Tania Morgan pours Peychaud's bitters and rye whiskey into a rocks glass so that it forms a pinkish liquid. She sets one concoction in front of each of the patrons. It's a sazerac, she tells them.
Well, sort of.
Everyone's instructed to give it a good sniff and a small sip. Then she supplies each person with a second rocks glass, this time with only a few drops of absinthe inside. Add it to the original drink and then give it a swirl, Morgan instructs. This one's a true sazerac. The real McCoy. Drink up, she suggests. Lacing it with absinthe transforms the drink it into a whole different cocktail, Erik Holzherr, owner of the D.C. bar Wisdom pipes up. "It's like when you add vermouth to a gin martini. You're adding another liquor but it actually smooths and mellows out the martini, which is the opposite of what you'd expect," he adds.
The exercise comes early in a nearly two-hour class devoted to both explaining the history of absinthe and letting participants taste the licorice-flavored good stuff in a variety of ways, both straight and in drinks. Absinthe, or its taunting nickname "the green fairy," is a spirit surrounded by mystique. It was outlawed in the United States for 97 years, so the drinking public isn't as educated about its origins and properties as bourbon or even tequila. Most believe it has hallucinogenic properties and that the supply sold today is well below the heft of the absinthe from its heyday.
Not so, according to Holzherr. Wisdom started having these classes recently to dispel some of these rumors. The Capitol Hill bar gets its name for the knowledge staff try to pass on to customers while swilling spirits. Gin is the canvas with which owner Holzherr says he "paints all of his drinks." However on this early evening, absinthe's the star. Really, absinthe has been becoming more of a star in the cocktail world since 2007, when the spirit was legally allowed to be sold.
Since then, cocktails with absinthe have become increasingly commonplace around the District. Along with a sazerac, the Styxe and Lethe at The Tabard Inn has a dash of the green stuff along with averna amaro, brandy, grapefruit bitters and an edible dehydrated lemon wheel. The Gibson's Spuyten Duyvil features lavender bitters, bols genever, orgent, syrup, maraschino and Kubler absinthe, a Swiss variety. Additionally, two of the bars with Jon Arroyo as chief mixologist dabble in absinthe. Georgetown's Farmers Fishers Bakers' menu includes Circa 1934 — a blend of three kinds of rum, lime and grapefruit juices, house-made grenadine, house-made falernum and absinthe. Meanwhile, Founding Farmers has three cocktails laced with Kubler absinthe for patrons to savor: The Millionaire (absinthe plus No. 209 gin, lemon juice, egg whites, and bitters mist); A Streetcar Named Decanter (absinthe added to Domaine de Canton, mint syrup, ginger and lime juice) and The Martinez (Plymouth Gin, Luxardo Maraschino, bitters, Dolin Rouge and a mere hint of the absinthe).
Even with the surge in absinthe cocktails around town, though, rare are establishments that put out the bold flavor on its own. Part of the reason is just how high proof the spirit is — 90 to 160. A bottle is equivalent to five wine bottles.
Throughout the class at Wisdom, Morgan keeps participants' water glasses filled and the flavored nuts coming, a gentle reminder about this strength. But she half-jokingly apologizes because absinthe won't — despite the public's assumption — get patrons high. Artists and writers like Vincent VanGogh and Oscar Wilde were largely responsible for making absinthe chic while incorrectly stating its mind-bending effects. "People just loved their absinthe and they loved to talk and write about how it made them feel," Morgan says. "What they didn't mention was that they were also using other pharmaceuticals. That effect might have been from the heroin. Or the opium. Or the morphine. Or on and on and on."
Wisdom has a shelf specifically for absinthe with about 15 varieties in stock. The class is a tasting of three popular brands and then three mixed drinks that utilize absinthe. For the absinthe consumed by itself, it's not really dealt out straight. Instead, Morgan lines up four glasses at a time under a traditional absinthe fountain. She places a slotted, leaf-shaped spoon on top of each glass with a cube of sugar. Then the fountain drips out water so that the sugar and water gradually clouds the absinthe, making it more palatable. First is Pernod, the so-called granddaddy of absinthe. Then, there's Lucid. And finally Vieux Carre, distilled in Philadelphia.
Just a handful of other D.C. bars take the care to go through the process of diluting the absinthe and have a selection of different types on hand to sample. Last month Libertine opened in the space formerly occupied by the Toledo Lounge. The bar boasts about 30 kinds of absinthe. Libertine's sister bar, Black Squirrel, also in Adams Morgan, has been serving a handful of absinthe varieties for years, and since 2010, Chinatown Coffee Co. has carried absinthes for customers. An absinthe-focused speakeasy called Le Fee Verte was originally planned for Mova's rooftop bar, but that project has since been nixed.
Of the specialty absinthe cocktails showcased during Wisdom's class, the most perplexing is one Holzherr dreamed up. Called Captain Jack's Green Sparrow, the drink is most certainly pink, not green, due to its blend of coconut rum, pink grapefruit juice, absinthe and a mystery ingredient. As a mixologist, Wisdom's owner likes the challenge of working with absinthe. "It can easily overcome something and take over a drink," he says. "So to find that right balance, it's not easy."
Brian Robinson, a spirits historian, says absinthe stands out for the level of care that's akin to properly pouring a Guinness. He tried absinthe for the first time in the 1990s in Spain and has been hooked since. These days Robinson is a serious absinthe educator and collector. Altogether he estimates that well over 300 types of true absinthe are in existence. His personal bar has close to 275 and nearly 1,300 bottles.
Although there is not an official definition of absinthe, Robinson goes by the traditional classification that it must have three ingredients: fennel, anise and wormwood. When these are present in correct amounts, the color will be a milkier green than the neon green drinkers have come to expect. In fact, neon green is often a telltale sign that the absinthe's an impostor, or at least, low quality, he says. As a member of the Wormwood Society, Robinson reviews absinthe and educates drinkers on misconceptions. Over time he's trained about 20 U.S. bars on absinthe fundamentals. Next up he'll actually be prepping Libertine's staff.
It's no surprise that absinthe is coming into its own, Robinson says, As interest in craft cocktails has intensified so has the amount of absinthe consumed and made. Absinthe, though, will always be a niche product. "Let's not fool ourselves. Anise is a flavor that the U.S. population doesn't grow up with," he says. "But the level of interest has absolutely skyrocketed."
— Dena Levitz
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[Photo: Dena Levitz/Eater.com]