Bartender Style is a collaboration between Bit by a Fox and photographer Rose Callahan. This new, monthly series, exclusively on the Bit by a Fox blog, will explore and document the personal style of some of the best bartenders in New York City and beyond. Kicking off this series, and right on the heels of their James Beard nomination for Outstanding Bar Program, we have chosen to profile the beyond dapper gents behind one of the most stylish bars around, Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, New York.
The bar is a stage. And all of us imbibers merely players. But the bartender? The bartender is the star of the show.
There is something extremely theatrical about cocktail slinging. It’s no wonder performers of all kinds have always gravitated to the business and craft of cocktails. The renaissance of classic cocktails in recent years, has had people embracing quality made, hand crafted drinks, which in turn, has brought much more attention to the bartenders as expert craftsmen (and women).
The bartender is being called upon to be more creative than ever, at times eclipsing the celebrity chef in innovation as well as press mentions. We are now living in the age of “Startenders” – celebrity drink slingers, mixologists and personalities. And, as anyone who has ever sidled up to a craft cocktail bar can attest, the creativity and flair that produces inventive and aesthetically pleasing cocktails, is very often translated sartorially.
This self-expression extends to twisty mustaches, pin curls and colorful tattoos, yes, but style is more than all that. It’s the tools involved, techniques used and all around ceremony and performance: a service style. Most of the women and men who have risen in the ranks of this cocktail revolution, and are at the top of their game, no matter what their style, would probably all agree on one thing; It’s all about the guest.
The best bartenders already know that the style adopted and cultivated behind the bar is as much a part of the customer’s experience as the feel of that bar stool they’re perched upon, or the level and tone of light that flickers from the candles and wall sconces and bounces off the prettied faces all gathered under one roof. Every piece of the equation is experiential.
Sometimes the style behind the bar is refined by the environment itself. This can be said with certainty when it comes to the spectacularly romantic Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Owners Joshua Boissy and Krystof Zizka opened their absinthe and oyster bar in 2011, designing it to feel like the lobby of an old hotel in New Orleans’ French Quarter. But the marble-topped horseshoe bar that dominates the front room, and the first thing you see upon walking through the doors, has a distinct Parisian quality. They’ve since expanded their menu to include more food items, and the cocktail list, while still favoring the green fairy, has expanded as well, and changes with the seasons. The spare, elegantly worn space is fairly light and bright for a cocktail bar and is actually absinthe-toned in places. It lends itself to a particular kind of style. One with a nod to the past, a by-gone era where ladies painted their lips in jewel tones and wore flowers in their hair and gentlemen suited up with pocket squares and sported tie bars…and upheld a sense of etiquette and decorum.
For our very first Bartender Style profile, Rose and I knew that we had to feature the exquisite Maison Premiere and the extremely well dressed gents who help to make walking into that place feel otherworldly.
Meet Head Bartender and Beverage Director Maxwell Britten, Head Bartender William Elliot and Service Director, Ben Crispin.
Maxwell, Will and Ben are perfect representatives of Maison Premiere and the style that goes along with it. They might all get their haircuts from an equally vintage-influenced bloke down the street, Russell Manley of Ludlow Blunt, inspiring clients to ask for the Maison Premiere haircut, but they each have their own distinct style.
Will has been a bartender for 11 years, four of them have been at Maison since it opened. He primarily shops in thrift stores like Beacon’s Closet and Buffalo Exchange, but gravitates towards a more modern aesthetic. He doesn’t like to be too time specific and ends up favoring neutral pieces. Hermés is Will’s preferred tie designer and he brings bags of them to work. Like many of the men at Maison, tie bars and vintage collar bars are always in rotation. Some of his work style is primarily utilitarian – like using arm bands to adjust cuff length on a shirt, rolling up the right sleeve for cleaning purposes and tucking his tie into a shirt or vest so it does not dip into the sink when washing glasses. On his off days, Will wears mostly black since Maison is “all about color”.
Maxwell brought Will on board to help open Maison four years ago, and had only started bartending four years before that. But the cocktail program he’s developed at Maison belies his years. Just ask the James Beard Foundation.
All you really need to know about Maxwell is that he wears a suit jacket for most of the service. He’s that committed. When developing the aesthetic behind the bar, he gravitated towards classic mid-century tailored suits. He favors bright, flashy colors when it comes to his socks and ties. And while his style has evolved since he’s been at Maison, he has always been known for his suspenders.
The stakes were raised, however, when Ben came on board…
As Maison Premiere’s Service Director, Ben is truly the face of the bar, and often one of the first faces guests will see. And, he takes his job very seriously. He has never been a bartender, however he is their ambassador. Ben is the bartender’s representative when they have nary a moment for a chat. A liaison between the bartender and guest, he lovingly collects the stories and history of the bar, and is a font of knowledge when it comes to the eras in which many of the cocktails on the menu originate from. He is also a sort of style curator for Maison Premiere.
There has been a culture that has developed within Maison Premiere, stylistically. And much of this is due to Ben’s presence. When Ben came on board three years ago, his elevated everyday dress choices and attention to detail style-wise, created a certain level of friendly competition among the men. This one-upmanship pushed them all to hone their own personal style further. But that hasn’t kept them from looking out for one another. Ben prefers Ferragamo ties and the other guys will keep a look out for him. And if Ben finds a Hermés tie, he knows it’s going to Will.
Ben describes his style as Vintage Americana and takes his cues from the Japanese and their fascination in American made products. He’s into well crafted, handmade boots, and finds vintage Allen Edmonds shoes off eBay. Ben says that he often discovers gems like a Savile Rowe dress suit at Goodwill because other people are not looking for men’s items from the 20s, 30s and 40s.
In the hiring and training of staff over the years, Ben notes that they have developed a lot of “style rules” at Maison. And they are specific!
Maison Premiere Style Uniform
For the female hosts and servers – high contrast patterned tights with a black pencil skirt, off white blouse in a vintage style and a black blazer. They should wear bright red lipstick and a flower in their hair. For the gentlemen – dark slacks and vintage wingtips, simple light-colored dress shirt, a patterned tie and a dark vest. A tie bar and a part in their hair is the last part of the uniform. That is the basics of what they ask the staff to wear. There are times when they have to ask someone to change some elements of their uniform. Most of the time it is a blouse that looks too modern or a tie that is not right with the pattern. They don’t let the staff wear solid tights, plaid or solid ties and dark-colored dress shirts. These rules exist so everyone looks similar but not identical.
One of the questions we’ll always ask for this Bartender Style column will have to do with a favorite cocktail that represents the bar, and its recipe. We’ll leave you with Will’s favorite, á la Louisiane, a complex, Manhattan-style rye and absinthe concoction created in New Orleans in the 1930s. It has been on the menu since they opened their doors. And we see why.
á la Louisiane
4 dashes of Absinthe Verte
4 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
1/2 ounce Benedictine
3/4 ounce Carpano Antica vermouth
1 3/4 ounce Rittenhouse rye whiskey
Pour ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake several times. Stir well and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.