Having spent the inaugural 18 years of my existence lurking in the depths of Merseyside, Liverpool was the anvil upon which my liver was first properly hammered. Welcome to The Great British Bar Hunt.
A furious cauldron of Jägermeister, WKD and self-explanatory ‘quad-vods’, concluded at an establishment called ‘The Razz,’ where the sweat did not so much drip from the walls as cascade in Amazonian torrents onto a floor seemingly coated in the strongest, most monstrous adhesive under the sun.
Having made my way home for Christmas it struck me that Liverpool would be a fine place to begin my monthly search for top quality whiskying holes. And yet my heart harboured shameful, treacherous reservations about a city whose drinking scene I associated more with slamming tequila than with sipping single malt; more with the last days of Rome than with the first days of Great Drams.
Nonetheless, I opened my mind, and assembled/co-erced/bribed a crack team of imbibers. Each less enthusiastic about whisk(e)y than the last, but I’m afraid that’s my friends for you. They’ll come round. A swift Google search later, and our targets were acquired. Beginning with Jenny’s, a minute’s walk from James Street Station…
Fenwick Street, Liverpool. L2 7NT
The first thing to note about Jenny’s is that it is not, as Google maps would have you believe, a seafood restaurant. (Though apparently it used to be.)
It’s tucked down a small side street, and is one of the easier to find speakeasies I’ve encountered, as there’s a largeish sign and an Auchentoshan barrel outside. Possibly it isn’t billed as a speakeasy, but if I was trying to hide my revelry from a 1920s New York policeman it would be the last place I’d choose. Fortunately I wasn’t. It’s nice when things work out.
Descending the steps from the entrance you find yourself in a reasonably spacious bar boasting a medium sized, but very well formed spirits selection. You’re probably talking forty whiskies or so, but it didn’t feel especially like a ‘whisky bar’ per se. More a cocktail bar which happens to have a medium sized selection of whiskies. Still, I clocked Highland Park 18, Blanton’s and Redbreast, so suits me sir.
We weren’t waiting long before a table freed itself up. Although apparently long enough for a lady in a red coat to topple into us three times. Which for about 8:15 in the evening is almost impressive. The staff were very attentive throughout – you got the sense that glasses are never empty long at Jenny’s, even when they’re busy.
Oh, and it’s Disco themed. Did I mention? Though this doesn’t manifest itself in costume, lighting or dance floor. The music’s very seventies/eighties though, and the cocktails lean in a sweet, fun and fruity direction, rather than strictly adhering to classics. Our selection included the intensely pineappley ‘Pisco Inferno,’ a Bramble (which unusually came in a rather long glass) and the ‘Absolut Disco’, served in a cup decorated like a Disco Ball.
Obviously I was also there on whisky duty, and I indulged myself in a Chivas Regal 18, which I hadn’t had in months. Points to Jenny’s for serving in a nosing glass rather than a tumbler, and the staff were only too happy to chatter away about the selection. Apparently it’s still growing bottle by bottle, so hopefully when I next go back (and I will) there’ll be a few new faces on the shelves.
Pricewise the cocktails sat mostly between £7.50 and £8.50, and my double Chivas 18 was £9. By and large I thought this was fair – you’d definitely pay more in London, and even in my now-native Reading. Bloody Thames Valley…
A good start to the evening then; approval for Jenny’s all round. It’s a fun bar, one that doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, and the cocktails are tasty, particularly if your tooth is sweet. (Though I like my Brambles in a tumbler, because I’m pernickety.)
My friend Rob commented that it’d be a good place to go on a date, and I agree. It’s a little off-piste, it has a clear personality, and you remember it for the right reasons. Good for groups too – we had plenty of space, and the music is just quiet enough that you’re not constantly shouting “WHAT?” at the person the other end of the table. (Or “I’m sorry, please could you repeat that?” if you’re more polite than we are.)
Just under a mile’s walk to the next bar saw us lose one of our number (quitter!) and pass by several of my once-more-usual night out venues, including the aforementioned Razz. The place we were looking for was called Berry and Rye, and if Dave hadn’t been keeping a sharp eye on the map, we’d have walked right past it. Rob and I did, in fact, and had to be called back.
48, Berry Street, Liverpool. L1 4JQ
We were greeted by three completely unlabelled black doors. Parked on the road outside was a billboard van advertising an escort service, but I’m confident there was no connection…
A couple was waiting to go in when we arrived – you have to knock – and the doorman opened the left-hand door (I was half surprised there wasn’t an eerie creak!) to let them know their table would be ready in a minute or two.
“But then we’ll be full, so you’ll have a half hour wait,” he announced before disappearing. Slightly disappointedly we prepared to head off, but one of the couple told us that if we waited just three or four minutes there’d be a table.
“We’ve been here before,” they explained. “They’re a speakeasy, so they don’t want people milling on the street.”
Having decided to wait, three or four minutes later the door opened creaklessly again, and the doorman surreptitiously ushered us in. All a bit odd, but I rather enjoyed the intrigue. And you can’t say they’re not a proper speakeasy. Those prohibition cops wouldn’t stand a chance!
I won’t keep you in suspense: I loved Berry and Rye from the moment I stepped over the threshold. OK, it’s slightly cramped; I wouldn’t go in more than a four, but other than that I have no complaints whatsoever. (And since we were in a four by this point I’m not even complaining about that!)
The decor feels like an odd hybrid of your ‘20s New York speakeasy and a frontier saloon. Wood everywhere you look, menus hidden in old tomes and drinks assembled in upright crates behind the bar. Really well ordered too – I especially liked what they did with the whiskies, arranging them clearly by country and flavour.
The cocktail menu is very classic, which rather appealed to my inner fuddy-duddy. Several Manhattan, Collins, Bramble and Old Fashioned variants, as well as most of the usual suspects. (They specified ‘The Vesper Martini’ on their menu and I almost cheered.)
We only really had time to stay for one, which made life very difficult indeed. In the end I opted for a standard Manhattan (Woodford Reserve, if you must know) and hedged my bets by trying everyone else’s as well. I don’t regret my choice for a moment – I’m a man who likes his Manhattans, and this was easily in my all-time top five. Same price range as at Jenny’s too, which is perhaps not surprising since I gather they were both set up by the same people. In any case, I call it very good value.
The others were just as good, albeit the Tom Collins was probably damned by excellent company. Wouldn’t stop me seeing off a pitcher if it was a sunny afternoon outside, mind you.
It was a great shame I didn’t have time for an extra whisky though, because the selection at Berry and Rye is very solid across the board. Probably a few bottles more than Jenny’s, but a couple of standouts. Fairly evenly weighted between Scotland and America, with a handful of Japanese and Irish for good measure. The real gems (understandably enough) were amongst the ryes, where I spotted not only a Handy, but also, skulking at the back, a Colonel E.H. Taylor. Unquestionably amongst my favourite Colonels, alongside Sanders, Mustard and Hathi.
Service was very good – iced water brought to the table whilst we were seated, with someone always on hand when you needed them, and seldom when you didn’t.
One small gripe I had (and this applies to Jenny’s and subsequently MacKenzie’s as well) – I’d like to see a whisky menu when the selection is that extensive. Obviously it’s great that the staff can give you the spiel, but being able to peruse a menu dodges the embarrassment of asking the price of something and discovering it’s too expensive after all. Which is a situation I find myself in rather often, my pockets being significantly less deep than my enthusiasm!
With one bar left to sample, three out of four of us had picked Berry and Rye as our current favourite, and were already making plans for a return trip. The minutes were slipping by until the last train home though, so we were rather glad that the next bar was just around the corner.
32, Rodney Street, Liverpool. L1 2TP.
I’m not sure quite what I expected from MacKenzie’s, to be honest, but it wasn’t what I encountered. The first of the evening not to be even close to a speakeasy; it’s easily spotted, clearly labelled, and you can see through the windows. Awfully refreshing!
I’d also say that the word ‘bar’ is almost misleading. I’d argue it feels more like a pub. The kind of place you go to to sink a few pints and watch the football. (This is Liverpool. It’s always football.) It serves tasty sounding hotdogs at lunch, which is always a good point in my books, and the seating area is lounge-like and comfortable. Other than some truly bizarre portraits (including a snowman with fangs and nipples) it’s essentially like any pub you’d go to anywhere in the UK.
Oh, except for the 300+ whiskies behind the bar.
Mine is not a jaw predisposed to dropping, but that sight brought me close. I’ve seen as many whiskies in one place before, but not outside of Scotland or London, and precious few even there. But Liverpool? Half an hour from where I’ve spent my adulthood drinking pints of Strongbow and bemoaning rubbish cider selections? Half an hour from where I don’t bother even checking the whiskies, because I know what Jameson’s and Grouse look like?
And what whiskies there were! Bruichladdich Dark Arts, Midleton Very Rare – my God, there was even a Van Winkle, albeit the comparatively underwhelming Special Reserve 12 year old. Bottles upon bottles, each more salivating than the last. And not just Scotland, Ireland, Japan and the US either – I saw India, Australia, Taiwan and Canada well represented, and that was without even looking terribly hard.
Eventually I settled on a Redbreast 15. Not the most adventurous, but it had been a pricey night already. Dave picked an Ardbeg 10, Cristina a Gin and Tonic, and whisky-loathing Rob a bottle of Peroni (NAS…).
Now I have strong feelings about drinking whisk(e)y in pubs. By and large, I think it’s peacocking, and I go for pints instead. I have these notions of the right drink for the right place, and whisk(e)y in pubs has never quite fit into that bracket. But here, in this extraordinary place, it felt completely natural.
What’s more, it felt just as natural for Rob to be drinking a beer. This isn’t some snobbish, elitist, shirt-and-tie place. It isn’t a Maltophilic den of well-heeled old gents pretending to be Scottish. Being critical (and I probably have to be) I didn’t notice any nosing glasses behind the bar. I quite enjoy a tumbler when I’m relaxing with friends, but if I came back for a swipe at something I’d never tried before, especially if I was dropping a fair few pounds on it, a Glencairn or similar wouldn’t go amiss.
But perhaps that’s missing the point, because MacKenzie’s feels every bit as down-to-earth as its whisky selection is up in the clouds. It makes you want to come back and watch the game and have a pint. It makes you want to follow that pint with a hot dog and a Van Winkle, because why the hell not? It also does cocktails, though their list is neither as extensive nor as creative as at the previous two.
What MacKenzie’s manages, to a degree that nowhere I have been previously does, is to be all things to all drinkers. Rob put it beautifully as we walked happily back to the last train home to the Wirral: if Jenny’s or Berry and Rye were your locals, you’d still only go there on special occasions. If MacKenzie’s was your local, you’d barely go anywhere else.
In fact, if MacKenzie’s was three or four pubs away from me, I’d still barely go anywhere else. If you find yourself in Liverpool, or are lucky enough to live there, for God’s sake take advantage. I am so looking forward to going back.
But then I’m also looking forward to something sweet and colourful at Jenny’s, and to seeing what new whiskies they’ve stocked the shelves with. I’m looking forward to being sneaked into Berry and Rye for a classic cocktail done to a T, possibly followed by an E.H Taylor. The bottom line is that Liverpool has a cracking whisk(e)y scene, and though it’s taken me too long to find it, I’m thrilled by its potential for further exploration.
And, after all that, perhaps I’ll nip round the corner to drink something unidentifiable and possibly lethal, and to stick to the floor whilst my ears get pulverized. Because you know what they say about old habits.
Thanks to Cristina, Sophie, Dave and Rob for joining me and improving on my photography.