There are few bars more enchanting than Maison Premiere, which opened on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg earlier this year. It’s not just the lush, romantic garden, or antique-looking absinthe drip, or bustling oyster-shucking station. But rather that all these feel like they’ve been there forever. You don’t feel like you’re in a gimmicky New Orleans-themed bar in Williamsburg. You’re just in Brooklyn, sipping absinthe or mint juleps or beer in jam jars and slurping $1 oysters, should you happen to show up between the happy hours of 4 and 7 p.m. Head bartender Maxwell Britten explains how it all came together.
What was your vision for the drinks at Maison Premiere?
The design of the menu is inspired by New Orleans: French influence and Spanish inspiration and obviously American, as well. The absinthe fountain is a replica of the one at the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. I guess that’s the shrine to everything that we do at the bar, as far as the drinks go. Making absinthe drinks can be very ceremonial.
Have you always been into absinthe, or is it something you had to read up on?
Before I started working on this program, I definitely sipped on my fair share of absinthe and kept a few bottles of my own in my apartment. But, as a category to focus on, not until I was approached to work on this program did I really, really dive into it.
What is the best way to dive into absinthe, for newbies, say?
We break it down to an easy-to-understand format. Absinthe comes in two expressions: You have your vertes and your blanches. The absinthe we carry at Maison Premiere has no additives, no sugar, no coloring. It has to have all natural ingredients, including wormwood, anise, fennel, and lemon balm. For a verte to become a verte, its ingredients have to macerate long enough to develop that color. So, the verte is traditionally a little more aggressive than the blanche. [Blanche is a nice way to start] to appreciate the more delicate flavors in absinthe.
Do you have to deal with any crazy absinthe obsessives?
Yeah, the Wormwood Society is probably the number-one absinthe forum in the world. It’s ran by a bunch of absintheurs, if you will. They found Maison Premiere and most of them are really, really into it. They like to talk about absinthe and share it with other people and they appreciate that there’s a venue now that dispenses it and observes the traditional service and quality. I definitely get those guys in here and they’re usually really nice.
Not like cocktail geeks?
They’re actually a lot nicer than the cocktail enthusiasts who drill you and play “stump the bartender” all the time. I’ve had people come in and bring me pre-ban absinthe and really cool antiques. It’s been really interesting to hang out with people from the absinthe world.
You won the 2009 StarChefs Rising Star Mixologist? Did it do a lot for you?
It has definitely elevated my career in a lot of ways. I think that most people think when they get that award that everything is going to change overnight. It is a great accolade and honor and is something that I’ll always have with me. But it’s one of those things you have to continue to have to work for. You really have to engage and network yourself.
Are you going to Tales of the Cocktail?
Yes, definitely. We are going full throttle at Tales. Not everything is finalized with the parties we’re going to be involved with. But we’re going to be pairing up with Pernod Absinthe and we’re going to be at the Bartender’s Breakfast. We might be the second bar from Brooklyn ever to be invited to it, so that was definitely an honor. Where do you like to drink when you’re not at your own bar?
I guess wherever my friends are. I don’t get to hang out with my friends as much as I used to. Whether we’re having a drink at a great cocktail bar or just chillin’ on someone’s rooftop, it’s all about the company for me. If I had to give you a bar, I really like to go to Prime Meats. It’s a great bar. Dram is around the corner from us and those guys are cool. I guess this year is all about Brooklyn for me. I haven’t really been spending too much time in Manhattan. I’ve been feeling a lot of pride for Brooklyn lately.
Why is Brooklyn so hot these days?
It’s the next generation in New York, as far as great bars and restaurants go. There’s a lot more creativity going on. There’s a lot more space. It just makes sense. Manhattan is so much more cutthroat. As far as what can be done, it’s far more limiting, just because of the price of things and the people that come through and what they’re expecting. There’s just a lot more young people in Brooklyn because there’s so much more opportunity.
What’s your go-to drink at home?
I guess it’s whatever absinthe I’m trying to get to know a little bit better. One of my favorites is probably the Pacifique Absinthe Verte from Washington, made by Tempus Fugit Spirits. I spent a good amount of time getting to know that one.
What’s your ideal louching ratio (water:absinthe)?
I’m into the really aggressive vertes. I really like bitters, heavy flavors. I don’t add any sugar to it. It’s sort of the same thing with coffee people. They really want to taste the bean. So, I usually go for a pretty traditional ratio, usually one part absinthe to five parts water.
What do you recommend after an absinthe bender?
Oh, jeez. I don’t get hungover. Pedialyte is one method people go for. But that stuff is pretty expensive and you’re not always going to be able to make it out of bed to the pharmacy. So, anything that has a lot of electrolytes like Vitamin Water or Gatorade. Or just have a lot of water and if you still have a headache then take an Advil.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 15, 2011