A Long Chat With William Elliot, Bartender at Maison Premiere

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Photos by Austin McAllister

Maison Premiere is the kind of place that automatically makes you feel comfortable. The dollar oyster happy hour is known to be one of the best deals in town, but what people aren’t telling you is that the drinks are top notch. Poured with a smile by one of the nattily dressed bartenders, sipping on a cocktail at the horseshoe-shaped bar feels like you’re sitting somewhere far, far away from Brooklyn. Grab a seat in the backyard, which feels like attending someone’s Pinterest wedding, but in the best possible way, and strike up a conversation. This bar’s reputation may precede itself, but we’re happy to say that it lives up to the hype. We sat down with head bartender William Elliot to talk about mint juleps, America’s food adolescence and the need for drinks that force you to take your time. Check it out, below.

How’d you get your start?
I started when I was nineteen years old, so underage, on a little island off the coast of Maine,  It’s called Northhaven actually, off the coast of Rockland and Camden. I was in college, and running a seasonal restaurant with a friend of mine, I was sort of playing all positions in the front of the house, he was the back of the house. I was the only bartender in the only restaurant on this tiny little island for about, seven years. I was serving Captain and Cokes to fishermen. Fishermen and presidents. It’s kind of crazy.

Let’s talk a little more about the menu, and the bar’s theme. It’s New Orleans inspired, right?
It’s equal parts New Orleans, French Quarter and Paris and horseshoe bars in Paris. Horseshoe, is you know, obviously this shaped style of the bar, but it’s a unique feeling sitting at the bar, it’s a unique design because everyone’s involved, with each other. You’re involved with the bartender, there’s no hiding spot for the bartender, there’s no hiding spot for another guest, you’re all like, participating in this feeling, so definitely New Orleans and Paris. The French had their hands in a lot of things, so definitely the Islands. Agricole rums are protected by the French government, just like Champagne and Cognac, by their AOC laws, so these are rums that exist in Martinique, Lucian rums, Jamaican rums.  All of it sort of fed the texture of the way we approach making drinks.

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Seasonal drinks? I imagine if there’s this much thought involved, then seasonal drinks is something you definitely think about.
I think a nice one that’s really reflective of the summer is a cocktail called Made to Measure. It’s being served ini a giant snifter, on just a huge rock of ice, and the base spirit is Genniver gin. There’s fresh strawberries, there’s fresh lemon juice, there’s Sapine, which is an herbal elixir from the Pyrenees in France, and it’s very similar to Chartreuse, it adds this very gorgeous herbal green element. The drink itself is sort of the hue of an underripe strawberry and then we just atomize it with a little bit of cumil, which is a cumin liquor, created by the Dutch, and by Denmark. It stays in the snifter, because of the shape of the glass, the spritz just kind of stays in the snifter, you’re forced to smell it, it’s kind of like being forced to smell a field in the summer. There’s nothing confrontational about it. It’s not a stiff drink, it’s not a particularly serious drink, it’s just an acknowledgement of sitting in a garden somewhere.

Juleps feel like a quintessentially Southern drink, more so than anything else, and you guys have abut 6 of the on the menu, so could you tell me a little more about them?
I always say it’s the front porch drink of the South. It was actually popular too, in the MId-Atlantic and New England states. I think everybody get’s that it’s a bourbon drink, and always mint’s involved, and also served in a silver or silver plated tin, um, you know, so it conducts the cold, frosts up on the outside. It also hd a lot to do with straws, and the new invention of a straw, it also had a lot to do with something called a julep spoon, — a really broad spoon — that would just cover the entire  top of the cup, because people’s teeth were very poor back then, and sensitive to the cold, so it would keep the ice off the teeth.

Theres all sorts of history with julep, but most essentially, it’s an aromatic drink, I like to remind people of that. We like to fool around with the genre, and use all different aromatic elements, so on one of our juleps, there’s shaved candied Marcona almonds on top. I never knew that Marcona almond would smell terrific until I tried it one day with a microplane, and I was like “holy moly!” You can do all sorts of things, we finish one with a single malt scotch, the key is the …you shouldn’t really taste mint in a julep. it’s an aromatic feature.You shouldn’t be tasting mint, you should be smelling mint  and the straw should be plead very specifically in the mint so your nose is taking it in every time.

Do you have a favorite drink to make?
Contextually, for this place, theres an old cocktail from the south called a la Louisiane , and it’s basically a Manhattan variation from the thirties, created in New Orleans, it has dashes of absinthe and Peychaud’s bitters, and then Benedictine, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, so it’s really just a couple of ingredients away from a Manhattan, but it is delicious and round and much more complex than a Manhattan. It sorta has all the things that make New Orleans cocktails New Orleans cocktails, Peychaud’s bitters, absinthe. When I train new bartenders, I tell them, if you’re not making like, five or ten of these every day, you’re not representing us well, like, when people put it in your lap, and they say what would you like to make me that represents this place, that’s the drink. While not necessarily always what I want to drink, that’s perfect, classic for anybody. I think it’s approachable no matter who you are.

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Are there any trends that you like, don’t like? Things?
I like low-alcohol cocktails. I think that comes back to the context of drinking. American culture for so long has been like, you know, once it’s night time, you know, then you start having your drinks, and it’s with this, express purpose of getting wasted, a lot of the times, it is, especially in certain ages and certain demographics…

This neighborhood, perhaps, sometimes?
Yeah, but, on the flip side, this neighborhood does rise to the occasion, this neighborhood can do it really beautifully. People come in and line up at 3:30 to get in, often down the block, and granted a large part of that is due to oysters and everything. I think part of it is is our perspective because of oysters, you don’t want something competing with something delicate, so as food becomes more and more a part of people’s consciousness…I think America’s like, sort of coming out of its adolescence when it comes to food awareness. You know, other cultures have long histories. We don’t. We’re kids. Now, I think we’re sort of starting to come out of that and we’re realizing that alcohol can have this amazing symbiosis with food. Just something that you can have two or three of, in the middle of the afternoon, and have some food along with it, complements it perfectly, and you’re not blowing out your taste buds, your palate, you know. So that’s something I like.

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