What does it mean to take a classic cocktail and filter it through the vision of your bar? That's exactly the question William Elliot, the head bartender of Maison Premiere, asked himself last year while attempting to create a Mai Tai for the hip Brooklyn cocktail destination. "We really like to celebrate the story behind the drink," he explains. "Reviving some of these old, forgotten, classic cocktails — whether from the 1910s or the 1940s or 50s like Mai Tai — we like to put our own spin on it and get a new version into people's hands."
Elliot explains that a Maison Premiere cocktail must be food-friendly to pair with the seafood and raw bar dishes coming out of chef Lisa Giffen's kitchen. One of the ways Elliot considers drink pairings is by thinking about cocktails as if they were wine: "we want to play with acid, sugars, mouthfeel, texture; things that you would more commonly relate to wine but things that will really help lengthen a cocktail." He says taking garnish seriously is another way to ensure the cocktails complement the kitchen's work. This quest to bring wine-inspired nuance and quality garnish to a sometimes overlooked classic guided Elliot to his take on the Mai Tai.
"One rum can't do what five can," Elliot says, quoting a cocktail adage he's heard many times when talking about tiki drinks. He cites it as the reason for mixing an impressive (and boozy) four rums to his Mai Tai, each adding their unique expression to the drink. La Favorite Coeur d'Ambre, a "rhum agricole" distilled from cane juice (as opposed to molasses), brings with it "big vegetal notes," and shades of the banana and pineapple planted in the off-season, explains Elliot. Next comes Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still Gold, "a dark noted rum" distilled from molasses with "lots of caramelization." It's the bass to the La Favorite's treble, explains Elliot. Cruzan Black Strap rum is distilled from a thick molasses, which shows in its maple syrup-like scent and texture. The final rum is Diplomatico Reserva, a "rich, buttery, aged" Venezuelan rum Elliot relies on to "even out the big personalities" of the other rums in the blend. The final alcoholic component in the drink is Senior & Co. orange curaçao. Mai Tais have a reputation for being sweet. Elliot avoids this pitfall by sticking to his mantra of "acid and sugar." The almond-based orgeat adds a heavy dose of sweetness, so Elliot balances it with a full ounce of lime juice.
From a story-telling perspective, Elliot follows the lead of classic tiki conventions. He explains that in the past, owners blended and pre-batched rums for the drink to keep their recipes a secret, even from their bartenders who would pour the blend from unmarked bottles. Elliot also blends and pre-batches, a nod to the cocktail's past and also to save a step behind his very crowded bar. Like a traditional Mai Tai, Elliot's version is not short on visual appeal: He garnishes with a paper umbrella, an edible flower, mint, and a shake of bitters. But when it comes to the "specs" of the drink, Elliot's recipe reveals Maison Premiere's commitment to elevating the humble tiki standby. "You feel like you're drinking a boozy cocktail," he says.