Stories / Interviews, Awards

Interview with Maxwell Britten of Maison Premiere

Anna Mowry

Anna Mowry

April 14, 2014


Maxwell Britten of Maison Premiere

With its rigorous cocktail program, romantic environs, and dapper staff, Outstanding Bar Award nominee Maison Premiere is an oasis of Old World style in Brooklyn’s Pabst Blue Ribbon country. Below, beverage director Maxwell Britten tells us about his favorite drink on the current menu, the first recipe he mastered as a young barkeep, and how to make a great mint julep for your Kentucky Derby bash.   


JBF: How would you sum up the Maison Premiere philosophy?

MB: I think the overall goal is to have a transporting experience for our guests. We try to do this through both visuals and the menu. As you walk in the door, the first thing you see is the horseshoe bar. You see the absinthe fountain made of green marble, and the pristinely dressed bartenders with suspenders and slicked-back hair. And then there's the menu, which is like an archive: it has an enormous selection of spirits, many small-grower wines, over 30 cocktails, and our oyster selection. It's sensory overload. All of these details make up the ultimate experience for our guests.

JBF: What's your favorite drink on the menu right now?

MB: The Magnolia Guard. It's like a cracked-out iced tea. It's probably the most unassuming drink we have because it’s made with random ingredients that, on paper, seem like they wouldn’t work together. It even has an artisanal malört. A lot of bartenders wouldn't know what to do with malört. I wanted to be one of the first bars to use it in a drink.

Brooklyn's Maison Premiere, a nominee for the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program

JBF: What was the first cocktail that you mastered in your early days as a bartender?

MB: Now that I'm more experienced, I feel like it would have been better for me to master something classic, like an Old-Fashioned or a Manhattan. But the first drink I mastered was the Widow’s Kiss, which is pretty out there for a beginning bartender. I was drawn to all the geeky, nerdy stuff about mixology, and I liked waxing poetic on dark and boozy stirred cocktails.

JBF: Right now you guys have several juleps on your menu for spring. What are your tips for making a great julep at home?

MB: The coolest thing about a julep is that it has pretty basic ingredients. You don't want to mess with it too much, but there are a few touches that can make it more special for guests:

Buy the cups on Cocktail Kingdom. They can be kind of expensive, but a good julep tin is the definition of what a true julep is.

Get a rubber ice mold for big ice cubes. When you take them out, you can crack them and they kind of crumple into the tin. For julep ice, a lot of people use what’s called a Lewis Bag: it’s a canvas bag that you put ice in and then beat. It gives you crushed ice, but it tends to melt faster. The other way makes a more jagged ice that melts more slowly.

For the mint: rub the rim and inside of the glass or tin with mint instead of leaving it in. (It gets in the way of the straw.) Infuse your bourbon with mint for a couple of hours. Place mint tops upside down in water, which makes them perkier for when you make them into a bouquet for your drink.

Brooklyn's Maison Premiere, a nominee for the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program

JBF: Which mixology manual or book do you find yourself returning to again and again?

MB: One is Setting the Table by Danny Meyer. It's really easy to forget about hospitality when you're doing high-volume quality cocktails, and there's so little time for interaction with guests. That book helps us make the most of it. Another is The Absinthe Encyclopedia, which is basically the bible for absinthe. During those few times when it's a bit slower, I can have conversations with guests about that spirit, which is such an important part of our program. It's fun to hold court about a subject like that. We also love Beachbum Berry’s Sippin' Safari. We're not really a tiki bar, but we love everything about those fun tropical drinks—the garnishes, the presentation. We take a lot of inspiration from those types of builds.

JBF: What are some of your favorite bars in New York, or even in other cities?

MB: I'll always say Corkbuzz. I think what they do is game changing for Champagne lovers, and they have that great half-off deal after 10:00 P.M. I was recently in Paris and I went to this really cool, kind of divey bar called Glass. It has a cool international crowd and they play good hip-hop.

I just went to Nitecap, which was opened by one of our former bartenders, Natasha David. It's not fussy, but there are still lots of interesting little things about it. They do this thing where they pair a shorty (that’s slang for a really small beer) with a complementary spirit. The whole menu is more industry-inspired, hence the name of the bar. There's a very particular school of drinks that can be considered nightcaps.

JBF: What’s an example of that?

MB: A Brandy Alexander. I would never order that at another bar. Most bars wouldn't put that on their menu. It’s more of a novelty.

Anna Mowry is senior editor at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.