Absinthe, the wormwood-infused spirit, is a central part of Maison's identity but is still misunderstood by many people. First things first, to clear this up once and for all,
absinthe will not make you hallucinate any more than Red Bull will give you wings. Many years ago, as the wine industry struggled, concerns about the amount people were drinking grew, and absinthe flourished, it became a scapegoat for the problem, and loads of misinformation were created. Pile on prohibition in places like the US, and most of us have never experienced it outside of a dash in a Sazerac if even that.
In terms of what to expect from Absinthe, Will feels Absinthe’s qualities are an interesting amalgamation of wine and tea.
"Drinking Absinthe is so much more akin to drinking wine than it is to drinking a cocktail or a neat spirit. And I always think It has the mouthfeel and texture... it's not the same as wine, but it has as much nuance of mouthfeel and texture as wine does. And then it has all the herbaceous elements, which is incredibly complex, almost like a fine tea. So I like to compare Absinthe to a made-up combination of tea and wine.”
Another thing that I learned through the book is unlike other spirits, Absinthe should not be drunk straight. It’s not meant to be and will not be pleasant. Instead, it is recommended that you dilute it at 4 or 5 parts water to 1 part Absinthe. The spirit's proofing ranges from 45-75%, which is high, but when diluted, it will be closer to a glass of wine. It also undergoes
something called louching (pronounced "Lou-shing") when diluted, causing it to become cloudy as the distilled botanicals fall out of suspension.
All of this aside, it is a bold spirit with flavors that are an acquired taste for many, but it deserves a closer look. At the very least, we need to give up on the romantic notion of it being hallucinogenic and a "forbidden fruit".
A second thing I learned is the speed at which we stir a cocktail makes a difference. As is written in the book, “A cocktail will taste different from the hand of a bartender who stirs at 180 rpm than one who stirs at 90.” As Will went on to further explain during our conversation,
“Correctly diluting and chilling are connected at the hip to me.
And a lot of people, especially people making drinks at home, are under-stirring. And it's not just about stirring long enough, it's about stirring fast enough.
People think, "Okay, I can stir for two minutes and get it there," but that's so long that it's gonna be overly diluted. If you stir faster with more rotations per second and let's say the magic number is 90 rotations. If you get to that 90-rotation mark in 60 seconds, you have a cold and perfectly diluted drink. If you get to that 90 in two minutes, then you have taken it too far and it's probably watery, sloppy, and has lost focus.”
The iconic Maison cocktail
One of the drinks that he feels best represents the bar is Á La Louisiane, a distant cousin of the Manhattan. He uses it as a litmus for a bartender's abilities.
“Á La Louisiane was one of the first whiskey cocktails I fell for and enjoyed. Making Well-Made Manhattans and Old Fashioneds was a litmus test in the early cocktail Renaissance. And they just kind of left me flat.
The La Louisiane has Absinthe, Peychaud bitters, Benedictine, sweet vermouth, and rye whiskey. The first two things are so undeniably New Orleans. And the drink has enough complexity that you can mess it up. So when having a bartender make it and taste it, I can evaluate their skills through it. Balancing it is also coming from correctly diluting and chilling.”
Depth of a brand's story
The last thing echoes something I heard from podcast guest Steve Grasse, who helped bring Hendrick’s Gin to life. Steve said that the story behind most brands doesn’t run that deep. If you're curious or a fan and start poking around into how it came to be or its history, its often not as remarkable as you're led to believe by a billboard, Instagram page, etc. By contrast, Steve says that when it comes to Hendrick’s, the story goes on and on.
Maison Premiere is all about sweating the small stuff. And not just about the drink, but the environment. Maison wants to serve you delicious food and drink in a setting that can almost
be mistaken for the 1930s. To do that, small details, like their dress code, which I'll call relaxed formal, is most important about being period appropriate. The best example for me involves suspenders, which are commonly worn at Maison, but you can’t wear suspenders with metal clips to fasten them to your pants because those didn't exist in the 1930s. They have to attach with buttons because that is how it was done back then.
“I'm trying to tease out this almost manic nature that is Maison, its plants and artwork, and 200-year-old wooden floorboards from a ship. All these things come from a mindset of obsession with detail, an obsession of craft, and an obsession to never kind of let it rest. Always keep churning and squeezing and getting, driving it.”
The French term "je ne sais quoi" ("I don't know") is often used to invoke an intangible about a person or experience. We say there is something unique about an artist that is hard to name. For me, Maison has that je ne sais quoi because they don't compromise on something as minor as buttons vs. metal clips. You can't see the difference, but thousands of small decisions, create an intangible that makes this imagined place real.
Listen to my full conversation with Will.