When Maison Premiere opened its doors in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood in 2011, the bar stood as a bit of an anomaly. Although the cocktail renaissance had already taken root, Maison bet all its chips on a highly stylized aesthetic and a love of absinthe, a newly re-legalized (but still esoteric) style of spirit. But the bet paid off, and the bar became not just a neighborhood favorite but a darling of the global cocktail scene. For the past decade-plus, William Elliott has been the welcoming face most associated with Maison, long serving as its bar director and, now, partner. With the bar’s first book, The Maison Premiere Almanac, releasing this April, we sat down to chat with Elliott about the evolution of the bar, why they were initially mocked, and what future projects are in store.
Imbibe: What was the vision for Maison Premiere when you first opened?
William Elliott: I was on the opening bar team, but I cannot underscore enough that the initial vision came from Josh [Boissy] and Krystof [Zizka], who are the co-founders. While they didn’t write the cocktail menu, they’ve always had a very particular vision for Maison’s cocktails. They always knew they wanted to make absinthe a centerpiece of the narrative of Maison. But I think in the back of their minds they also knew that was never going to be the ultimate hit, or a huge crowd-pleaser.
To this day it’s still kind of a niche genre. But I think it was a confluence of factors: There’s the whole idea of Maison being inspired by a trilogy of cities—New Orleans, New York, and Paris. And that’s always been part of our internal dialogue and understanding of the place. And all three of those places have a few things in common, one of which is definitely oysters and another is absinthe. And those are the two main things you think about when you think about Maison. Absinthe very much speaks of a time and a place, and it’s always had this sort of renegade appeal, of being the spirit of artists and entertainers and free thinkers. And I think that spirit is something Josh and Kristof wanted to embody—a combination of being free thinking and artistic about every endeavor.
How have you seen that vision evolve over the years?
Well, as I said, I think we knew absinthe wasn’t going to be the first choice for every guest that walked in. And we didn’t want to overly push it, but represent it in a fair and accurate way, which we didn’t see happening at that time in 2011. Absinthe had just been officially re-legalized in the U.S. But we knew it was never going to be an ultimately popular spirit category, so we recentered our focus on executing classic cocktails in a really relevant and grand way.
In 2011, I’m sure you can recall, garnish was not en vogue—I would say that point blank, full stop. We were actually made fun of for garnishing drinks with such a level of grandeur. What was en vogue was coupes with dark stirred drinks and no garnish. And I get it, at that point in the cocktail renaissance, it was restructuring things on ingredient-driven, serious cocktails. We’re a little younger than Death & Co, and Milk & Honey, and PDT. And while we love those bars, there were elements we wanted to bring to the cocktail game that we didn’t see happening, part of which was the focus on garnish, glassware. … And we really believed in acidic, refreshing, citrus-driven drinks at a time when I don’t think that was as popular.
Then around 2014-’15 we started to roll out these tableside services, like the Old King Cole Martini, the Sazerac service with three tiers available named after the three parishes surrounding New Orleans. We do an amazing Hot Toddy service now that people love. So there’s an element of theater that was not really prevalent in cocktail bars, or if it was, it was in that more smoking cocktail/apothecary style. We wanted to have something that felt like it could stand for generations.
It was a hip place to go if you were 22 years old and just moved to Brooklyn. It was also a hip place to bring your parents if they were visiting. And, god knows, to this day, grandparents love to come to Maison Premiere because they feel like it encapsulates a piece of history and it’s not just surface level.
Why have you stayed? What’s kept you there?
Working directly with Josh and Krystof and being able to participate in the creativity of their vision has been hands down the best creative relationship I’ve ever had in a restaurant. They are very rigorous in wanting more, but they also give you a lot of autonomy. And the pride of accomplishment is not a small thing to them—it’s very central. Obviously, watching Maison become a notable bar and be on the World’s 50 Best multiple times and winning a James Beard Award and other accolades, that certainly keeps you interested and competitive.
When we reopened after the pandemic, I became a partner in the company. So that’s a big part of the story. But we also know that we want to find new homes for new Maison Premieres around the country and around the world. We are also building out a space in the Lower East Side at the Hotel Rivington. It will be a luxe cocktail experience—very Great Jones, Hallston, nightlife-inspired—so not the period piece work that Maison Premiere is, much more contemporary.
How did the book project come together? Who has been involved?
I was the bar director at Maison Premiere for a long time, so I knew I would have a role in this book. When we originally signed the deal with Clarkson Potter in 2018, I don’t think I was supposed to be a co-author necessarily. But over time, working with Josh and Krystof, I have more or less become the mouthpiece. But it’s a cocktail book, so there was an element that I knew would fall heavily on me all along. I started to interact with Jordan Mackay, our co-author, pre-pandemic in early 2019. And we started having regular conversations, tasting through the whole menu and talking for hours about drink philosophies.
During the pandemic, I moved to California when the restaurant closed, and Jordan happened to be about two hours away. So several times we connected and were able to continue through the grittier part of the book—the cocktail-focused core, which was a lot of the heavy lifting. And once the world started to reopen, we started doing photo shoots and taking Jordan to oyster farms, and talking to Krystof about the wine program and Josh about the story of the initial inspiration. Everyone had a role.
Even the name is interesting—calling it an almanac. How is the information presented and how do you hope people will use it?
Obviously there’s sort of a timelessness to the idea of an almanac. It’s almost maybe going out of style. But I think it really speaks to this open-source sensibility, in sharing the vision, the techniques, and really empowering people to take whatever they want from Maison. If you want to re-create moments from Maison for yourself, it’s available to you.
We also make an effort to not get caught up in technical jargon. It’s a different kind of book, too, because it really delves into the set dressing and visuals behind Maison. I love the million different ways that people can come in and experience the bar. And I love to watch it—the different demographics and different ages. You can come in and have a $7 beer and some cheap oysters, or you can have a $700 bottle of Champagne and a grand seafood plateau, or drink reserve spirits from the 1940s.
We even have people reach out to us about recipes or what kind of candles we burn—they’re really interested in every detail, and I think that’s because we care about every detail. So this is enabling people to be able to re-create a moment of that.