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Know your bartender: Alex Bachman

The barman for Matthias Merges's restaurants loves sake and vintage glassware and grows his own tomatoes on the roof of Billy Sunday

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Photograph: Martha Williams

Alex Bachman is the head bartender at Billy Sunday in Logan Square.

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Photograph: Martha Williams

The Old Ivory Egg cocktail is served at Billy Sunday in Logan Square.

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Photograph: Martha Williams

Billy Sunday serves a Harvey Wallbanger cocktail.

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Photograph: Martha Williams

Billy Sunday serves an Old Fashioned.

Last fall, we gave Billy Sunday a Critics’ Pick in our Best Awards for the Weirdest Cocktail Program. That award was given lovingly, of course, and refers to the bar’s tendency to use ingredients we’ve never heard of. The current menu includes Sac’Resine, Bacanora and Amchur Bitters, and while we can’t tell you what those are, we can pretty much guarantee the cocktails they’re in are delicious.

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The man behind the cocktail list is Alex Bachman, a Chicago native and alum of Charlie Trotter’s, who first got his start bartending at the Plaza Tavern while attending the University of Madison. As the head barman for all of Matthias Merges’s restaurants, he’s also in charge of the drink list at Yusho in Chicago and Las Vegas as well as A10. He’s also growing tomatoes on the roof of Billy Sunday to use in a cocktail. We recently asked him eight questions about his bar program.

How do you handle such disparate drink programs at Yusho, Billy Sunday and A10?
It’s challenging, but it’s important to be respectful of each property and the parts of the city and country they’re in. Billy Sunday is more esoteric as far as cocktails and spirit selection, with Fernet and amaro. Hyde Park was new territory, and we didn’t know what to expect there, so we entered with more of a classic approach to cocktails. We didn’t know how people would respond to craft cocktails, so we eased into it. We recently overhauled the list and pushed it a little bit more—we’re using rhum agricole and making more things in house. And at Yusho, there’s a sake professional, so I only have to give brief oversight. 

What’s your approach to making cocktails at Billy Sunday?
We’re always open to working with any ingredient and spirit and love a good challenge. The way we construct a recipe is from the ground up, and first and foremost we’re about respecting the base spirit. We celebrate distinctive flavor profiles in spirits and I think that we’re definitely heavily based in tradition, whether that’s classic blending ratios, the tools we use or the way we make syrups and bitters. We use very little added technology at Billy Sunday. That being said, we’re excited to work with new flavor profiles, but the way we utilize them is through traditional methods. 

In terms of ingredients, is there anything you’ve been really into lately?
I always love everything, but I don’t think it’s any secret that amaro has a special place in our hearts at Billy Sunday. Because of how terroir-driven these products are, the history is fascinating. Some things like Campari and Cynar are big global brands now, but it seems like every month I’m getting emails from Italy about some amari we’ve never heard of before. There were thousands of producers historically, and we’re seeing some bottles come to us. 

What is the most important skill a bartender should have?
Humility. Remember that every day you are custodians. Strive.  

What do you drink on your night off?
Sake. I’m a big fan. It’s such a unique product. We serve one sake, Kikusui Funaguchi, which is not going to change your life, but it’s a higher alcohol sake, unpasteurized and comes in a small 200ml aluminum can. It’s richly flavored, bold and intense. 

What are some cocktail trends you’re seeing now?
Vintage glassware. It’s not the most important thing, but a drink that’s aesthetically pleasing can be more distinctive. It’s a lot of fun to look for—I look on Etsy, eBay and go to estate sales and antique stores. The Kane County Fair is a great resource. 

Tell us about one of your cocktails people should drink now.
The Old Ivory Egg. It’s a drink I’ve been wanting to do for seven months but hadn’t been able to since tomatoes were never in season. It’s made with tomato water, so we cut the tomatoes and hang them in cheesecloth overnight to get a clear water from the tomato. And that’s seasoned with lime, miso, ramp bitters and Kummel, which is made with caraway. Then we add Bacanora, a Mexican distillate similar to tequila. It’s low in alcohol, because too much booze would destroy the tomato, and it’s very savory. Please don’t think it’s going to be a Bloody Mary. 

Complete this sentence: Malört is...       
Something I steer clear of. (Personally).

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