Sam Treadway, the bar manager and co-owner of Backbar, was feeling a bit of pressure as he prepared to debut his Somerville watering hole in December 2011.
Backbar was one of four new places that began serving craft cocktails all within weeks of one another. Some of the area’s most celebrated bartenders were opening Brick & Mortar in Central Square and the Hawthorne in the Fenway neighborhood. There is also Saloon just down the street from Treadway’s new venture.
“I was terrified,” Treadway recalled. “I’m opening yet another cocktail bar in a two-week span of everyone else. Even worse, I’m in the middle of nowhere and nobody can get to me by T. What am I going to do?”
Not only is Treadway’s Union Square bar in the middle of nowhere, once you actually get there it’s still not particularly easy to find. First look for the nondescript red door in an alley. Once you find the door, walk to the end of the hallway and you’ve made it. At first, it’s easy to think that you’ve accidentally walked into the employees’ entrance of a restaurant. But people have found Backbar in droves, and it’s become a destination for craft cocktails and sophisticated bar bites.
On weekends the small space with the industrial decor is chockablock with 20- and 30-somethings snacking on spicy caramel popcorn with bacon and sipping Singapore Smokes, Treadway’s take on the Singapore Sling.
Some patrons have taken to calling Backbar “Hipster Drink” or “Drink II,” referencing Barbara Lynch’s successful Drink in Fort Point. Treadway likens his space to a cool, industrial Brooklyn speakeasy that was lifted up by a tornado and dropped in Somerville. No witches were harmed in his analogy.
“When we opened, I actually think the out-of-the way location was one of the things we had going for us,” says the 29-year-old with an upper arm of tattoos. “Somerville is hipster central, and hipsters love things that other people haven’t heard of. People like to talk about how they magically found this place.
“But what I hope what people are coming back for are the drinks.”
If his recent honors are any indication, people are coming in for the drinks. Treadway won the title of Boston’s best bartender in Boston magazine’s 2013 poll. He also took top honors in a local competition sponsored by Bombay Sapphire gin, and will compete in the mixology battle nationally this fall. Gary Hayward, a judge in the contest and brand ambassador for Bombay Sapphire, called Treadway’s cocktail “imagination in a glass.”
John Gertsen, general manager of Drink, finds the comparison between the two bars flattering and says he has been impressed with Backbar.
“It is a bar that takes a little bit of perseverance to get to,” said Gertsen, who worked with Treadway at Drink. “But once you get there you’re rewarded with a system and a space that is quite comfortable.”
Treadway has made considerable gains since having to lie about his bartending experience (he had none) to land a job at Cheers while in college. He did everything he could at the tourist hotspot — busboy, server, barback, bartender — to learn the trade. He continued bartending when he returned to Minnesota for college.
“I was in a tavern that was full of regulars and old-timers,” he says. “I brought in my own fruits and would try this or that. I had specials like the kiwi martini. Not too many people went for it, but that’s where I started messing around with flavors.”
He worked in Seattle before moving back to Boston. He tended bar at Eastern Standard and it was there that he says he began to learn about the history and origin of drinks. He likens the education to putting a Rolodex of classic recipes in his brain. He was with Gertsen when Drink opened in 2010. He went to Hawaii to tend bar, but when creators of Journeyman restaurant in Somerville offered him the opportunity to helm a quirky bar in the awkward space, he came back to Boston.
Since opening Backbar, Treadway has tried to take the pretense out of the cocktail bar experience. He witnessed customers order a beer only to be shamed by friends or strangers for not trying a cocktail. Treadway hopes that the style of his menu and the appearance of the space, which features a graffiti mural and industrial light fixtures, will help discourage that kind of cocktail snobbery.
But if a customer happens to come in to order a vodka tonic, he is not afraid of suggesting another vodka drink, something more adventurous, that he thinks the customer might enjoy.
“I think it’s fun to bring people to another level. But it doesn’t matter how cool a drink you make, if the customer doesn’t like it, you failed,” he said. “It’s about finding what’s going to be the best thing for someone in that particular moment.”