Chris Malpas gets philosophical about Negronis and nostalgic about Hemingway daiquiris.
Whenever I talk to someone about cocktails in Liverpool, three bars consistently crop up in conversation: Present Company, L’Aperitivo, and Berry and Rye. Irrespective of the varying tastes of friends and acquaintances, these names are always attached to a recommendation and an accompanying anecdote.
Of the three, only Present Company found itself on the 2023 list of the UK’s 50 top cocktail bars, placing a respectable 20th. I decided to pay them a visit, alongside two of its critically overlooked contemporaries, to find out what’s so great about Liverpool’s cocktail scene, and to see if I could discover what separates Present Company from other favourably reviewed cocktail bars.
In an industry where new bars with unique gimmicks are being unveiled every other week, the bid for simplicity oozes confidence.
I bring a guest and we hit up Present Company first. The décor is loosely music inspired, but aside from the record covers which double as menus, it’s understated to point of becoming unremarkable. In an industry where new bars with unique gimmicks are being unveiled every other week, the bid for simplicity oozes confidence. The menu is well thought through. St Paddy’s lingers by way of an additional four tipples, but we stick to the permanent collection. A cursive glance gives away very little, but a closer looks reveals that even deceptively simple classics like the espresso martini conceal curveballs, in this case coconut.
I can’t refuse the Biscoff old fashioned. Every cocktail bar has its own version, often complicating a three-ingredient drink with endless syrups and flavoured bitters. The combination of buttered bourbon, bitters and lotus biscoff sounds bonkers to the point of arrogance, an impression that’s heightened by its garnish of caramel dark chocolate. One sip dispels any trepidations. If we didn’t have other places to be, I’d happily spend the rest of the night drinking this.
My guest’s Mirrorball doesn’t disappoint either. Tequila, poached pear, vanilla and sparkling wine are each allowed their turn in the spotlight. The garnish is minimal this time: the chocolatey height of hedonism is traded for a skeleton leaf. It doesn’t impact the taste, but it’s undeniably pretty in the champagne flute. Mixologists are divided on whether a garnish should be for decoration or flavour; Present Company leans towards the former, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We’re one bar in and we’ve already had two knockout cocktails. Colour us impressed.
Up next is L’Aperitivo, which only opened last year and has quickly made a name for itself through small plates, often complementary with a drink, and modern takes on the Negroni. We have Emma D’Arcy to thank for the classic cocktail’s resurgence in popularity: “What’s your drink of choice?” “A Negroni… Sbagliato… with prosecco in it.” The setting seems to demand I order one, so bowing to the pressure of meme culture, I opt for the Arancia Negroni, which contains Mielikki Orange Blossom Gin, El Banadarra White Vermouth, and Narano Bitter Orange Liqueur.
Being pedantic by nature, I do have a small issue with it being branded a Negroni. Traditionally made of equal parts gin, Campari and vermouth, most of L’Aperitivo’s Negronis are a playful reimagining of the classic cocktail. The Arancia gets by on two out of three, but the substitution of Campari for orange liqueur does rob the drink of some much-needed bitterness (and its proper red colouration). Elsewhere on the Negroni menu is a toffee iteration, which is comprised of rum, sherry and Aperol. It’s certainly an aperitif, but I don’t think it can be categorised the way that L’Aperitivo wants.
My drinking companion, who isn’t a fan of negronis despite how classy Emma D’Arcy makes them sound, chooses the Torta. The drink is packed full of apple and warm spice, with just enough vodka to give it the boozy kick you’d expect from a cocktail of its type. Both drinks are so Mediterranean in design that you could easily forget you’re on Bold Street, but despite their dainty appearances, subtleties like “ginger bitters” are lost in the mix; they lack a bit of the layered elegance Present Company brings to its recipes.
Our final stop is Berry and Rye, a word-of-mouth phenomenon concealed behind shuttered windows. Knocking on the door is an essential part of the experience, and we don’t have to wait long to be ushered into the cosy, if a little over-played, prohibition themed bar. A refreshing glass of ‘welcome punch’ is a nice touch while we mull over the menus, stashed inside battered hardback books. The secret knock loses its charm once inside. Seated beside the door, our conversation is routinely interrupted by other punters hammering to get in and the hurried dash of the server to accommodate them.
We go classic with our orders this time. I can never resist a Hemingway Daiquiri when I see it on a menu, even though the recipe for Berry and Rye’s version controversially includes sugar. As the urban legend goes, Ernest Hemingway once tried a daquiri on his way to the toilet and reinvented it to his tastes: double the rum and no sugar. Sorry, Hemingway, but that sounds terrible, and over time grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur completed the cocktail. The debate still rages around whether or not the drink should be sweetened further. Thankfully, despite the addition of sugar here, it’s wonderfully tart. Maybe it’s the memory of drinking a Hemingway Daiquiri at La Closerie des Lilas in Paris, but I’ve no complaints.
My guest picks the New York Sour. I couldn’t hazard a guess as to how many sours we’ve made and drank between us, but never once has it occurred to add red wine to the mix. It splits the cocktail like Moses’s red sea, white foam on top and hazy lemon below, adding a layer of decadence to the drink without overpowering the flavours you’d expect.
All three bars bring something different, and it’d be an evening well spent hopping between them. They aren’t the only worthy contenders for the title of best cocktail bar in Liverpool either, but our livers couldn’t handle a trip to every honourable mention. On this occasion the best experience was at Present Company. It seems they’ve earned their reputation and deserve their spot on the list of the UK’s 50 top cocktail bars.
If a visitor to the city had time to go to only one bar, it would be difficult to direct them anywhere else. Against a different opponent, both Berry and Rye and L’Aperitivo would have no difficulty coming out on top, but shortcomings in atmosphere for the former and drink quality for the latter prevent them from truly contending with Present Company. It’s sensible to be wary of lists that claim to be definitive, but in this case the rumours turn out to be true.
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