As far as accolades in the cocktail world go, it’s hard to top a James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program—yet Will Elliott is hardly resting on his laurels. In addition to continuing to concoct astounding, absinthe-based libations at Maison Premiere (all but eclipsing its reputation for dollar oysters), he’s helped America get hip to Europe’s aperitif tradition with low ABV tipples at Sauvage. Though if you need something a bit stiffer, it’s hard to quibble with classics like a Mahon Xoriger gin martini: pre-batched, chilled, and poured to order with a garnish of caper berries, nasturtium blossoms, and juniper.
How did you become involved in your line of work?
I was invited to be involved in the opening of Maison Premiere by a friend of mine, Maxwell Britten. At the time, I was involved in a notorious bar/venue in Tucson called The Red Room. I was the proverbial starving artist/musician who started to enjoy hospitality behind the bar more than the stage. I fancied myself as transferring my rather obsessive personality from writing and music to drinking and food. At that time, I particularly loved the iconoclastic, jarring, contradictory parts of taste and restaurants. Some term it “high-brow, low-brow,” though I think that’s a bit of a box. I’ve always been intrigued by the fluid connection of “taste” across disciplines and industries.
Naturally, there’s a strong historic element in most cocktail bars, and at Maison Premiere, we carry the historic immersion to design, wardrobe, music, and of course, the cocktails. I enjoy the “cultural crossroads” phenomenon of a good bar or restaurant, and the clientele at MP is so varied that it is a constant source of inspiration and creativity. It’s not difficult to stay engaged and positive.
Tell us a little bit about your present work, the Cliffs Notes version of your day to day and what is at stake.
My day oscillates between cerebral and visceral. Lots of Excel, liquor portfolios, manager meetings, and Dropbox. Followed by tasting things I once never could have dreamed of. On a good day, I can’t remember all the emails sent, all the meetings had, all the bottles tasted, all the menu’s updated. It just blurs together, before I collapse into an over-caffeinated heap and try to drag myself to Diner or Four Horsemen. What’s at stake? The happiness of the inevitable line of guests waiting to eat oysters and drink cocktails. Also, a fairly large crew of talented hosts, servers, bartenders, and shuckers.
What do you find most fulling about your work?
That taste and discipline within hospitality is the best gift for one’s guests. As mentioned above, our guests bring inspiration and insight to my day-to-day. However, I have found that internal inquiry is where my longevity comes from… that, and I have a dangerously long attention span. I can keep myself interested in minutia like nobody’s business.
How would you say you helped shape Brooklyn bar culture?
I was lucky enough to be surrounded by two of the most visionary restaurant people I have ever worked with (Josh Boissy and Krystof Zizka), so by no means can I lay claim to any single-handed thing. I guess if I had to claim anything, I think I have a knack for going down rabbit-holes without being too overt or annoying about my interests. Hopefully!
I love to bring obscurity into the light. I love to share literal taste with people, to know exactly what’s going to happen for a person before they even raise the glass to their mouth. Shared experience and all that.
I also think I am a sucker for original aesthetic in cocktails. When Maison Premiere opened 6 years ago, I felt like it was very un-hip to care about garnish, glassware, etc…everyone loved to hate extravagance. Cocktail bartenders were drinking Keystone Lite and all that. And that’s fine. I happen to prefer Twisted Tea. But our industry seemed to delight in either being overly reverent, or flippant, and nothing in between. Hopefully, I brought a little of the “between” to the equation.
What do you hope changes or improves (or continues!) in your field in the future?
To be blunt, I would like to see the monopoly of mediocre big liquor brands offset by producers who actually care about sustainability, quality, terroir, and taste. That, and the art of contextual drinking that most countries mastered long ago. Time of day. Weather. Season. Food. Mood.
Who would you nominate for this list?
Garro Yellin, a cellist by trade, has played in so many weird, crazy, wonderful bands over the years. His presence in Brooklyn’s music and bar scenes has been subtle yet powerful. Simply, he is always one the coolest guys at the party, setting the tone effortlessly.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.