WASHIGNTON – It’s a drink that was made popular at the turn of the 20th century in Parisian cafes and bars. And more than 100 years later, the strong liquor has not lost its appeal.
Several D.C. area bars and restaurants are now serving absinthe, and some, such as Adam Morgan’s Libertine, are designing their menus around the beverage that has comes with a history.
Matt Ficke, head bartender at Columbia Room in Northwest D.C., explains that some of the draw is absinthe’s bad-boy reputation.
According to Ficke, absinthe was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in 1912, just before prohibition. When prohibition was lifted, the U.S. government needed a separate ruling to legalize the beverage.
“So there was this many decade period when people couldn’t have it in this country, and everybody would go on spring break to Europe and try it and think that it was kind of cool,” Ficke says. “Something that is banned develops this underground feeling to it.”
In 2007, absinthe was eventually legalized for import in the U.S., and ever since then, home bartenders and mixologists have been trying new things with it.
And while absinthe can be used as a small ingredient in a couple of classic cocktails, serving absinthe straight up is an art form.
“There is a very traditional way of serving it where you dilute it and sweeten it,” says Ficke, who adds that the liquor can be up to 75 percent alcohol. “It’s very bitter and dry, quite herbal, so you need to add water and a little bit of sugar.”
The process of diluting and serving absinthe involves a fountain, water, a sugar cube, a bit of fire and a slotted spoon. With a few steps, it slowly reaches the right dilution and the proper flavor.
So where does absinthe come from and how is it made?
Ficke says it can come from pretty much anything, but these days it’s most likely made from a natural grape spirit, such as an un-aged brandy.
“It’s made pretty much in the same way that gin is. It doesn’t really matter what the underlying alcohol is. You throw all of the different botanicals — the wormwood, the anise, the fennel — into the still, and it’s actually distilled with these different flavors, the same way that gin would be distilled with juniper.”
And those hallucinations? Ficke says that part of absinthe is a bit of a legend.