Friday, 1 March 2013

Berry & Rye, Liverpool

1920s America: terrible racism, organized crime, and a brief post-war recession aside, I sometimes like to think I’d have enjoyed living in the USA during the Prohibition era. Imagine a time when the humdrum activity of going to a bar was charged with the excitement of illegality; a time when the mere act of raising a pint to your lips was tantamount to ‘sticking it to the man’; a time when bars were secretive, underground and un-signposted.

Nostalgia can of course be a terrible thing. Let’s make one thing clear - the booze would have been dire, knocked up by your neighbour in the same bathtub in which he washed his dog or, worse still, the poisonous “canned heat” made from roughly filtering Sterno, a type of jellied alcohol-based fuel. I very much doubt a good Manhattan would have been easy to come by.

So we come to Berry and Rye, a bar which casts its eye back to the speakeasies of the Roaring Twenties for its aesthetic; but has living, breathing 21st century bartenders with a plentiful supply of excellent spirits and formidable cocktail knowledge. No need to worry about the rising membership of the Ku Klux Clan or why all the good writers are emigrating to Europe, just sit back and enjoy the atmosphere

If this weren't such a great bar, I’d be loath to recommend it, lest its obscurity be compromised in the least of ways. But it is that good: a breath of fresh air, the kind of bar I own in my dreams, the kind of bar you can normally visit only after buying a ticket to Berlin or Barcelona.

So, it’s a Thursday night in Liverpool, Anna and I, braced against the biting wind, wander down Berry Street past the legion of Chinese takeaways and fried-chicken shops looking for a number. We approach an unassuming black doorway behind which we can faintly hear some sign of life. Is this it? I open the door, breast-stroke through the heavy black curtain, and feel like I've stepped back in time. Well, except for the fashion.

Anna goes to the bar to ask for menu only to find out there isn't one: surely, a good omen. So we take a seat in an intimate booth, the waiter brings over some water, perches beside us and asks us what we’d like to drink. Anna is in the mood for whiskey and I for gin, so after some querying and several suggestions we settle one a Volstead Act and a Martinez.

The former, named after the piece of legislation that established prohibition, is a blend of bourbon, sweet vermouth, white cacao, and bitters. The latter is a classic cocktail of gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino and, usually, orange bitters; if you like a Negroni then the omission of the bitter Campari for the nutty, floral, cherry notes of maraschino. Both were smooth and expertly mixed.

With drinks ordered, we could soak up the sights and sounds: the place is moodily lit by exposed-filament bulbs, rail-road lanterns and candles which give the place an old-timey feel, as do the antique photographs and the tunes playing over the speakers. Then the piano keys begin to tinkle a jazz standard and we both sense that our dinner plans have just been cancelled. Not that we particularly want to stave off hunger, but the prospect of going outside, back to reality, has immediately become abhorrent.

So we order another round with the able assistance of our waiter. I fancy a dirty Martini and am nudged in the direction of Chase gin, a British gin made exclusively from apples which are fermented into cider then distilled into vodka. The usual flavourings of juniper and coriander are apparent with some more unique characteristics of hops and bramley apples. It’s a full-bodied crisp gin which stands up well to the salty olive brine. Anna chooses a Sazerac, a drink guaranteed to intoxicate the most hardened booze-hound. Rinse and coat a glass with Absinthe, then stir bitters, cognac and bourbon over ice, then strain into aforementioned glass. Needless to say, we took our time over these.

Forgive me if I slip into 1920s parlance for a brief moment. On accounts of being ‘spifflicated’ as we were, we were all ‘goofy’ and there was no chance we’d be ‘getting our wiggle on’ soon so we decided to order some more of that ‘giggle water’. To cap off the night, Anna ordered another Volstead Act and I went for what I think the waiter called a Holland, being that it was made from Dutch gin or Jenever. I didn't have the wherewithal to ask which Jenever and am struggling to recall the ingredients; however, it tasted in my mind like a gin old-fashioned, with the Jenever imparting a malty, creamy mouth-feel. I’m sure I will find out more on my next visit.

This place is low-profile on the Liverpool bar scene so I can only imagine how well-known it is in Manchester. Now the secret's out.

Berry & Rye
48 Berry Street
L1 4JQ