Interview with Chef Maxwell Britten of Freemans - New York City
JJ Proville: What inspired you to pursue mixology professionally?
Maxwell Britten: I started at Jack the Horse Tavern three years ago with no prior mixology experience other than the little time I had worked as a barback before that. At first I started at a busboy, and from day one my interest was inflamed with mixology, from the first time I saw Damon [Dyer] make a Manhattan. After that I stayed every night after work, studying everything he did and endlessly asking questions. I was quickly promoted to bartender. A year and a half later I took over the bar program at Jack the Horse as Damon moved on. In the past year I have made it to the semi-finals of two competitions to compete against him.
JJP: What was your first food job?
MB: I was a busboy at a Mexican chain in Tucson, Arizona called El Charro. I have recently crossed paths with that company and worked with a couple people who are their spirit consultants, which is funny how that came full circle. I believe they hold over 150 different types of tequila in their bars.
JJP: Who have been your mentors?
MB: My first mentor was Damon Dyer, [who is now] one of the head bartenders at Flatiron Lounge. I studied with Damon very closely over the last three years and still keep in touch with him.
[My other mentor has been] St. John Frizzell. St. John was a local Bartender in Brooklyn as well as a former bartender at Pegu Club. He was one of the first people to support me in following the chronology of spirits and cocktails. He saw that I was extremely interested and impressionable. He definitely put me on the right path as far is giving me the right literature to read, inviting me to tastings, and coming by my bar to see what I was working on. St. John is on his way to opening his own cocktail bar in Red Hook. He is a great writer, bartender, and faucet of knowledge as far as cocktails, spirits, and literature go. And definitely someone in my industry that has become a friend and mentor.
JJP: How would you describe your cocktail style?
MB: My cocktail style takes on the classic techniques and methods of the old school bartender. I enjoy taking classic concepts and employing them with a modern twist. Therefore I am always interested in finding new ways to make something old new and innovative. However, I do take my cue here and there from my brother and sister bartenders who have an affinity for the molecular mixology aspects of cocktails. Doing fat-washes, rinses, homemade tinctures and syrups, infusions, batters, foams, etc. are certainly a part of my diversity behind the bar.
JJP: What is your favorite cocktail to drink? To make?
MB: My favorite cocktail to drink is The Affinity Cocktail, which is essentially a perfect Rob Roy with orange bitters. My favorite drink to make is the Sazerac with rye whiskey (sometimes with equal parts Cognac), sugar, Peychaud’s bitters, and an absinthe rinse. This is another drink I really love to order, but I like to make it even more. Even though it is such a simple cocktail there are so many different methods and techniques that can be used to make it. I have seen so many different versions of this cocktail, and it never ceases to amaze me how many different ways I have seen bartenders do their renditions of it. It’s just very old and classic; it’s one of the oldest cocktails documented. The flavor profile has sophisticated sweetness, paired with cereal grains, anise, and a complimentary hint of citrus.
JJP: What goes into creating a new cocktail? What inspires you?
MB: A lot of the time people like to come to the bar and try to play 20 questions with me and pretend like they’re at Milk & Honey, as in: “I’m in the mood for this.” I inadvertently end up catering to their needs. It’s largely due to the customers who sit down and play games with me. When I do have the time I have them tell me [what they feel like] and we come up with something. A lot of the time instead of doing a classic cocktail I come up with something on my own.
JJP: What are some of your favorite places in New York?
MB: Raines Law Room is pretty rock solid. It’s a speakeasy if I ever saw one. It’s down to earth and feels like somebody’s living room. I was surprised at how nice it was! Little Branch, too. It has the same sort of setup.
JJP: What is your favorite mixology resource book?
MB: The Gentlemen's Companion, Volumes One and Two, By Charles H. Baker Jr. This was the first serious bartenders’ manual and memoir I had ever read about the philosophy of drinking and eating. It was extremely influential. Charles H. Baker Jr. was very well known for his adventures around the world, eating and drinking with legendary bartenders and authors, and documenting all that he consumed with tremendous detail. He also had a few of his own creations, which he included in his manuals. Although his book does not categorically have an encyclopedic account of everything I need to know about certain drinks or spirits, his wealth of information is still very valuable.
Even though you can find very old recipes for drinks like the Old Fashioned and Martini, much of the material that can be found in this work is actually quite esoteric, and is not seen in a lot of other bar manuals. That’s what I really appreciate in his work. You see very much of the same things in so many cocktail resource books. Even though you might not consider his book a great resource manual, as a reference manual it can walk circles around some of the other books I have read on the subject (not to say that I don't have other favorites). I might say I am just attached to it because it’s a symbol of one of the many things that made me choose to become a professional bartender.
JJP: What are some current trends you’ve seen in the cocktail market? How have trends changed?
MB: There’s a lot of liquors coming out—crème de menthe, St. Germaine, Canton, etc. It seems like every bartender is a consultant. Every decent bartender has endorsed for a liquor company or consulted for a bar. The reason might be that there’s not a lot of money in the business and companies see a lot of value in that.
JJP: What is your favorite bar tool?
MB: I have a lot of favorite tools. It’s quite hard to say which one is my favorite. I really like weighted mixing spoons. The British style usually has the bar spoon measured out to be a perfect teaspoon. The weight at the end looks like a nice little muddler, which is perfect for cracking ice and galvanizing sugar. So you can usually perform a number of functions with it, even unrelated to cocktails, like whacking drunk customers in the head.
My second favorite tool is definitely the ¾ to 1 ounce jigger. A lot of recipes can be done with that ratio of jigger. On top of that when I go to have a cocktail the first thing I check (sadly) is to make sure my bartender uses a jigger when he makes my cocktail. I know even the most professional bartender who has been mixing the same exact cocktail for ten years might know how to free pour that drink with his eyes closed, but personally I have to compare this kind of thing to confectionary work. A pastry chef cut from the most experienced cloth will still use all of his or her measuring tools no matter how well they think they can do it without their measurements. It’s a matter of being precise and using known quantities. The jigger is an extremely reliable tool for this function.
JJP: What ingredient or spirit do you feel is underappreciated or under utilized?
MB: It’s hard to say. When I’m behind the bar I tend to go through stages of being really obsessed with different spirits. I will spend almost a whole month doing drinks with one spirit, thinking to myself "Man no one is working with this stuff, it’s so awesome!" And then I’ll move on to the next obsession. If I really had to say, then probably sherry. There have been a lot of great drinks in the past with sherry (sweet and dry), and you don't really hear it being talked about or used on menus as much. Personally I have had a great time working with Pedro Ximenez’s Sherries. I really like fooling around with those alternative fortified wines like digestifs, apertifs, and sherries. They have so much to offer.
JJP: What's next? Where will we find you in five years?
MB: You’ll find me doing something related to drinks. I definitely want to remain behind the bar. I want to get closer to the making of the spirits. I have a fantasy that I’ll be working in a sherry vineyard and working in a bar. You’ll find me near high quality food and spirits.