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Adams Morgan absinthe bar serves up tradition, without hallucinations

Monday - 7/22/2013, 8:37am  ET

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Libertine does the full sugar and absinthe fountain treatment with its drinks, pouring the liquor over a sugar cube suspended above the absinthe by a slotted spoon to create the drink. (WTOP/Heather Brady)
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Heather Brady, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The opening of Libertine, Adams Morgan's new absinthe bar, has ushered in an era in the District where absinthe is now available without the veil of secrecy it wore for so long.

Libertine serves 30 different kinds of absinthe, though it is unlikely that any of them will make patrons see green fairies. The amount of wormwood in the liquor does not actually provide nearly enough thujone to cause hallucinations, convulsions or other dangerous side effects previously reported by absinthe drinkers.

The drink that flowed ubiquitously through French cafes, particularly during the Belle Epoque, and graced the glasses of Vincent Van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire, can be served crystal clear or cloudy.

Libertine does the full sugar and absinthe fountain treatment with its drinks, pouring the liquor over a sugar cube suspended above the absinthe by a slotted spoon to create the drink. And the bar holds to the traditional five-to-one ratio: five parts water, one part absinthe.

But Libertine's large and varied selection of absinthe can be intimidating, since most people are new to it because of the decades-old ban that kept it off of shelves and out of bars.

The best place for a beginner to start is with Libertine's flight of absinthe, on the recommendation of the bartenders there and per a personal taste test. The flight includes three very different drinks based on three very different forms of the liquor, offering several variations that give patrons an idea of what kind of absinthe they will like.

The drink made with Kubler, a Swiss product considered to be white or blue absinthe, is white and cloudy in color. Its taste is somewhat less herbal in nature than the average absinthe drink, but it also has an odd undertone to its taste and a strong liquorice flavor.

The drink made with the Green Villain, a modern green absinthe produced in the U.S., is a clear, light green color. The absinthe is newer and lighter, so the herbs are more distinct. This absinthe-based drink is better for people who aren't fond of the liquor's distinct licorice-like flavor.

The drink made with the Leopold Bros. Absinthe Verte, a traditional green absinthe that is also produced in the U.S., is cloudy and green in color with a slight tongue-numbing effect. The liquorice flavor is still present, but the drink has a minty, clean herbal taste as well. It is the most traditional of the drinks offered in the flight.

Elsewhere on the menu, the Absinthe Jade L'Esprit D'Edouard, a premier French liquor based on samples drawn from 19th century pre-ban bottles made by Pernod, has a high alcoholic proof and a subtle aftertaste.

The drink is quite pricey, as is the case with several high-quality absinthe drinks on the menu, but it is very balanced. Libertine lit the sugar cube that the absinthe was poured over on fire above the glass -- not the traditional way to serve absinthe, since it can burn up the drink's alcoholic content, but it was still entertaining.

Libertine provides grapefruit and cucumber water, which is refreshing on a blistering summer day in D.C. and pairs well with absinthe's herbal flavors, but food can be an important part of the absinthe-drinking experience, as well.

The thyme and garlic wedges appetizer cuts the taste of the absinthe between sips, cleansing the palette. Food options include steak and frites, a typical traditionally French dish that harkens back to absinthe's rich history in the country, along with absinthe tomato bisque and a pasta dish with absinthe pesto -- Libertine even cooks with the liquor as an ingredient.

There is a wide selection of other liquors, beer, wine and sangria, so if an absinthe adventure goes awry, patrons have other options.

Libertine also uses herbs in other cocktails and relies on St. Germain, an herbal- based sweetener. It keeps the spirit of absinthe alive for each customer, even though the liquor is not an ingredient in every cocktail served there.

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