The Basement Grapes

Buying an off-beat Japanese malt whisky in Liverpool nowadays is not dissimilar to buying a record by Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in 1979. Discuss, in no more than 790 words…

During my late-70s youth, Liverpool was a fabulous place to spend scrimped lunch money on obscure records, as long as you knew where you were going. Walk along Whitechapel and turn left at Phillips, Son and Nephew and you could marvel at Probe’s breathtaking and curiosity-quenching selection, under the benign gaze of the remarkably informed staff.

Crowds flock to Probe, where a single purchase might change your head forever.

Crowds flock to Probe, where a single purchase might change your head forever.

If they were being a little too informed to bother with you, as was their occasional wont, and your wish list wasn’t too exotic, you might retrace your steps to Rumbelows and NEMS. Here you would wind through a large white goods department to an improbable Narnia of a cellar that could attend to most of your less marginal requests, often politely. But if you really wanted to mystify an out-of-towner, you’d take them to Penny Lane Records.

Even Google Image can't point us to the old city centre branch of Penny Lane records. At least the bags were helpful.

Even Google Image can’t point us to the old city centre branch of Penny Lane records. At least the bags were helpful.

For a start, it wasn’t in Penny Lane. It was, more or less, in one of the side streets off Liverpool’s main shopping drag. If you went down the right one, you could then turn in to a back alley where only one shop existed, through a tiny doorway, down a narrow staircase to a dark basement room which, while minute, seemed to stock every kind of esoterica that could possibly appeal to even the most demanding musical outsider. And some heavy metal. Good job it had a little sign above the door, otherwise you’d think you’d gone somewhere weird.

I was reminded of all this while I looked for a whisky shop in Liverpool recently. While the usual branded drinks are as easy to find in Liverpool as they are anywhere else nowadays, the journey away from the mainstream still requires an A to Z. You can head out of town and find terrific specialist stores in Mossley Hill, Hoylake, Heswall and elsewhere, but the rent-defying city centre independents are still wilfully fighting their small but well-stocked corners. The Ship In A Bottle, a specialist beer shop allied to the Ship And Mitre pub, occupies very few square feet at the wrong end of Whitechapel which it stuffs with beer to some point beyond known laws of physics. Roberts and Henry Fine Wines is flourishing on Castle Street, opposite the Town Hall but a little way up an arcade that you might not notice, and the doyen of the downtown bottle boutique, Scatchards, has moved a little way out of its business-district heartland to somewhere just opposite a Chinese supermarket. Well, who wouldn’t? But the Penny Lane Records award for untraceability goes to a magical emporium called Whisky Business, in just-off-Fenwick-Street. I searched for ten minutes before enquiring in a cigar shop, the lady behind the counter giving me detailed directions to somewhere 20 yards away. Which I still couldn’t find. Down a little mugger’s alley, I found a tiny doorway, opening on to a staircase which led, on the face of it, only to the bottom of the staircase. A twelve inch sign read “Whisky Business.”

This must be the place, then...

This must be the place, then…

And that was that. Turn left at the bottom of the stairs and you’re in a miniscule, cosily dark lobby. This is the shop. At first it looks like there isn’t much in there, but as your eyes adjust, so the range grows before you. Whisky appears all over the place, on shelves, in gift packages, in tasting bottles near the till, joined by a whole gamut of other spirits, liqueurs and weird-and-wonderfuls, all presided over by garrulously welcoming Paul Murphy. If it’s not on the shelf, it’s on the way in. If it’s not on the way in, it’s being chased. If Paul hasn’t heard of it, it doesn’t exist. Good, old-fashioned specialist shopping ethics. The shelf nearest to me displayed five – no, hang on, make that six – Japanese malts. Six! That’s more Japanese malts than Teenage Jesus made records…

Welcome to central Liverpool’s specialist drinks sector. Now you know what netherworld it lives in, no trip to town need end without a bottle of something wonderful. And drop into Probe while you’re at it, as well – they really like people nowadays!

Mike Stoddart.

 

 

(Whisky Business officially lives at The Old Ropery, Fenwick Street, which makes it sound easy. Try whiskybusinessliverpool@gmail.com).

(Probe now lives somewhere nice and shiny, and they’re pleased to see you: http://www.probe-records.com/)

 

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