Since its long-awaited opening in November, The Imperial in Adams Morgan has quickly become a destination for cocktail enthusiasts buzzing about the funky ingredients and collection of rare bottles and vintages. Bridging together multiple historic buildings, the highly anticipated three-level concept from Jack Rose owners Bill Thomas and Stephen King has become a multi-floor playground of sorts for beverage director Andy Bixby.
He’s able to let loose in the basement of The Imperial, where neighboring Jack Rose’s cocktail bar Dram & Grain has relocated to provide an outlet for offbeat and unconventional cocktails. The first floor focuses on a cocktail menu that pairs well with the raw bar, seafood and Mid-Atlantic menu offerings.
From building on and elevating base ingredients to presenting innovative cocktails with a new perspective, Bixby is constantly challenging his team to think about the next ingredient, the next recipe and the next concoction. We caught up with him to find out what first-time guests and repeat customers can look forward to at The Imperial this winter.On Tap: It’s been a long road to opening The Imperial. What are you most excited to share with guests now that you’re officially up and running?
Andy Bixby: I think it’s the full space. [Co-owner] Steve [King] has done a ton of work making sure the design is great. [Chef] Russell [Jones] has done an incredible job making sure the food is good. My hope is that I can help to complement and build upon that with cocktails I think are meant to be consumed with food. I’m excited for people to come out and try things that wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing they’d order, [and] to have people’s eyes opened up to new corners of the beverage world.
OT: The food menu is taking more of a role than at sister restaurant and bar Jack Rose. How does the beverage program play into the menu?
AB: I was very excited to take on this program as a sister program to Jack Rose because this allows me to flesh out more of my creativity. It’s always been about the food on this first floor. The beverages were always meant to help elevate and bolster that food program. The Cham-boo! is one of our cocktails featured on the main floor because it is the perfect pairing with the majority of our food. In essence, [it’s] a classic cocktail called the Bamboo. We’re taking that concept, force carbonating the whole thing and turning it into an emulation of how you drink champagne. But [it’s] actually just an elevated form of this cocktail.
The Imperial Gin and Tonic
House dehydrated grapefruit tonic
Clarified lemon & grapefruit
Saline & CO2
Garnished with fresh grapefruit, thyme, tarragon & juniper berries
OT: A lot of the focus surrounding The Imperial’s opening has been centered on the rare bottles, vintages and unconventional cocktail ingredients. Talk to me more about the varied selection.
AB: [Bill Thomas] spent the last two years really scouring to curate vintage spirits. The oldest thing we have is a bottle-and-a-half of cognac bottled in 1854. We have turn-of-the-1900s madeira, ports and sherries. We also have 1960s Galliano Amaretto. As far as the real fun ingredients, that’s where the basement comes in. Right now, we have three base ingredients on the menu: a citrus amaro, a tamaro (three different amari blended together and sous-vide with tamari, shoyu, miso, mirin, lemongrass, ginger, sesame seeds [and] dehydrated lime), and an anisette. We can constantly rotate the menu while we keep [those] ingredients and start making new ingredients. The goal is that we can still always produce these drinks, or at least very close facsimiles of them, by the time people start to fall in love with them and want to keep coming back.
OT: The reception has been overwhelmingly positive so far, with lines out the door before the bar is even open. What do you think is behind this buzz and what does that say about the cocktail culture in DC?
AB: The cocktail culture in the city has changed drastically. I’ve been bartending now for almost 11 years and I’ve noticed a significant change in how people are going out and wanting to imbibe. Guests want to be educated [and] learn more. I’ve always focused on bartender-to-guest interaction because I want to make sure that if you have questions, you can have that outlet – somebody that can talk you through with confidence and understanding of what’s going on in the beverage. I think that’s [been] a huge change over the last couple of years.
OT: If you had to select one drink from the menu that you’d recommend to guests, which would you go with?
AB: I think the Cham-boo! is an incredible cocktail that helps bridge [the gap between] people that love cocktails but also those that don’t necessarily want to think about cocktails as much. Our Imperial Gin and Tonic [is] our cornerstone drink to what I want the program to be. It is a Spanish-style gin and tonic served with Bombay Sapphire, our house dehydrated grapefruit tonic and a little bit of juniper salt. The tonic itself has clarified lemon and grapefruit. [It’s] fully carbonated [and] we serve it in a large balloon glass with a grapefruit wheel, thyme and tarragon bunched together [with] juniper berries. I think it’s an aesthetically beautiful cocktail. It’s simple in concept, but we are giving you a gin and tonic that is wildly different from any gin and tonic you’ve had before.
The Imperial: 2001 18th St. NW, DC; http://imperialdc.com