Mikey Ball On How To Make The Best Gin Cocktails.

Mikey Ball’s decade long career has taken him around the world and has garnered international acclaim in the process, including “Best International Hotel Bar“, “Best International Bar Team” and “World’s Best Bar”. Back home in New Zealand, he still serves as chief mixologist, as well as East Imperial’s brand ambassador. We got a chance to pick his mind on the all important topic of gin, as well as what it’s like working in some of the best bars in the world.

Bartending has pretty much taken you around the entire world and back again, was it something you were expecting would take you to such far flung locals?

Not at all. The reason for heading overseas in the first place was to discover what was out there in the land of bartending, what we didn’t have in New Zealand and most of all, follow the leads of the few internationally-recognised bartenders I had met through competitions, tastings and events. In my head, there was a lot to learn and although I had 10 years of experience under my belt in NZ, the best way to learn was to start from scratch in one of the world-leading cocktail cultures.
I feel like I was pretty lucky, to be perfectly honest, to not only work in the places I did and in the roles I worked towards, but the biggest part for me was the creative teams I was surrounded by. It’s genuinely what makes this industry great!

How was it like working in Dubai?

Dubai is great. It’s a quasi-Vegas in the middle of the UAE, which is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it truly was a bit of a city from the future. Overall, it was a massive culture shock for me to see how commercial and how “Americanised” it all was.
I was there at a midpoint where some great bars and restaurants were starting to pop up and there was also a huge expat population of hospitality-driven people in similar boots to me. The drinking culture was getting stronger and areas outside of hotels were starting to open up for nightlife, drinking and dining.

Recently, I feel like there’s been a big boom here in New Zealand for gin. A lot of new distilleries are popping up everywhere, or is it just me?

Both are right, there are new distilleries popping up a lot for sure, but there are also a lot of pre-existing brands in New Zealand really pushing their products more. The level of quality has truly ramped up and with more gins comes more competition.
I think outside of our favourites and classics, we are looking for that little bit more, that story and reasoning behind why it’s “not just another gin”. It’s great to see local brands really tackling this, building story, reasoning and tradition into their blueprint

Do you think NZ has a lot of catching up to do in comparison to places like the UK?

I think overall, yes, we are quite far behind. But some of the smaller things we specialise in we do really well at. Granted we don’t have a huge cocktail following and understanding, or a massive passion for thoughtful spirits and wine, but we are getting there and with a small population like ours, this takes a few more years than most.
Look how our beer has boomed, and similarly with the last 25+ years of our wine industry. They have both gone through massive transformations, from back shed potions, to refined and consistent production systems in the aid of ensuring their products are refined and delicious

Normally when I’m doing a gin run, I, like most plebs, will just grab a bog standard tonic. Helping me take my first adventurous steps out of this habit, what would you recommend me grabbing instead?

Grab something you had never tried before. Why not? Try and be as open minded as possible and take recommendations, often the passionate salesperson is your best tool here. I do the same when ordering wine at a restaurant, we should always be on the hunt for new great products. You never know, you might find your new favourite.

What would you serve to someone who’s looking for a better refreshment than the classic cocktails?

A Gin & Tonic is the ultimate, but there are so many other popular quenchers out there which fit the bill, among them, Dark & Stormy’s, The Bramble, or even a simple Collins. One of my go-to’s at the moment is a Sherry and East Imperial Grapefruit Tonic or even Vermouth and tonic, with something citrus-driven, like yuzu or orange as a garnish.

Is there a general rule of thumb or mnemonic device for knowing which tonic we should match with each gin?

Not really. There are two ways of looking at it. You can match flavours from tonic to gin and it will most likely work. Or you can try and contrast the flavours of both the gin and the tonic, often this leads to a match made in heaven.

For instance, a gin with a lack of citrus and predominant coriander flavour could be contrasted perfectly with East Imperial Yuzu Tonic, adding that citrus element to make the beverage whole.

I think the main tip from me here is to read up about the products, both gin and mixer, then you will be steered in the right direction to finding a gem. It’s all a game of R&D.

Do you have a personal favourite combination, or do you mix it up every time?

I play around with it a lot. Currently I’m enjoying a little Fino Sherry & East Imperial Grapefruit Tonic. But for me it comes down to the time, setting, weather and of course, my mood. Like anyone else, sometimes you just want a beer and a dram!

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