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First Look: Cocktails at Billy Sunday, Chicago
Note: First Looks give previews of new drinks and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with bars and restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
The story of Billy Sunday the bar begins with the man himself. William Ashley "Billy" Sunday was a Midwesterner who escaped poverty on his athletic gifts. He played Major League baseball for several teams including the original Chicago White Stockings. "Kind of Mr. No-Fun," is the way Alex Bachman, head barman at Billy Sunday, recently summed up the man for whom the handsome new tavern is named. According to Bachman, Sunday was once walking by a South Side mission and overheard a riveting sermon that changed his life. Shaken by the words, he decided to devote himself to preaching and went on to become the most famous evangelical Christian of his time. He also was a driving force in the Temperance movement that led to Prohibition.
Before he took the reins at Billy Sunday, Bachman headed up the bar at Yusho, a Japanese restaurant that lies just a short walk north of his new digs. Billy Sunday marks the first expansion of the Yusho family but also a sharp departure from the stylings of its Far East-leaning sibling. Billy Sunday reads as a modern take on a turn-of-the-century cocktail den, with a soaring back bar, wood tables and chairs, reclaimed church lamps hanging from the ceiling, and eclectic artwork glassed in behind vintage window frames.
As far as the name goes, Bachman said that Mr. Sunday struck him and Chef Matthias Merges as a kind of kindred spirit. "Matthias would probably agree with me in saying that, sure, we like having a sense of irony about naming a bar after a guy who spent basically his entire life to preaching against the ills of alcohol," Bachman told me. "But I think, more importantly, we all have a deep commitment to what we do. It's what we want to do for life. We're in it for as long as humanly possible. And if there's one thing that we and Billy definitely have in common, it's that."
Much like at Yusho, Bachman's deep commitment to crafting drinks is evident simply by reading the ingredients in Billy Sunday's cocktails. He's known to develop his own bitters, syrups and tinctures, and the highest cabinets of the back bar are loaded with jars of exotic botanicals sourced from Oregon's Mountain Rose Herbs, ambergris from a contact in New Zealand, and wormwood and angostura bark from Bachman's friends at Tempus Fugit Spirits, among other suppliers. (What's ambergris, you ask? Oh, just a mysterious fatty secretion from a sperm whale with a funky flavor "like a tide pool rolled into your grandmother's basement," Bachman described.)
But for all the custom housemade potions he concocts, "Tradition is the core of it all," Bachman said. "And it's important that we respect that and pay homage to what these drinks are." There are several drinks on Billy Sunday's debut menu that bear either the name of or some influence from a classic cocktail. "Yeah, we might make a daiquiri," he went on, "and use two rums instead of one, and instead of using a basic simple syrup we use a passion fruit syrup, and maybe we add a little bit of bitters to bring out the tropical fruit notes that are already present in those spirits. But it's based on a daiquiri."
Presenting cocktails that carry depth and balance is just as important to Bachman as bringing the classics to life. "If there's anything I would mention about all of our cocktails here is," he said, "I think each drink should be an entire experience on its own." He's acutely concerned with keeping acidity and sweetness in check while creating a desirable finish. "It's not like drinking a gin gimlet, which is just raw acid and spirit. These things have depth and concentration in them. A lot of them lead up front with a lot of full-bodied roundness, absolutely, but I'm still confident in the fact that all of these finish dry without any cloying or bitterness."
Balance, he added, "sometimes can be construed as sugar versus acid," when in actuality there are more dimensions to it: concentration vs. dilution; bitterness vs. mildness; and heat vs. no heat. And getting the balance just right can be challenging. For the Armagnac-based Son of the Crusta cocktail, for instance, Bachman said the team spent countless hours tinkering with the ingredients before it was perfect.
That kind of devotion perhaps even Mr. Sunday could have appreciated.