Photo of St. Anselm madeira by Laura Hayes
Photo of St. Anselm madeira by Laura Hayes

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You can go on a historical odyssey without leaving your seat at St. Anselm. The American steakhouse on 5th Street NE offers a collection of 42 unique Madeira selections, with one vintage dating as far back as 1850. The fortified wines that both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington sipped are potable time capsules that make any meal more intriguing and double as dinner table conversation starters.

Erik Segelbaum, corporate wine director for Stephen Starr restaurants nationwide, recommends ordering a pour of Madeira and discussing what was happening in the world the year it was produced. St. Anselm is a partnership between Starr and Brooklyn restaurateur Joe Carroll

“In 1989 we were still mourning the Challenger explosion,” Segelbaum says. “Think about 1850. California was becoming a state. Someone was picking these grapes before California existed! There’s pre-Civil War, pre-World War I, pre-World War II, the Great Depression, Prohibition. You can taste history in a way that’s unlike anything else you could ever drink.” 

Madeira was the drink of the American Revolution. The founding fathers toasted most major milestones with it, which makes it all the more impressive that it was discovered accidentally. People living on the Portuguese island of Madeira fortified wine to preserve it as it made its way across the Atlantic in ships. At sea, the barrels would bake in the sun—essentially “cooking” the wine and giving Madeira its signature flavor.

“In many cases today that heating process is mechanized,” Carroll says. “Hot water is pumped through the outside of the tanks. But traditionally, barrels were put on the roof of bodegas.” (In Portuguese, bodega refers to a small tavern, not a corner convenience store.) While there are only seven active Madeira producers remaining on the island, Carroll emphasizes that there’s plenty of product available because it hasn’t been very popular over the past century. 

St. Anselm is one of several D.C. restaurant hoping to teach Washingtonians about less common tipples by amassing a collection. Some of these eateries’ owners have calculated that it makes good business sense to specialize and become the authority on one type of alcohol. Others just love a spirit and want to share their passion with customers even if it doesn’t benefit the bottom line.

Segelbaum and Carroll took several steps to make trying Madeira less intimidating. They sourced a variety of Madeiras instead of solely purchasing old, expensive bottles. One-ounce pours cost between $5 and $130. According to Segelbaum, three ounces is the norm but can be scary to commit to when you don’t know what to expect. “We also don’t take normal margins on a product like this,” he says. “We run very, very high on our costs so as to make it approachable to our guests to make it price positive and appealing.”

Instead of arranging the menu by grape varietal such as sercial, verdelho, bual, and malmsey, Segelbaum ordered the Madeiras from dry to sweet and included food pairings on the menu. Not all Madeiras taste aggressively sweet. He recommends a sercial with oysters and verdelho with grilled fish and believes everything goes well with Madeira. “You haven’t really lived if you haven’t had a good Madeira and a street dog,” he says.

Servers at St. Anselm recommend beginners wade in by selecting a flight. The “Exploration of 4 Styles” lets customers try 10-year-old versions of the four main varietals for $18. The “When I was your age we didn’t have…” flight shows how time alters the taste of Madeira. It includes Madeiras from 1968, 1976, and 1989 for $46. You can also build your own flight. 

It’s early, but Segelbaum says the Madeiras are immensely popular. “Saturday night one of our managers spent the whole night just pouring Madeira flights,” he says. “D.C. is already a Madeira town, and they’ve responded beautifully to this program.” The Jefferson Hotel carries Madeira, as does Shaw wine bar Maxwell Park

Espita Mezcaleria also uses flights to coax diners into trying its leading agave spirit neat. Mezcal appears frequently on menus in D.C., but not to the extent it does at the Shaw restaurant, which carries more than 100 varieties. Espita serves mezcal in one-, two-, and six-ounce pours with sal de gusano (smoky worm salt) and oranges. Most cost between $9 and $15 an ounce. Partner Josh Phillips says their house mezcal flight is the most popular and believes that the restaurant’s investment in mezcal is paying off. 

“We sell a ton of neat mezcal,” he says. “If you look at our liquor, beer, and wine sales, our liquor sales account for 88 percent of bar sales—one third is mezcal and two thirds are cocktails.” His restaurant’s customers fall into three categories. “There’s a group coming for the food and then they discover mezcal; another group that comes for the accolades we’ve gotten for cocktails who then realize it’s all mezcal; and then the mezcal nerds.” 

Still, some customers just want a damn margarita, and Espita will gladly make one. “Give the people what they want, I’m not here to change people,” Phillips says. But when the margarita has been sucked dry, servers are trained to recommend a second drink that’s mezcal-based with a similar flavor profile as a margarita. “That’s a good way to give them an entrance,” he says. 

Little Coco’s, on 14th Street NW north of Columbia Heights, uses a familiar cocktail to persuade customers to explore the neighborhood Italian restaurant’s deep amari stockpile. The “Dark ‘n Stormari” is a Dark and Stormy with house-made ginger beer and two types of amari instead of rum. It gives customers a hint of bitterness that the booze category is known for. Partner Gordon Banks has gathered about 60 amari—a word used to describe a broad category of bitter Italian liqueurs typically sipped as stomach-settling digestifs. Fernet Branca, a funky amaro made in Milan, has long been a darling of restaurant industry employees.

“Ever since the Fernet craze a couple of years ago and the boom of all of the local and micro-distilleries, we keep getting new stuff in,” Banks says. “Fourteen of 60 are vintage amari that go back to the 1930s.” 

Little Coco’s sells most of its amari in one-and-a-half-ounce pours, which generally cost between $6 and $12. The older ones are also available in three-quarter-ounce pours. Banks says the restaurant will feature flights as part of its soon-to-launch “That’s Amari Tuesdays.” In the meantime, he has other strategies to persuade beginners to explore amari such as toning down a neat pour with soda water and a twist of orange peel. 

He also knows to steer first-timers away from Elisir Novasalus, the most aggressively bitter amaro on the menu flavored with sap from Sicilian pine trees. “You cannot taste anything after it,” Banks says. “It’s a palate-annihilator. This is a dare kind of shot that you’re not going to believe you’re drinking.” 

Banks says the amari are most sought after by his colleagues in bars and restaurants. But other guests are catching on too. “There are still a lot of people who have never heard of amari, so there’s education,” Banks says. “If they get into it and they like it, they become a regular and explore the entire collection.” 

He admits he honed in on amari out of personal preference and doesn’t mind if it doesn’t rapidly turn a profit. “I don’t always think of the financial part of it,” he says. “When the vintage bottles are done, they’re done. If it takes me eight years to sell through all of them, it was worth it to me. A lot of restaurants would consider that a bad investment—having cash flow tied up in a small number of bottles.” 

At The Sovereign in Georgetown, General Manager Jeremiah Hansen helped bulk up the Belgian beer bar’s absinthe options when he was hired about five months ago. There are now more than 20 varieties of the anise-accented spirit to try, split into two categories: verte (green) and blanche (clear). Most of the verte absinthes come from France and blanche from Switzerland, but there are also some new-world producers in each category like northern Virginia’s Mt. Defiance Absinthe. 

Absinthe debuted in 1792 as a medicinal elixir, but the spirit clings onto a certain amount of intrigue because it was banned for nearly a century in some European countries, including France, and in the U.S. until 2007. The hoopla emanated from the purported hallucinogenic qualities of wormwood, the plant that flavors absinthe. “Absinthe had a pretty poor stigma for a long time, but the taboo draws people to it at the same time,” Hansen says. 

The Sovereign prices its absinthe at $11 to $19 an ounce and customers get to decide how they’d like it served: the Swiss way, with pistachio orgeat and sparkling water for $2 extra; with sparkling wine also for $2 extra; the Belgian way, with a sweet Belgian elixir and chilled water for $3 more; or a classic absinthe service with a fountain. During the bar’s late-night absinthe hour, all selections are $4 off.

Customers find the fountain set-up the most exciting, according to Hansen. It’s not just about putting something in front of them that they’ll enjoy,” he says. “It’s about a memorable moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken a fountain out and watched their eyes light up. Then they bring their friends in. There are very few other moments with alcohol that are like that.” 

An absinthe fountain slowly drips cold water onto a spoon holding a sugar cube. A glass containing absinthe is positioned below. Introducing water turns the absinthe cloudy in what’s known as the louche process.

Hansen says the sweat equity he put into sourcing the absinthes pays off, especially when it comes to staff training. “The education that goes around it is less scattershot,” he says. “The more you know about something, the more you remember it. Being able to dig into any product, whether it’s absinthe, whiskey, or madeira, the deeper the program, the more responsive you can be.”