Bartender Will Elliott got his start in the industry providing patrons with a different kind of buzz. “Part of my job entailed being a barista, and it definitely shaped my mindset on how to get multiple drinks out at a time while maintaining quality,” he says. He also learned a thing or two about customer service. “The spot was run by old school Italians who felt that even when the customer was wrong, we were to provide them with jovial service — while letting them know.” From there, the Massachusetts native moved to an island off the coast of Maine, where he free-poured rum and cokes while studying up on the classics. “I remember even at that point asking myself things like, ‘What is cognac made of?’ and began garnishing things in crazy ways,’” he recalls. Most recently you can find his handiwork at Sauvage, the Williamsburg bistro from team Maison Premiere. Here, Elliott shares with us why bartenders could afford to talk less.
BoozeMenus: What's your approach behind the bar?
Will Elliott: To maximize motion and minimize idle talking. I think that the highest form of hospitality you can offer a guest is through executing your job really well. Win more than you lose. Show your love for your guests through the actions you take, not the words that you say.
BM: How would you describe the cocktail program at Sauvage in three words?
WE: Ethereal, high-elevation, vinous.
BM: Your cocktail list is comprised of several classics. How do you put your mark on a drink that has been around for more than a century?
WE: The re-interpretation of classics starts with how you have curated your backbar. There should be a thread weaving the bottles on your shelf together, and there should be bottles that inform one another. From there, hopefully you are representing your palate, which is something personal, and something visionary. It’s important to get to the heart of the heart of the drink – to know enough about the drink to know its historical context and take what you like from that and create your own story, reflective of your own palate.
One cocktail I don't think should be reinterpreted is The Last Word. It is too deeply rooted in history to mess with.
BM: Which drink there was the most fun to do this with?
WE: The Martini because it is such a stumper! Why should there be another martini created? Why should you pick up a guitar and be another person to play one in a three-piece band?
It is the perfect restaurant drink: You want it before your meal as an aperitif, during your meal, and after, as it plays the role of digestif. Once I realized I wanted to stump myself I looked at each component individually. For the gin, I use Xoriguer gin, which is made with a Cava grape. It is a pretty neutral spirit. Juniper is the only botanical. It’s a very directional, minimal, and focused gin.
The vermouth is Vergano, which is a distant relative of Cocchi made by a famed Torino vermouth producer. It is very floral and has high-toned rose oil notes. It is made by a legend of a producer.
The garnish for a martini is always very important. It is a very important part of the martini story at large. We serve our martini with a sidecar of crushed ice with several different garnishes for guests to choose from. There is a lemon knot – there is this classic idea that you don’t serve a lemon wedge in a cocktail at a nice place so that guest doesn’t have to squeeze anything. We tie the lemon twists into a knot so that most of the oil is already out, and it imparts a very subtle flavor if chosen. We also offer Nasturtium blossoms, from the caper plant. Capers are a classic second choice to olives in martini. I like the black pepper notes of it. Then, there are the Juniper berries, which, to me, when chewed on, offer hints of tasting the color — in the same way that a blueberry tastes blue.
BM: If you're not drinking the classics at your bar, what are you drinking?
BM: What ingredient are you excited to turn guests on to now?
WE: Eau de vie. it’s a killer price point, and it's foreign to most people. It's a quick and delicious way to spruce up classics or unaged spirits like vodka or gin. For many guests, it is a safe choice because it is less off-putting than they might find some botanical spirits to be.
BM: What's the best food and cocktail pairing at the restaurant, in your opinion?
WE: Venison tartare and a martini.
BM: Which spirit selection was the most fun for you to put together?
WE: I love our gin selection. Among them are Reisetbauer Blue Gin from Austria, Booth's Barrel Aged Gin, and Ungava, a yellow gin made with botanicals from the Canadian Tundra.
BM: What's your holiday cocktail of choice?
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Martini by Nicole Franzen; Bitter Storm by Nicole Franzen; Will Elliott by Lizzie Munro)