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Billy Sunday: the primer

Ten terms you should know before you go to the city’s most innovative new cocktail bar.

Photograph: Oriana Koren
Alex Bachman tends bar at Billy Sunday

1. Alex Bachman
Head bartender, Charlie Trotter’s alum, fount of cocktail-related knowledge.

2. Ambergris
“Without getting into the gory details, it’s simply the secretion from sperm whales that collects in the ocean and eventually washes up on beaches,” says Bachman. “It smells like a tide pool rolled into your grandmother’s basement. That briny, sort of umami character adds a dimension to the cocktail: It’s incorporated into the palm sugar in the rye-based drink named “Cocktail.”

3. Artisanal bread
What a server here will recommend placing a separate order for when you ask for the smoked-trout “jar.” (The jar itself comes with only a few pieces of rye toast.)

4. Banana pudding
Possibly the best dessert ever served in a bar.

5. Gran Classico
The bitter Bachman uses in place of Campari for Billy Sunday’s Negroni. “Campari to me—and I know I’m just going to get in a world of hurt here—is not what it used to be,” says Bachman. “I think Gran Classico right now much better represents what that style of liqueur actually is: [It’s] fuller in body, it has more of that presence of gentian root and orange peel and wormwood. It’s definitely a product that I admit I have a deep infatuation with.”

6. Matthias Merges
The guy checking IDs at the door. Also, the owner of Billy Sunday and Yusho. Also the former longtime chef at Charlie Trotter’s, where he and Bachman met.

7. Sirop de capillaire
“A very old-school sweetening agent in old punch recipes. [It’s] a simple syrup that is flavored with maidenhair fern, a small little fern. We get ours from British Columbia. Imagine Earl Grey and mint tea were just somehow combined and you made a simple syrup that tasted like that.” Bachman uses it in the Victorian cocktail “to reinforce a lot of the [botanical] flavor profiles that are already in that drink.”

8. Tonics
A category of the Billy Sunday menu containing two cocktails, the Kent (essentially a gin and tonic) and the Aquinas (a whiskey tonic). The process of making the syrup-like tonic for the Kent begins by boiling together cinchona bark (the source of quinine); allspice; lemongrass; orange, lemon and lime zest; Turkish rhubarb; and other ingredients “to get all the possible flavor out of all these items.” The mixture is then strained, the liquid reserved, filtered, sweetened with agave and “acidified” with citric acid. (The tonic for the Aquinas follows a similar process, but with a different set of ingredients, such as burdock root, dandelion, ramon nuts and more.) Then Bachman combines the tonic with equal parts water and gin in a five-gallon Cornelius keg, hooks it up to a small CO2 tank and force-carbonates it over two days. “And then…we just hook it up to our lines like a kegged beer, and there you go.”

9. Vintage Fernet
What your last drink of the night at Billy Sunday should be. “There are not a lot of distillates in the world where you can really talk about terroir and a sense of place, and Fernet does that in my opinion better than [anything],” he says. “We have a plethora of [Fernet] here from all different producers from all over Italy—some that are still up and running, some that are defunct and have been mothballed. Herbalized or botanical spirits that have organic compounds macerated in them change over time—they age. So it’s an exciting thing to see a current-release Fernet Branca, say, versus one that was bottled in the ’60s and has a good 50-plus years of bottle-age on it…. That’s not to say that all of them age so gracefully—there are definitely some real dogs out there.”

10. Vodka
“That’s probably the only spirit that we’re kind of against,” says Bachman, “just because I think it’s kind of contradictory when you’re talking about cocktails that have all this flavor and are so super respectful of the base spirit. How do you make a drink that’s based on a spirit that doesn’t taste like anything to begin with?” That said: “We do have vodka here. If somebody would like to come to the bar and order a Cosmopolitan or a vodka tonic, we will make it for them, happily, with the same attention to detail and focus that we would craft any other cocktail.”

Billy Sunday, 3143 W Logan Blvd (773-661-2485).

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