When Libertine closed in Adams Morgan to make way for Rosario, it left D.C. without a dedicated absinthe bar. Fortunately, Mirabelle has stepped up and set a goal of being the largest pourer of the still-mystical spirit in the city.
Lead bartender Zachary Faden says they were initially planning to serve two types of the licorice-flavored spirit, but then they got their hands on a traditional absinthe fountain and decided to go all out with nine choices and counting. Mirabelle, after all, seeks to be a taste of Paris in D.C.
“At the restaurant, we’re going for the celebration of the contemporary French and American table, so we might as well expand that philosophy to the bar,” Faden says. “Absinthe was the symbol of France and Paris for a while. At one point there were over 30,000 in the early part of the 20th century. London had its pubs. Paris had its absinthe houses.”
While absinthe made its debut in 1792 when it was considered more of a medicinal elixir, the spirit has a certain newness to it due in large part to being banned for nearly a century in certain European countries, including France, and in the U.S. until 2007. Temperance movements had a lot to do with absinthe becoming taboo, but a compound found in wormwood, which is contained in most absinthes, also played a role.
Faden explains that misinformation spread about thujone (the compound) affecting the brain like marijuana, when really it’s more like caffeine. “Yes, if you drink enough coffee, it’s very dangerous and bad things will happen, but that’s the case with anything,” he says.
“If there was a recreational effect of wormwood or absinthe, the amount of alcohol you would need to consume to experience it would be debilitating and most likely deadly.” He says wormwood is also used in vermouth, but no one made a decades-long stink about that.
Zac Hoffman, who bartends with Faden at Mirabelle, suggests another theory. “A lot of the confusion comes from the drug abuse that was happening at the time [in Europe],” he says. “People were mixing heroin, cocaine, and opium. You’d get these really crazy concoctions, and they’d feel something, but it wasn’t from the alcohol.”
Mirabelle’s absinthe program requires Hoffman and Faden to do a lot of explaining. Customers ask on a daily basis if they’re pouring “real absinthe” or whether absinthe is legal. They also shed light on the best way to enjoy absinthe, which is in a three-to-one ratio with water that finds its way into the glass only after trickling past a sugar cube. (Though Sazeracs are pretty tasty too.)
The traditional absinthe service offered at the bar mimics an attention-grabbing science experiment because patrons get to watch a one-ounce pour go from clear to cloudy thanks to the louche process. “A lot of the flavor in absinthe is trapped in the alcohol,” Faden says. “When it comes in contact with water, it blooms, the oils are released.”
Those who drink it neat gain bragging rights because absinthes are high in alcohol by volume, but by showing bravado they miss out on the nuanced, herbal notes that water unlocks. “Smell it in the bottle, then smell it ‘louched.’ It’s an entirely different product—it’s turned up to 11,” Faden says.
In addition to maximizing flavor, the reason for the Parisian-style service from the absinthe fountain is ritualistic. “Rituals are coming back,” Hoffman says. “The care with ice is hitting an equilibrium with everyone. We’re taking care of how we shake cocktails, how we serve cocktails. It has all these subsections of nuance and finesse.”
Hoffman and Faden recommend starting with the Kübler Absinthe Supérieure ($12 per 1 oz.) from Switzerland or the Pernod Absinthe Supérieure ($14) from France because they’re straightforward and carry the most historic gravitas. Both “houses” claim to hold the original absinthe recipe.
Those looking for something next level should try American-made Leopold Bros. Absinthe Verte ($14) because of its cucumber and tarragon notes. And even though absinthe’s nickname is the “green fairy,” don’t be alarmed if your absinthe is clear such as the Germain-Robin Absinthe Superieure ($18), also made in the U.S.
Given that absinthe is only 10 years into its domestic rebirth, Faden says more time is needed to develop craftsmanship. “We have some good products now, but I’m excited to see what comes out in the next five to 10 years,” he says.
Hoffman agrees, saying we’re moving from phase one to phase two and adds, “Absinthe has influenced art, culture, laws, and general wellbeing of people for a long time. It was gone for a while, and now it’s back.”
Mirabelle, 900 16th St. NW; (202) 506-3833; mirabelledc.com