In a city as demanding, unsentimental, and fast-churning as New York, most bars don’t make it to a decade of age. Themed or theatrically inclined bars, whether focused on a concept, location, era, or particular spirit, seem particularly unlikely to age well—or at all. And yet, one that opened in 2011 seems to be going as strong as ever.
Its name has become nearly synonymous with the term “absinthe bar,” and its aesthetic, vaguely identifiable as New Orleans or Paris or New York somewhere between the 1880s and 1930s, is surely recognizable by now to most bar-goers who have ever set foot in Brooklyn.
We can only be talking about Maison Premiere, the absinthe-and-oyster-bar in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn that Joshua Boissy and Krystof Zizka opened in 2011.
Maison Premiere won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program in 2016; it has appeared multiple times on the World’s 50 Best Bars list. Many of the bartenders on its opening team have gone on to open their own well-known bars and lead their own programs. One, William Elliott, stayed on and rose through the ranks, becoming the head bartender and then the bar director, and is now a managing partner of Maison Premiere’s parent business, Premiere Enterprises.
Mid-pandemic, the bar’s website and social media presence went dark; a rumor spread that it had closed for good, and its many fans collectively flipped out. When it reopened in the summer of 2021, lines once again formed out the door. Its marble-topped horseshoe bar resumed its status as the ultimate first-date spot; its back garden is once again one of Brooklyn’s most popular destinations and will be transformed into a seasonal experience for the winter. A book is currently underway.
Obsessive, Theatrical Detail
How has this bar, with its fairly narrow focus of absinthe and oysters, not only remained open 10 years after opening but also fresh and relevant, a desirable destination for industry folks as well as more casual cocktail-drinkers?
It’s mainly the bar’s combination of theatricality and an obsessive attention to detail, according to Elliott. “There’s a lot of theater to Maison, but then there’s an incredible amount of nitty-gritty detail and product knowledge to back up that level of theater,” he says. “I think it’s really rare to have those two things. A lot of places are like, ‘No theater!’ and all super-serious plating and super-serious sommeliers. I think we wanted to do it all, so we want the great uniforms, the perfect soundtrack, but we also want the best cocktails in the world.”
As an example of the bar’s attention to detail, Elliott cites the rocks glasses, specifically chosen because the five-sided chunky double-rocks glasses are the iconic Sazerac glasses used in New Orleans, he says. “We could’ve gone for something sleeker or more modern, but we chose to honor that sort of detail.” The same goes for the bar’s water glasses, selected because they’re similar to typical tavern glasses from the 1800s, he says. “All those little details mattered to us from the beginning, and of course when you apply all that stuff to the rigor of making the drinks, that attention to detail plays into the way we spec our recipes and garnish our drinks.”
You’re likely to first clock that level of detail, and certainly the theatricality, upon walking through the door. The space, which previously had been two illegal apartments, according to Elliott, was fully gutted and completely reimagined into the bar’s concept, with its horseshoe bar and gas lamps, a fan languidly turning overhead. From the beginning, he says the bar aimed for a sense of timelessness and “updating history in a way that’s larger than life. … A lot of the time, people who walk into Maison Premiere compare it to feeling like they’re in a movie or on a movie set, because it’s such an immersive experience.”
As Pete Wells put it when he wrote up the bar soon after it opened: “Maison Premiere is a fake that sometimes improves on the original. … At Maison Premiere, the set-dressing is taken to another plane. You don’t believe the place has been sitting on Bedford Avenue for ages. Instead you feel as if you’ve slipped through a wormhole to the French Quarter in the late 1800s. Telephones and lightbulbs are still an implausible rumor. Absinthe is not just legal but safer than drinking water.”
Remember the natty dress code most bars left back in the early 20-teens? It lives on strongly at Maison Premiere, with staff in bow ties, vests, suspenders, and the like. The attire suits the vintage aesthetic, but it’s also an essential component of the bar’s ethos. “Getting dressed up to work behind the bar puts you in a mindset of getting ready for something special,” says Elliott. “It gets you into the mindset of being a host.” In addition, each bartender brings in their own bar tools, adding a level of personality. “That’s just one of a million little details that make up Maison,” he says. “The whole idea of Maison is based on that layered effect of so many things you couldn’t even notice all of them. It provides authenticity. Rather than feeling staged, it feels real.”
A lot has changed in the cocktail world since the bar first opened its doors in early 2011. Not least, people are familiar with cocktails in a way most weren’t a decade ago. “We opened our doors at the later-beginning of the so-called ‘cocktail renaissance,’” says Elliott. At first, “It was always a process to describe not just absinthe, but what an Old Fashioned or a Whiskey Sour is. Most classic cocktails took some level of explanation.” Absinthe, he says, was especially tricky to talk about because of all the misconceptions surrounding it. “We had to gently instruct people that it shouldn’t ever be lit on fire or thrown back as a shot,” he says. “And it took effort for the staff to not just learn all of these things themselves, but also to know how to talk about it in a gracious, welcoming, inclusive way rather than to just be reciting facts or presuming that people should know these things already.”
Now, of course, most bar guests have a higher base level of knowledge, and many are already cocktail, or even absinthe, aficionados. “Rather than having to convince or win over the general public, it’s much more an enthusiasm shared now, rather than one that has to be simply conveyed,” says Elliott.
The bar itself has certainly played a role in the rise of cocktail culture. “Williamsburg is known globally as being one of the neighborhoods that leads taste and the conversation around taste,” says Elliott. “Brooklyn, and Williamsburg itself, have become brands, and I think we’ve been witness to that and a part of the conversation revolving around beverage, so that’s been very exciting.”
You’ll see nearly as many classic cocktails as unique concoctions on Maison Premiere’s menu. “A big part of the innovation we do is recapturing really special drinks and framing them in a different way,” says Elliott, naming the house versions of the Sherry Cobbler and Jungle Bird as reworked cocktails he’s particularly proud of. When it comes to creating his own cocktails, “I like making drinks that either appear very simple but are actually very complicated, or sound very complicated but are actually very simple,” he says.
As an example of the latter type of drink, Elliott names his Wolcott Express. It has just four ingredients, “but no one’s ever heard of any except the lime cordial,” he says, which also has the benefit of making the drink difficult to replicate at other bars. As for the former type, he cites his Peacock Throne, which he describes as a “gently bitter gin gimlet” that requires eight or so ingredients. “It’s a very complex drink to make in terms of the number of ingredients,” he says. “But it tastes very simple.”
The bar also offers a variety of tableside services, for Martinis and Sazeracs, and soon for Hot Toddys. “I think in this era of less-is-more, almost to an extreme in a lot of bars and restaurants, we maintain a more-is-more attitude,” says Elliott, laughing. “People love the extravagance of having a drink made in front of them at their table.”
Those tableside services, while proving a surprise success for the bar when they first launched five or six years ago, also illustrate another aspect of why the bar has endured. Essential to the bar’s success, according to Elliott, is a willingness to drop ideas that aren’t working, rather than trying to force them. The team doesn’t consider abandoned ideas to be mistakes, even though they might seem that way in the short term; it often turns out the idea was simply ahead of the curve. In addition to an overly ambitious ill-fated tasting-menu circa 2014 or so that was quickly dropped, Elliott mentions a Ti’ Punch tableside service that didn’t prove popular enough to continue. That was three or four years ago; in the meantime, Ti’ Punch has become much more well-known. “It’s just about choosing timing and not having an ego about ‘This has to work; this has to work now,’” he says. “I think we’ve been around long enough that we see the holistic way that things happen.”
Overall, Elliott says, it boils down to a level of passion shared by the bar’s staff. “There’s this level of intensity, but very positive intensity, behind the bar,” he says. “It’s infectious to the extent that servers want to borrow bar books and educational materials, they want to learn more. So that level of passion and enthusiasm, which is contagious among the staff, is contagious to the general public as well.”
And as to why Elliott himself has stayed on for a decade, an unusually long tenure in the bar world? His answer is simple. “No other bar made me feel as much like a bartender as working at this bar.”