Is Britain's first modern dry bar any fun?
It has slick decor, exotic cocktails and regular gig nights – but The Brink serves no alcohol.
Even for those who do drink alcohol and want to have a night off the juice, most bars – and especially pubs – struggle to offer more than the usual selection of fizzy drinks and a few bottled mixers. And as for bottled fresh orange juice? "The devil's work," a non-drinking friend assures me. The growth of premium soft drinks, such as Fentimans' range, has made the situation a little better, but for those who can't drink or don't want to drink – an evening in the pub necking lime sodas or pints of Coke can be about as appealing as, well, a bloated stomach full of sugar and caffeine.
It's particularly hard for those in recovery, where the temptation to crack and join in on the round of beers can have a devastating personal impact.
Which makes it all the more surprising that it's taken so long for something like The Brink – Britain's first modern dry bar – to open. Located on the quiet, cobbled Parr Street, the venue is off the beaten track but minutes away from the rest of Liverpool city centre's heavy drinking bars and nightclubs.
Recent Local Alcohol Profiles in England (Lape) figures released by the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University ranked Liverpool as one of the worst cities for alcohol abuse in England. It came bottom of the rankings, 326 out of 326, in five of the Lape categories.
Taking just two of them, the city had more than 3,800 alcohol-related hospital admissions for both men and women this year (not including visits to A&E) – Leeds, a city with a similar-sized population and an equally vibrant nightlife had 2,289. Deaths from chronic liver disease and other alcohol-specific causes are also well above local and national averages.
Sharp Liverpool, part of the charity Action on Addiction, works with people in the city with alcohol and substance abuse problems. One of its major problems, says Sharp's head of service, Jacquie Johnston-Lynch, is that people trying to tackle their problem were being sent to clean themselves up and then put straight back into their normal routines. "Before Sharp there was just detox. You'd send people in [for treatment] but they wouldn't get help afterwards. There wasn't a community," says Johnston-Lynch
Johnston-Lynch – whose own interest in helping those with with alcohol problems stems from her brother's death at the hands of a drunk driver in 1992 – had the idea for The Brink in 2008. Two years of building and fundraising with Action on Addiction and the local Department of Health allowed the bar to open its doors on 29 September.
The key thing for both the charity and the team working in the bar – which includes chef Tom Gill, who previously ran the kitchen at the city's now-closed Everyman Bistro – was to make the bar work as a space not just for those in recovery, but for the general public. To do this – and ipso facto make the bar sustainable – they had to make a drinks menu that is as varied and as interesting as possible.
The result is a drinks menu that features items such as traditional pop from the Oldham firm Mawson's, Peter Spanton's range of bitters and tonics and shots of cordials made by Mister Fitzpatrick's (who, incidentally, run one of the last remaining temperance bars in the country, in Rawtenstall, Lancashire).
There are also smoothies, juices, teas and coffees and virgin cocktails such as the "Driver's Dream" (apple and pineapple juices; lemongrass tonic; elderflower and bramley apple). Most cost no more than £2.20 and waiters are trained to match soft drinks with Gill's meals.
"The biggest seller," Johnston-Lynch says, "is Bundaberg – an Australian drink that's lemon and lime bitters. It looks like pink champagne, and it's got a really strong aftertaste that people seem to love."
So how have Liverpool's other drinkers reacted to the bar? Some customers who've already been drinking have quickly excused themselves, according to Johnston-Lynch, but only because, upon learning that it's a dry bar, they didn't want to be in there smelling of booze. Others have come in looking for beer, ended up having a drink and then been spotted coming back a few days later for food.
Meanwhile, just after its opening, six burly rugby players came in looking for six Budweisers. The staff – most of whom are in recovery themselves – explained the concept and told their own stories and the end result was that the lads stuck a tenner in the tips jar.
Apart from the lack of alcohol, The Brink runs like any other bar. It opens late, hosts gigs and late-night booze-free raves, too. Its potential to fill the pub-shaped void in post-detox drinkers' lives is huge. So is it an enterprise that could be replicated in other major cities?
Johnston-Lynch thinks so: "We're now being approached by lots of people saying, 'We want one in our area' – people from Bristol, Blackpool, Barnsley, Manchester, Birmingham – we've had people saying, 'we want your help to start something like that here.'
"At the moment we're just spreading the knowledge but if in a year's time we're still getting lots of requests and we're doing well – we'd probably look at social franchising."
It's certainly an idea that ought to spread. Adventurous new drinks, low security costs, new demographics previously put off by noisy, boozy city centre bars? We'll drink to that.
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