Absinthe & Hospitality with Will Elliott at Maison Premiere
In the less than five years since they’ve opened, Maison Premiere has been nominated twice for a James Beard Award, for their Outstanding Bar Program. The result of a symbiotic relationship between their guests and the changes that have occurred since 2011, Maison Premiere exemplifies the qualities that the Foundation seeks in a nominee. And while it was an honor and an acknowledgement for the team to be short listed, their time in Chicago at the Awards demonstrated just what the nomination means. “It was fantastic to be surrounded by that degree of talent,” said Will Elliott of Maison Premiere. “You realize all of a sudden, that it’s not a competition at all, it’s an accolade. For many people, it’s a culmination of a lifetime. So to be four years and change old here, it was spectacular. It was a heady experience to be surrounded by all of those people. There’s no hierarchical thing of oh, you’re just a bar. It doesn’t matter. Nominees are nominees and everybody treated each other with the highest degree of hospitality. It’s the best hospitality people in the world, rising even higher above the occasion and treating each other with even more hospitality,” he continued. “It’s not about who made the best drinks of the year. It’s about so much more than that. It’s a combination of all of these factors that offer people a great day in and day our experience.” Which is exactly what you’ll experience when you cross through the threshold on Bedford Street.
Opening first as an oyster and cocktail bar, Maison Premiere has transformed according to the needs of their guests, even at times when their guests weren’t so aware of what they needed. With an emphasis on achieving superlative lists, they offer 30 oysters daily, along side a list of over 25 absinthes. At the start, said Will, “It was a learning curve for everyone involved. We had to learn a lot of information very quickly. Information that wasn’t very old to the U.S. absinthe hadn’t been legal for that long. Fast forward,” he continued, “and we started to see the needs of our guests change. We were all of a sudden developing a steady a cocktail program.”
In the beginning at Maison, cocktails were collaborative creations and adaptations by all members behind the bar. But looking back, Will believes that they were still trying to determine just what a Maison cocktail should be. Nowadays, Will conducts tastings with Josh and Krystof. “It’s amazing,” he said. “I don’t know that many owners who are tasting and keeping in touch with their product at that level, and analytically making suggestions and critiques. At the end of the day, they trust me now to be the taste person. And Maxwell [Britten] and I share in this process. We found, and have gotten no small amount of mileage, from reviving classic cocktails into really extravagant manifestations. Our Sherry Cobbler, our Mai Tai, our tableside martini service. You’re looking at all the factors of the story behind the drink. We’re interested in the back story,” Will continued. “There are these genres where you almost can’t not have a back story, like a craft distiller such as Germain-Robin. It’s almost impossible for those bottles to not have a specific story, or at least a short dialogue about where it came from, why it is popular.”
Legal in the U.S. since 2007, Absinthe has taken its time becoming a staple spirit in the American glass, but at Maison Premiere, their commitment to absinthe has paid off. At the start, guests inquired most frequently about its potential hallucinatory effects, and setting it aflame. “We went through this solid couple of years where it was an educational experience for all of us, not just for the guests. Even if you know all the broad text about absinthe, you can’t talk about a list 35 absinthe deep eloquently at all until you’ve spent some time with it. You need to spend time with all of these bottles, to get to know the theory behind the different styles. It’s changed a lot,” he continued. “Now people absolutely embrace it. It’s such a different demographic. People absolutely do just come in and drink Absinthe Drip, which is the traditional way. I’m trying to get people to drink Absinthe Frappe now because it’s that time of year. Absinthe Frappe is the other traditional way, which is just a ton of crushed ice and a tiny bit of sugar. It’s delicious and really good this time of year.”
Like whiskey or wine, absinthe comes in a wide range of styles. “The Germain-Robin is a really crazy anomaly absinthe, even on our list,” he said. “It’s unique. I could blind that anywhere. It’s so tea driven. It’s so minty. Almost like black tea notes, it’s not a full-on star anise kind of thing. It’s floral without being perfumed. They use locally sourced honey and apple, vis a vis the base spirit for the absinthe, and to me that explains a lot. There’s a beautiful quality to Germain Robin. It’s super distinct. In the right context, it’s the most gorgeous and irreplaceable flavor profile.”
With a lot of buzz humming around the absinthe and cocktails, there’s much to also be said about the wine list at Maison, which is curated by Krystof. With two of our favorite rosés Clos Cibonne and Ameztoi Rubentis on the list, there’s also Sebastien David Herluberlu by the glass. When Will noticed the number of chefs and somms and industry folk at the bar, he said, “I made it a personal ambition of mine to make cocktails for wine people and for the wine mentality. A lot of that was Krystof pushing notions of acidity in cocktails. And that’s always something that Krystof is either into or not into about a new cocktail that I’ll make. And obvious depth and layers of flavor. Mouthfeel and texture are now huge things for me in cocktailing. Playing on all those levels is as important to making great drinks, to making truly great drinks. It’s one thing to have a balanced drink. Anyone can make a balanced drink. It’s another thing to have all these things come together.”