From the Harbour Club to School Lane – Simon Thompson gives us an education in cocktail craftsmanship

AFTER launching on the down-low, with some of the country’s most decorated cocktail connoisseurs at his side, we caught up with Simon Thompson, owner of new independent bar Present Company. Here you can expect homemade cocktail recipes, quirky bar snacks, epic company, a rotation of live DJs but, under absolutely no circumstances, any “chart, cheese or fucking dance and trance”.

Jeff Goldblum recently rated one of Present Company’s cocktails a 10 Goldblums out of a possible 10 Goldblums

I went straight for the jugular and asked Simon what the name is all about: “Some of the best nights of my life have happened in shit bars with great people, it’s your present company that really matters”. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was Simon’s sentimental way of laying the foundations of an excuse for a bar that fails to deliver in some type of way, but he really is that soft-centred and Present Company is lacklustre in no way shape or form. We’ll get to why in a minute. 

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Present Company on School Lane

The rationale behind the name above the door and, in fact, the bar’s entire concept, is that it’s the company you keep which truly matters. We spoke about Simon’s favourite bar in the entire world – Attaboy in New York – and he gushed about how he’d experienced “the perfect storm of a wonderful night out” there with a group of close mates but had had an equally great time on a solo return visit just bonding with the bartenders. 

Introverts, stick with us because even the least of people persons can relate to stories of making new best mates over half a ciggie in the smoking area, or bog roll chucked under the door of a nightclub toilet. Simon reminisced about how he had “used the urinal next to James Bond” during his stint at the Notting Hill Harbour Club, which was frequented by Daniel Craig at the same time Simon embarked on his first job in the Big Smoke.

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I’d seen Present Company described somewhere as a cross between a bar and a house party, so I asked Simon if Daniel Craig would be on his celebrity-dead-or-alive guestlist after their stint of synchronising peeing. He said no but he did stick Mike Skinner, Prince and Her Royal Highness at the top of his list. Oh, and Jeff Goldblum who, in a rather surreal turn of events, recently rated one of Present Company’s cocktails a 10 Goldblums out of a possible 10 Goldblums on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch.  

Full Goldblums aren’t the only accolades this cocktail devotee has been bestowed with. Back in his post at Shoreditch’s lauded Callooh Callay, the venue was awarded Best International High Volume Bar in what Simon described as “the Oscars of the cocktail world”. I probed for more on the many awards he has stashed under his belt, but despite some serious bragging rights, Simon remained humble. He did however divulge that Present Company is currently shortlisted for Best New Bar in the CLASS Bar Awards, so fingers, toes and eyes crossed on that one, fellas.    

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I wanted to know where the team get their inspiration from for such noteworthy concoctions and I was expecting something deep about world travel or life experiences. The reality? “Just constant conversations” in the Present Company prep room, which conceals whiteboard walls graffitied with “the maniacal scribblings of psychopaths”. What Simon means by that is the experienced and innovative collaboration which elevates Present Company to such enviable esteem. 

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Simon's favourite cocktail, the Duster

The new cocktail menu features an equal split of 10 house drinks and 10 classics which have been added to make the offering just that bit more accessible. Each and every one features a homemade ingredient, from flavoured cordials to a coffee liqueur spiked with sugar and salt. Simon’s favourite is the ‘Duster’ - an adaptation of the classic Old Fashioned recipe made with rum that has been laced with burnt, melted butter which is then frozen and separated to leave the liquor with its unique texture.  

“A huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes here,” Simon tells me, and a lot of modern chef techniques are used to execute meticulous prepping processes. It seems these guys can do no wrong, so I couldn’t resist doing a bit of digging to try and find some sort of flaw. Turns out that came in the form of a cheese and onion martini, which never made the menu but, bizarrely, evolved into the salt and vinegar martini, which did. “It’s all about trial and error,” Simon says, and experimenting with “all kinds of mad shit”. Speaking of which…

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Nice bit of crumpet at Present Company

The Present Company menu also offers a modest selection of crumpet-based nibbles but why crumpets and not, say, bagels? Again, no particular profound reason – “They’re just delicious, aren’t they?” We naturally got talking about crumpets (as you do) and somehow tenuously ended up on the topic of how dedicated Liverpool is to its independent scene. In fact, above all else, that’s the main reason Simon chose to house Present Company in its School Lane venue, after “pounding the pavements with the Liverpool Council licence register on [his] phone”.  

“Scousers fucking love going out and people really give a shit and get behind the independent businesses here,” Simon told me. It’s that very support that has shaped the Present Company mantra: “understanding that a night out is a big deal” to people. “If somebody works a minimum wage job,” Simon elaborated, “and they pay £8 for a cocktail, that’s worth an hour of their time, so we need to make it as good as possible.” Well, lads, just keep doing what you’re doing, because you’re clearly doing a sterling job of it.  

Present Company, 37-39 School Lane, L1 3DA  

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