NYC for two weeks. (The winner from the U.S. was Charles Joly, head bartender at the Drawing Room in Chicago.) With his amazing sense of hospitality, professionalism, and dedication, we are sure we will see much more of Ball in the future.
SS: Why did you decide to start bartending? How long have you been bartending?
MB: I decided to start bartending back in 2008. I’ve been in the trade for more than 11 years but I’d just read Marco White’s autobiography and I wanted to get fully involved in just working my a** off — I’d always wanted to learn more about drinks so I off I went to London and started working for Match Bar Group and then worked a few more jobs on the side to learn more.
SS: What were you doing in the industry before you became a bartender? Why did Marco, a chef, inspire you to switch roles and work your a** off?
MB: So I started when I was 15 as a kitchen porter then progressed to the kitchen when I was 16 — my first head chef had worked in London at some big restaurants, most notably the Savoy and the Greenhouse; so from the get go I had a solid work ethic instilled in me. The first real cookbook I had was given to me by this head chef and it was Marco White's White Heat. It changed my perception about creativity and passion for the job. The way this book is written is fantastic — all the subtext that Marco adds and the recipes are outstanding. Every chef I’ve talked to has at some point used his recipe for lemon tart, in fact most chefs I know will swear by it — always make it an hour before service so that it’s still warm and fragrant when it goes out. This book was written during his time at Harvey’s — the SAS of the kitchen world back then — and again, pretty much any chef I’ve spoken to would give anything to go back in time and work in that kitchen, such is the legacy of the chefs it produced.
Anyways over time I realized that as much as I enjoyed the work in the kitchen, I just didn’t feel I had what it took maybe? I sometimes think that it was because of the lack of social life and I was still young and wanting to go skateboarding everyday; at this point I was living in my hometown. I feel that if it was the big city it wouldn’t have affected me as much as I would have been surrounded by like-minded peers. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted to be in the trade so I started working in pubs bartending. I became a valuable member of staff as I could cook and tend bar, which opened the door to management, and soon I was managing restaurants. It was too much too young, though, as I was 23 and getting paid good money but ultimately I wasn’t enjoying the utter ball-ache of writing rotas, counting stock, and all the other tedious crap that comes with the territory.
About 2008, Marco White released his autobiography and I was all over it. It stoked the fire again, reading about his life and career, utter devotion to his craft, and relating it back to White Heat and the time spent at Harvey’s. It made me want to feel that type of addiction to work and creativity. I thought about being a professional bartender, learning more about cocktails and spirits but also allowing me the rush of being "slapped" during a busy service, the creativity that comes with the job and the social aspect that I found lacking in the kitchen; the interaction and banter with customers. So I did my homework (courtesy of Diffords Guide 7) and got in contact with Match Bar and Milk & Honey, the same company owned both bars and I ended up working for them. At the same time to feed my work addiction I did free shifts at Flat White, an independent coffee shop which spearheaded the coffee revolution over here. Then I got another job in a small bistro where I got paid to essentially practice what I learnt at Flat White with less pressure. All my money went to books; I read, slept, and worked. Loved every minute of it, no rotas or staff issues or stock to think about, just roll up, make drinks, and shine.
So I have Marco White to thank for where I am today, he gave me the push I needed. On a side note, I met him once and got that first book signed with a message to the head chef who gave it to me.
SS: What do you love about bartending and this industry?
MB: Bartending is just a good mix of kitchen "get your head down" discipline and front of house "banter" interaction with guests. This industry is just fun; I get paid to stand around being creative and talking to people.
SS: Why did you decide to enter the Auchentoshan Switch?
MB: I’d been wanting to get to New York for the past couple of years; I’d even mailed Dale DeGroff to try and help me with a stage somewhere. Then boom! What do you know? This competition came along!
SS: What was it about New York that you were drawn to?
MB: Romanticism, the city that never sleeps means there’s always going to be somewhere I can work to fill the hours… haha… that and I used to read reviews of bars and then go to the website and if they had menus I’d download them or copy them out for ideas. Bartenders who would go there on cocktail safaris would come back with stories and probably elaborate on them to be honest, but it made New York sound like the mecca of bartenders. I also remember back in 2008 a couple of guys came back with tales of bar that had an entrance through a phone booth and I just wanted in straight away.
Funnily enough I had the fortune to meet Jim Meehan at the bar and he was kind enough to give me some time for a chat and a video for the blog I was asked to do by Auchentoshan; one of the nicest guys I’ve met and a genuine role model for all bartenders. His opinions on the service industry and bartending trends helped me answer questions I’d been asking of myself recently and I can’t thank him enough for that. He made me look at my career in a different light.
SS: What was the inspiration for your cocktail?
MB: Chocolate. As usual I was thinking about food, walking around a chocolate shop when I saw a cocoa-infused balsamic vinegar. After that I just thought about other logical flavors that could be incorporated into the drink to make it sound appealing to consumers — chocolate, coffee, orange — but I also wanted it to have a more technical approach in the way each ingredient came together. So the vinegar became a cocoa shrub and the sour element, the coffee, was single origin Kenyan that tends to have good citrus/berry notes; this was sweetened up to balance out the shrub. After that it was bitters, Auchentoshan 3 Wood and an orange twist.