I meet Alex Bachman Saturday morning at the corner of N. Wells and W. Division, right in front of The House of Glunz, a few blocks from where he grew up in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. He’s smoking a cigarette when he arrives a little after 11 a.m. Tall, broad-shouldered and sporting a Cubs hat and Patagonia fleece, the 35-year-old hardly looks like the other “dusty” hunters I’ve come across over the years.
A former sommelier at Charlie Trotter’s and then beverage director at A10 and Yusho, Bachman first started hunting old amaro when working behind the bar at Billy Sunday. Since founding his company, Sole Agent, in 2015, his life’s work has become sourcing rare and vintage spirits for top bars and restaurants across the country, like Canon in Seattle, Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco and the newly-opened Fausto, located just down the block from my apartment in Brooklyn.
His most recent assignment: Assemble a full vertical of Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year, starting with Buffalo Trace’s first release in 2004, in under two months. The collection was for Mordecai in Chicago, a high-end cocktail bar focused mostly on vintage whiskey.
“It’s easy if you’re willing to pay for it,” Bachman tells me. Especially considering he was given his largest-ever opening budget, courtesy of Hickory Street Capital, a private equity firm run by the owners of the Chicago Cubs, who developed Mordecai (it is just across from Wrigley Field). “The harder things to find are obscure amaro,” he notes, nodding toward the 1950s-era Bitter Branca we’re drinking, a long-discontinued product from a producer now better known for their fernet.
As late as the early 2010s, savvy collectors were able to pull amazing finds by simply going “dusty hunting.” By now, paeans have been written to those who’ve best pulled off the task, like the so-called “Bourbon Turtle,” Mike Jasinski, who absolutely cleared northeastern liquor stores of bottles that had been gathering dust since the day they were stocked. Or the duo behind Los Angeles’ Old Lightning, who presciently started stashing away noteworthy bottles starting in their mid-1990s bartending days.
But you’re no longer going to find any Stitzel-Weller Old Fitzgerald by heading to some convenience mart on the other side of the tracks; nor does one have decades to build a collection if demanding restaurateurs want their whiskey bar stocked with the old stuff ASAP. Thus, a new breed of vintage spirits buyer, like Bachman, has emerged—one that’s forced to be more resourceful. As one of his bar clients off-handedly remarks to me, “His world is now a lot less Indiana Jones, and much more A Beautiful Mind.”
I’ve come to Chicago for a weekend to shadow Bachman. Our first order of business is to meet with his key American contact, Christopher Donovan, the current proprietor of his family’s liquor store, The House of Glunz, which has been open since 1888. “It’s not that Christopher necessarily has everything,” Bachman explains, “but his greatest asset, aside from our friendship, is that he can always point me in the right direction. If I can’t find it, Christopher knows where it is.”
Donovan takes us to the second floor in the building where he keeps his private collection; Bachman is one of the few professionals that has access to it. “Looks a helluva lot better than the last time I was here,” Bachman notes as we enter a cluttered corner room anchored by an antique round table at its center. Obscure bottles, like a 1970s Trader Vic’s Palmer House rum, are precariously balanced on stacks of old medicinal whiskey crates. “I obviously don’t come here to cherry-pick, to pull a fast one,” says Bachman. “We’ve been friends for a long time.”
Donovan is one of the few sources whose name Bachman is willing to reveal. “Some are chefs, some are writers, some own liquor stores themselves,” he tells me. He has “a gentleman” in Boston who finds him bottles on the East Coast, and another resource who used to own a number of liquor stores in Chicago before he retired to the suburbs. There’s another gentleman in Rome, and one in Spain who finds him most of his Chartreuse (and, recently, an oddball bottle of 1962 Cuban rum finished in sherry barrels), one in France just south of Cognac, plus two contacts in Germany and father-and-son team in northern Italy who earn their full livelihood finding Bachman bottles.
In February alone, the Italian duo nabbed 40 cases worth of vintage booze. The haul was dominated by amaro, though they do know to be on the lookout for American whiskey releases that may have escaped the country during the “glut” era of the 1970s and ’80s—like a 1979 Wild Turkey Italian export we crack open while standing at Mordecai’s second floor bar. These contacts, in turn, have their own networks of employees from now-defunct distilleries, distributors and restaurants, as well as access to local estate sales and auctions.
Bachman is also always looking to buy from estates of those who have recently passed. For instance, a famous German collector, Heinz Taubenheim, died two years ago, leaving behind one of the largest private whiskey collections in the entire world. His surviving family produced a book detailing what exactly he had. Bachman bought one of the 100 copies printed, which is how he became aware of a rare Japanese export, Willett Single-Barrel 24 Year Old, which he bought for Mordecai. It’s currently the most expensive pour on the menu at $650 for a two-ounce pour.
“It’s not just buying everything under the sun for the sake of buying everything under the sun,” says Bachman. “Every bottle [I buy] is specifically chosen for a reason—what it represents for a certain distillery, or a period of distillation history.”
Of course, sometimes he gets lucky just like anyone else. We stop in for a drink at a basement mezcal bar, Todos Santos, where we meet up with Paul McGee, the co-owner of Lost Lake and beverage director of Milk Room, the latter an eight-seat bar with a menu dominated by vintage spirits, many of which Bachman sourced. On a recent trip to Tokyo together, the two wandered into a Ginza liquor store and stumbled upon a shelf of Ancient Ancient Age 8 Year Old, a highly regarded, rare release from Buffalo Trace.
“I’m looking at Paul,” explains Bachman. “‘Did they ever make an 8 year?’ ‘I’ve never seen it.’” It turns out that it was only made for the Japanese market in the early 2000s. “‘OK, well we need to buy all of these and get them back to America,'” they decided.
One bottle from that haul now sits on the second floor backbar at Mordecai. We head there in the late afternoon, a few hours before it will open for the night. Before Bachman leaves, I can’t help but ask him whether he’s worried that the collection he so painstakingly built will be depleted once the place, which opened last month, inevitably becomes a high-end hangout.
“No,” Bachman casually notes. “I’ll just go find another.”