Spirit Animals: New Bars Are Diving Deep on Rakia, Mezcal, and Absinthe. What Are They Drinking?
The bartender at Adams Morgan’s Libertine slides the absinthe fountain in front of us, opening the faux-silver spigot and letting out a slow drip. The water falls on a slotted spoon of brown sugar, dissolving it into a curvy glass of French Absinthe Blanchette—one of more than 30 varieties of the anise-flavored spirit on the menu.
As the clear liquid turns milky, the bartender, Ian Mullins, explains how combining the absinthe’s oil with water creates a cloudlike “louche” effect. This, he wants us to know, is how you serve a proper absinthe. He dismisses the notion of lighting the absinthe on fire, “bohemian-style.” None of his absinthe-drinking pals in Prague have heard of such a thing, he says; it could distort the taste.
Our bartender continues to spill out wormwood tidbits. He tells us that thujone, the chemical that supposedly makes absinthe sippers see green fairies, isn’t actually hallucinogenic and can also be found in sage. Speaking of which, he directs us to a sage spirit on the menu. Libertine also has hemp-flavored absinthe, coffee absinthe, and other styles, each broken down by country with sentence-long descriptions.
Who would have thought? A bar dedicated to the nuances of absinthe? Yet esoteric and underappreciated spirits are getting more love in D.C.’s drinking scene, thanks to the rise of niche bars building shelf-sagging inventories around a single type of spirit. Instead of relying on name brands and known sellers, some establishments have collections stretching into triple digits, with rare varieties thrown in for bragging rights. In D.C., a mine-is-bigger-than-yours mentality no longer applies only to wine lists.
Places like El Centro D.F. and Oyamel each boast hundreds of tequilas but are also helping to glamorize mezcal by offering dozens of bottles of the agave spirit. Jack Rose Dining Saloon claims one of the largest collections of whiskey in the Western Hemisphere, Hogo has nearly a hundred bottles of rum, and Zentan and Daikaya are bulking up their collections of sake. And then there are places focused on alcoholic beverages you’d probably never order elsewhere: Balkan-inspired Barracks Row restaurant Ambar is all about rakia (made from distilled fermented fruit), and Shaw’s Mockingbird Hill is dedicated to sherry.
“It seems to me that the competition is really fierce in D.C. right now,” says Libertine owner Amy Bowman, who also runs the Black Squirrel. “There’s bars opening up every day, and you really have to come with your A game. You have to come up with a really interesting concept that kind of sparks people’s imaginations and makes them want to come in.”
Coming from a very specific kind of bar like Black Squirrel, which serves almost exclusively American craft beer, Bowman says it was natural to open another very specific kind of bar. But she wanted something that would stand out: “It’s easier to pop out in people’s minds as, ‘Oh Libertine, that’s where you get absinthe, and they have some cool cocktails there.’ That’s an identity for the bar.” (Another absinthe-focused bar called La Fée Verte was supposed to open on the rooftop of Mova Lounge on 14th Street NW, but the idea was killed in part because the management didn’t think there was enough variety and appeal in absinthe.)
It helps Libertine that Bowman actually likes the stuff. She began serving absinthe at Black Squirrel in 2007, when U.S. regulators lifted a century-long ban. Bowman, like several bar proprietors in D.C., wanted drinkers to learn that not all absinthe (or sake, or rum, or tequila) tastes the same—the same way a burger will look and taste different depending on where you get it.
But is there really a big enough audience interested in uncovering the intricacies of rakia or sherry? How many people are curious about the difference between a fino and manzanilla? Or care to compare a pear rakia to one made with quince? Even if the answer is not very many—at least for now—bar owners, driven by their own drinking obsessions, want to convert the agnostics.
As a result, stoolside educational sessions and textbook-like menus with encyclopedic anecdotes are becoming more common. Mockingbird Hill hosts sherry classes every Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m., while El Centro’s Georgetown location has free tastings every Wednesday from 5 to 7 p.m. this fall.
“The more educated consumer you have, the better consumer you have,” says Hogo owner Tom Brown. At any given time, Hogo has anywhere from 80 to 95 varieties of rum (“none of them are Bacardi Razz”) plus 40 to 50 tequilas, mezcals, and other Latin American spirits. “For me, the idea was to focus on something that was maybe not as well understood or not as widely accepted and to show its range,” Brown says. “A lot of people think of Captain Morgan or those sorts of things that they may have experienced in college. A lot of people don’t take rum seriously now. But there’s a lot of seriously well-made rums.”
It helps that consumers are much more educated and curious now, says Brown, especially in D.C. “They are much more willing to explore the intricacies of a spirit category.”
In addition to flights ($12 to $25) to show off a spectrum of different styles of rum, Brown relies on bartenders to guide drinkers toward brands that are better than their Bacardi standby but have the same price tag. The same is true at El Centro, where bartenders must go through a two-week training, at the end of which they’re tested about the products, the production process of tequila and mezcal, and the regions where the spirits are made. In addition, all the bar managers will soon take a tequila sommelier class.
Rob Day, the regional beverage director for Richard Sandoval’s establishments like El Centro and Ambar, says the 14th Street NW location of the Mexican restaurant has 180 tequilas and about 15 mezcals. When a new location opened in Georgetown this summer, he wanted to top those numbers. The second El Centro has at least 225 tequilas and 45 mezcals. “I would like to have every tequila the United States has if I could,” he says. “We want to be the No. 1 tequila bar in D.C., absolutely.”
Sourcing that volume of variety is mostly easy, since Day came from the alcohol-distributing world before joining Sandoval’s team a year ago. But in some cases, getting rare bottles means pulling a few strings. In preparation for the opening of the Georgetown El Centro, Day went on a mezcal tasting and training trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, where he met with about 20 producers, some of whom wanted his help getting their products in D.C. He connected them with his distributor contacts, who have picked up some of the products.
Part of what allows D.C. bars to build such large inventories are its unique alcohol import laws, which make it possible to obtain bottles directly or from outside distributors if they aren’t available from D.C.-licensed distributors. That’s not possible for bars in Maryland, Virginia, and elsewhere in the country. Bowman says she relied on the alcohol import system for about half of her absinthes.
Having large collections of spirits often means that some bottles—usually the very expensive ones—only get poured a few times a year. Libertine has an oak-aged absinthe that Bowman says she’s sold one ounce of since opening in July. (It costs $21 an ounce.)
Meanwhile, Brown has a bottle of Black Tot—one of the rarest rums in the world—that he’s barely made a dent in. It’s no wonder: The bottle retails for about $1,000 and costs $100 an ounce at Hogo. It’s not expensive for its quality, Brown says, but rather its history. The rum commemorates Black Tot Day, when the British Royal Navy stopped serving rum rations to sailors in 1970. The Navy still had rum left over, so it stored the alcohol in clay amphoras until decades later, when an enterprising businessman bought it all up and decided to sell it. The amphoras didn’t add anything to the aging process but sealed the liquor off from oxygen, so the result is something of a time capsule.
“It’s a stupid business decision to pay $1,000 for a bottle of rum when you could easily pay $100 and get a rum that was 10 times better,” Brown says. But for him, it’s still worth stocking it. “It’s this porthole back into time. It gives you an opportunity to experience what people were drinking 40 years ago.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery