When you sip a daiquiri at Milk Room, the intimate cocktail lounge at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, you get a taste of old Havana, literally. Bartender Paul McGee uses pre-embargo Cuban rum.
Vintage spirits and liqueurs—bottles that are either very old or out-of-production—are having a moment as local bartenders strive to make historically accurate renditions of classic drinks. These spirits often boast big flavors without relying on artificial enhancements. (Campari, for example, introduced artificial coloring in 2006, making older bottles of the liqueur prized acquisitions.) Plus, there’s a bit of romance in the idea of sipping something from another era. But there’s one problem: vintage booze can be very hard to find.
Enter Alex Bachman. The 34-year-old former bartender is the founder and owner of the vintage-liquor brokerage Sole Agent—and a lifeline for exacting mixologists like McGee.
Bachman’s been a hunter of rare booze for five years now. While working as the head bartender at the Logan Square cocktail mecca Billy Sunday, he made a trip to Italy to scour old restaurants and boarded-up bars in search of ancient amaro. Over time, he developed a network of sources—the former distillery warehouse manager who was his guide through Italy, a Japanese restaurateur, an American whiskey expert—to ship him bottles. Eventually, his stash filled Billy Sunday’s back bar.
Bachman relies on this network of dusty-bottle enthusiasts (whose identities he won’t divulge, the better to prevent competitors from squeezing in on what is, after all, a finite global inventory) to peruse estate sales and warehouses for neglected bottles. Then he secures their safe—and, he stresses, legal—passage to Chicago and sells them (for big bucks) to snazzy cocktail dens such as the Loyalist, 1952½ Liquorette, and Yusho. One of Bachman’s proudest achievements? Snapping up seven bottles of ultra-rare Luca Gargano Velier rum in a specialty foods store outside of Tokyo. He relishes the thrill of the hunt: “It’s the dumpster diving of the booze world.”
Vintage Bottles to Taste Now
1. Gordon’s London dry gin, circa 1940
Find it:Queen Mary Tavern, $44 for a cocktail
The taste:“Juniper and dried lemon peel lead the pack.”
2. Caroni 17-year-old rum, 1998
Find it:Lost Lake, $45 for 2 ounces
The taste:“Biscuits, with dried almonds and roasted barley.”
3. Old Fitzgerald bourbon, 1955
Find it:Milk Room, $300 for 2 ounces
The taste:“A corn sweetness, with white cake, mint, and maple syrup.”
4. Campari, 1956
Find it:Billy Sunday, $100 for 2 ounces
The taste:“It’s got much more body than current expressions, with orange peel and galangal root.”