Absinthe: A Revival of Long-Lost Spirits in New York

Absinthe: A Revival of Long-Lost Spirits in New York

Here we met Will Elliott, bar director of Maison Premiere and Sauvage, who over the last six years has guided Maison to be crowned number 20 in The World’s 50 Best Bars awards.

a stroll along Williamsburg’s bustling Bedford Avenue and
you’re likely to find your way to the unassuming, quietly elegant
Maison Premiere. With its faded-green exterior and
pre-prohibition decor, it’s a place which is truly transportive in
time. The Parisian-esque cocktail den and oyster bar is dipped in
style – a nod to a more glamorous era of decadence and
mischief when absinthe flowed as the bohemian’s drink of choice.
Inside, a horseshoe-shaped bar and classic absinthe fountain pay
homage to the bar’s Deep South roots, while outside a twinkling,
lush garden provides an oasis that whisks you a million miles from
the concrete, metropolitan reality.

A short ramble from Maison Premiere in nearby Greenpoint is
sister restaurant, Sauvage. A new addition to the family, this
younger sibling is somewhat more wild, with an adventurous menu and
more rustic feel. On the night we visited, we approached to find a
gorgeous, model figure leaning willow-like against the exterior
wall, dragging louchely on her cigarette. We briefly wondered if
she’d been hired to stand there to give the place an air of
fashion… But on stepping through the door, we realised the crowd
inside were equally handsome.

Here we met Will Elliott, bar director of Maison Premiere and
Sauvage, who over the last six years has guided Maison to be
crowned number 20 in The World’s 50 Best Bars awards, as well as
picking up the prestigious James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar
Program. With a penchant for old and rare liqueurs, and a
dress-sense as sharp as his palate, Will is undoubtedly one of

New York’s
most captivating hosts. We sipped a cocktail and
settled in to talk absinthe, Arizona and Hermès ties…

How did you begin your journey into spirits and cocktails?

It’s a funny road! I could trace it back to being a kid; my
parents didn’t drink but they kept Pernod for cooking. The first
time I remember smelling it – an intense smell which reminded me of
jelly beans and liquorice – I guess it opened up my palate to
accepting really brave flavours. From then I learnt to enjoy
challenging flavours. I started bartending at a young age at a
seasonal restaurant off Maine. It wasn’t fancy but I spent a good
few years there. I was able to do a lot of tasting and take my
palate on an adventure – I became fascinated by grappa. I’d spend
the other half of my years in Tucson, Arizona where I played music,
so I bartended as a way of supporting myself.

You’ve had a huge year of winning awards and opening a second
restaurant. How have you kept up with everything?

Well, it’s exhausting! To state the obvious, if you’re in it for
the winning of awards you’re never going to have the energy to keep
up with the bigger picture. Maintaining some sort of ongoing rhythm
and having a direction, that’s important. It’s daunting, sometimes
it’s really humbling; it can be all kind of things. But having a
clear, focused direction is key.

Sauvage must feel like a new baby in the family. How do you
make sure both bars have their own personality?

Maison started as an oyster and cocktail bar; it has a delicate
and ethereal sort of dining. With Sauvage, it’s a little lustier
with a bigger style of plating and more rustic dishes. The drinks
are also more delicate; a lot of the things we make at Sauvage use
high-elevation herbal liquors from the
French and Swiss Alps
– flavourful and indicative of place and

You use a lot of rare liquors in that menu, tell us about

We make some classics like a really great martini or collins,
but the ingredients and spirits make them different. A lot of the
things that make these interpretations unique are really kind of
nerdy choices in what bottles we’re using. I guess a lot of it
comes down to sourcing and finding unusual things. Because I think
that you can make ordinary cocktails taste rather extraordinary if
you just change the tiniest little ingredient.

We can’t talk to you without mentioning absinthe. You’re
credited with its revival in New York…

Yeah, I should mention my good friend Maxwell who was the
opening bar manager back at the beginning of Maison. We went
through several years of trying to taste as much as we could, as
crazy as that sounds…

Those must have been a fun few years!

It is a really beautiful spirit that speaks to terroir just like
wine, it’s interlocked with wine in a geographic sense. You add
five parts water to one part absinthe so you heavily dilute it down
to the same alcohol content as a glass of wine. You’re sipping it
in the same way, it’s aromatic, you smell it, you’re probably
swirling it in the glass. It contradicts all the novelty that
surrounds it and reminds you of a more historic context, it reminds
you that actually it was started very medicinally. I’m a sucker for
history and for a story and absinthe has one of the most amazing
lineages over the course of two hundred, three hundred years. I
love it.

You even have an absinthe fountain at Maison.

America has a long history of absinthe production that predates
prohibition – there are even local styles of absinthe in American
cities. New Orleans for us was a huge inspiration. The Old Absinthe
House down there is a highly historic bar; every walk of humanity
from pirates to presidents have been through that bar and it
continues to stay open to this day which is pretty cool. The
fountain we have is an exact replica of theirs – it’s a spiritual

You’re known for your snappy dress sense – rumour has it you
have quite a tie collection?! Where do they come from?

I get a kick out of the crossover of fashion and food industries
and I’m drawn to the aesthetics. The neckties started
unintentionally and now I have two hundred of them.
has so many awesome thrift stores, such as Beacon’s
Closet and Buffalo Exchange. I’m a sucker for Hermès ties so can
find all of the good stuff pretty easily and it’s usually on the
way to work or something.

Will Elliott’s Insider Guide to New York

How do you spend a day off?

A bike ride and daytime drinking; The
is great during the day. There’s an amazing beer bar
called the Spuyten Duyvil where the bar staff love to make
you try all the things. There’s also Diner, which reminds me of
eating at St John Bread & Wine in London due to the
sincerity of the food.

What’s the best way to explore the city?

Self-guided, unplanned walks around town. Upper Manhattan
architecture in super interesting and a weekend walk there is

Where do you go for a relaxed dinner?

There’s a little Vietnamese place on the border of Ridgewood and

called Bunker. It started by a couple of very
buffs, but they’re also like skater kids, running the
space out of an old garage. It’s not quite as sketchy as it sounds!
There’s a lot of amazing techniques and they serve some of those
most flavourful, delicious and crave-able food in the city.

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