Do you have a favorite bar? Easier yet, think of a bar you enjoy. What makes it stand out? The food? The drinks? The staff? The decor? The patrons? Or is it all of the above?
I’ve spent my share of time in bars and have loved many of them. When someone asks, “do you have a favorite?”, I often find it more about elimination than selection. To arrive at an answer, I’m trying to conjure the motivation for visiting. Am I with anyone or alone? What time of day is it? What’s the weather like? What’s my mood like?
But every once in a while, we bump into something that just feels right. That happened to me on a cool, sunny, fall afternoon in New York. I didn’t end up there by accident. It was near the top of a list of places I’d been wanting to visit while in town.
Let’s level for a minute. I look at A LOT of cocktails, spirits, and bars online. Regardless, something about this place spoke to me. The decor seemed classic yet relaxed. The drink program came across as elegant yet playful, bordering on gaudy.
I was out by myself. After a subway trip that was cut short due to maintenance and then hopping in the wrong Lyft, a rookie mistake, I arrived at the 200 block of Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. There was enough to take in that I had to scan the block to locate it across the street.
As I approached the polished stone front, jazz music snuck out the open doors and windows, accompanied by the percussion of ice circulating in cocktail shakers. It was 4:30 and the bar was packed. I asked the host if she could fit me in for a couple of cocktails. She looked at the reservation book, then at the bar, and back at me with a sly grin, “give me a minute.” She walked the handful of feet between her stand and the near side of the bar, chatted with the bartender, and gave an approving nod.
The main bar at Maison Premiere is shaped like a horseshoe, with the back bar situated at the shoe’s opening. I was situated right at the top, looking straight at it. The couple to my right
had a small mountain of oysters in front of them. The bartender was in a suit. Not in a “allow me to take your coat sir” kind of way but a comfortable, well-fitting summer suit. His button-down shirt had thick blue stripes, complemented by his solid blue tie, capped off by a pocket square. The atmosphere was lively and was like a trip to the 1930s. With the windows and door open, I imagined being “trapped” here during a summer rain storm wouldn’t be all that bad.
The bartender greeted me and handed me a menu. I began perusing the list, a maze of possibilities with riffs on the Mai Tai, Pimm’s Cup, Piña Colada, Shery Cobbler, Martini, and more. In addition, they have a large selection of absinthe.
After enough staring, I decided to pull the trigger rather than fret endlessly over the decision. I went with a Julep riff called “The Barber of Seville”. The Seville reference comes from the drink being led by a salty Manzanilla Sherry (a fortified Spanish wine), as opposed to bourbon. It does call for a measure of rye whiskey, cappelletti (a less bitter cousin of Campari), lemon juice, and orgeat (a creamy nut syrup). As described by the bartender, it would have a dryer quality courtesy of the sherry. It was served in a Julep tin and proved refreshing and easy to drink.
I took a moment to walk the space. It’s not all that large, with a smaller horseshoe-shaped bar behind the back bar I was looking at and a small dining room. It has warm but dim lighting, and on a day like the one I was there, the rear doors opened to their garden patio. Its walls and abundance of greenery make it a nice escape from the city. And perhaps that’s what this place is. An escape to a quiet but charming corner of New Orleans.
As the glow of the afternoon picked up and my drink bottomed out, I checked the time and decided I could fit in another before having to head out for dinner. I noticed they had a Roffignac, named after a former New Orleanian mayor, Phillipe Joseph de Roffignac. I’d never heard of this drink before a recent trip there but it had been stellar.
When I asked the bartender for one, he glanced at me smiling, and then back to the drink he was making, “that’s my drink”, he beamed with pride. He said it had taken a couple of weeks to get it “dialed in”. I told him I’d recently had my first one in New Orleans, to which he responded, “mine’s better.”
He set a long-fluted tulip-style glass on the bar and filled it with crushed ice to chill it. He went about his business for a while before pouring the drink’s ingredients: Armagnac, a raspberry eau-de-vie, and a raspberry shrub, into a cocktail shaker. Armagnac is a lesser-known brandy, that like its cousin, cognac, is made from grapes, but uses different varietals. Despite being lesser known, Armagnac is the oldest distilled spirit in France, with records dating back to the early 1300s. Like Cognac, a product bearing its name can only come from the Armagnac region in France’s southwest. It also has age stamps: VS, VSOP, XO, etc. Eau-de-vie is a term that is used when fruit, other than grapes, is fermented and distilled. In this case, raspberries.
He dumped the crushed ice out of the glass, added a measure of club soda, and then strained the shaken ingredients over the top. While I’ve seen the process of adding carbonation first, I only appreciated it after reading The Bartender’s Manifesto by Toby Maloney. An effervescent liquid is “lighter” than the shaken liquid, by pouring the shaken portion over the top of the bubbles, the carbonation will naturally rise, helping distribute the bubbles throughout the drink.
The first sip was divine. The rich Armagnac complements the raspberry brandy and shrub,
which offers a sweet tartness. The bubbles make the flavors dance on your palate.
I was a few sips in and already sad that I couldn’t stay longer. This felt like the kind of place I wanted to waste an afternoon. Maison Premiere feels unique because its decor, attire, and music aren’t common. And it’s not in a stuffy club but rather its own standalone space with exceptional drinks.