Edinburgh’s finest whisky watering holes
Richard Holmes explores the streets of Edinburgh in search of its finest whisky watering holes
"Inspiring bold John Barleycorn! What dangers thou canst make us scorn! Wi’ tippeny, we fear nae evil; Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!"
If you’re going to read anything on the flight from Cape Town to Edinburgh it may as well be Tam o’ Shanter, the epic poem by Robert Burns. Not least because Scotland’s beloved national bard is surely the world’s only poet with a boozy dinner named after him. Saturday January 25 is Burns Night, when proud Scots at home and abroad will don their kilts, make a speech to a haggis, and enjoy no shortage of Burns’ usquabae.
I had no plans to face the devil during my time in Edinburgh, but I had come north to seek out a few drams on the streets of the Scottish capital. Burns called it usquabae. In Scots Gaelic it’s uisge beatha, or "the water of life". For most of us, it’s simply whisky. Without an "e", of course. That’s for the Irish, and in Scotland they’ll string you up for spelling it "whiskey".
While craft breweries and artisanal gin distilleries are claiming a growing share of Edinburgh’s thirsty throats, it’s whisky that remains the heart and soul of the city’s watering holes. From the cosy pubs on the cobbled streets of the Old Town to well-worn barstools in the city’s finest hotels, you’re never far from a fine whisky locker in Edinburgh.
The Devil’s Advocate, in the Old Town up on the hillside, is famed for its whisky cocktails, while Usquabae’s "whisky library" has a memorable collection of single malts from distilleries long since closed or mothballed. It’s also just steps from the shops and restaurants of Princes Street and the pathways of the public gardens.
At this time of year you’ll certainly need a little something warming your insides if you plan to plod the pavements, discovering the medieval ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, grand Holyrood Palace or the winding track up Calton Hill. With the North Sea wind whipping in off the Firth of Forth you’ll soon want to put away your guidebook and seek solace in a wee dram.
There are surely few better places to start than the cosy SCOTCH Bar atThe Balmoral Hotel. The Balmoral opened in 1902, welcoming well-heeled guests stepping off the steam trains at nearby Waverley Station. Today those visitors are more likely to be fresh off the Old Course at St Andrews, just an hour to the north. Or perhaps, like me, tossed through the front door by an icy autumn wind.
In SCOTCH all eyes are on the whisky "keep" that dominates one side of the small ground-floor bar. There are more than 500 malts on offer here, one of the largest collections in the city, but senior whisky ambassador Cameron Ewen has a crack team of whisky ambassadors to talk guests through them all.
"Aye, we have quite a few to choose from," says the ambassador behind the bar, with a smile. "It can be quite intimidating, so the best thing to do is a tasting, where we choose for you."
For newcomers to the world of whisky, their "Journey Around Scotland" is your best bet, with a dram from each of the five whisky-producing regions. The "100 Years of Whisky" has four drams — their combined age adding up to a century — allowing access to unique older malts. "Ghosted and Rare" is likewise a delight for connoisseurs with the team of ambassadors pouring hard-to-find whiskies, a measure of Scottish history in each glass.
Suitably warmed, I amble back into the city. Calton Hill up above boasts fine city views, well worth the steps to the summit, but I keep wandering east. Along past the government buildings, towards the weathered stone edifice dedicated to Robert Burns and its views out over the royal Holyrood Park.
Circling back into the city, I head in search of Leith Walk, which runs north to the docks on the Firth of Forth. This corner of the city is home to one of the most famous theatres in Britain, the Edinburgh Playhouse.
Built in the 1920s as a cinema, it has long been as famous for its array of musicals and pantomimes as for its grey-coated ghost. "Albert" is said to be a former stagehand who haunts level six of the theatre, and in the foyer Albert’s Bar is named in his honour.
But if it’s whisky you’re after, right next door is The Glasshouse Hotel, a stylish option with rooms overlooking the city and Calton Hill behind. More importantly there’s The Snug, a cosy lounge bar with couches arrayed around a central fireplace. Behind the doors of the whisky keep are more than 160 bottles from across Scotland. There’s also a handful from Japan and Ireland, but — the bartender tells me —they don’t really count.
For any whisky-lover the choice is mouthwatering: Bowmore and Balvenie, Bunnahabhain and Balblair, many of them older than I am. If choosing just one is too traumatic, the whisky flights are a fine solution.
I’m pacing myself though, for I have a table booked with a not-so-secret society. Despite the wind there’s a blue sky above Edinburgh, and I button up my coat for the half-hour wander towards Leith, on the harbour front.
For decades it’s been a resolutely working-class neighbourhood, though leaning towards seedy rather than charming. Irvine Welsh set Trainspotting, his 1990s tale of drugs, debauchery and (perhaps) redemption in these grimy streets.
But wandering down Leith Walk today, I can see there’s a battle for the soul of the suburb on the go. Gentrification has come to this corner of the capital, and in 2018 Time Out dubbed Leith one of the "world’s coolest neighbourhoods".
Not everyone’s happy about that. Airbnb establishments abound and hipster coffee shops sprout on street corners, amid wide public outrage over plans to replace historic Art Deco shops and social enterprises with trendy apartments and yet more short-term rentals, pushing out locals and long-term residents.
But one corner that is little changed is The Vaults, home to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). A short walk from the quayside, these thick stone walls were laid in the 17th century as a warehouse for wines, but today house one of the world’s most beguiling whisky experiences.
A man named Pip Hills founded the SMWS in 1983. At the time, blended whisky was all the rage and single malts were an oddity largely ignored.
His idea was simple: to source, bottle and sell single casks of single malt, capturing unique expressions of some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries. What started as a hobby for friends soon grew into a business, and today the society has members worldwide.
"Single casks are unique, they’re one-off, so it’s the only time you’ll ever experience that flavour," explains John McCheyne, master brand ambassador for the SMWS. "It might only be a few hundred bottles, and once it’s finished it’s gone forever.
"For anyone looking to appreciate the nuances of single malt whisky, to understand the flavours and aromas of that whisky, single-cask single malt is where you want to start."
Today the society bottles single casks from more than 140 Scottish distilleries, for sale to members and for tasting at the society’s private rooms in Edinburgh and London. Annual membership costs just £65, but to make the society’s unique malts available to a wider audience, their Kaleidoscope Bar on Edinburgh’s Queen Street offers the chance to sip, swirl and savour a selection of the society’s one-of-a-kind whiskies.
The bar is set on the ground floor of an imposing Georgian townhouse (the upper floors are home to elegant lounges for members). You’ll find more than 200 unique malts here. With quirky names and humorous tasting notes, they’re a celebration of single malt whisky that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I end up at Kaleidoscope on my last night in Edinburgh, a glass of single malt from the island of Islay in hand. Come Saturday, whisky-loving locals will be gathered here too, toasting the savoury haggis that Burns dubbed the "Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race".
With the whisky flowing, no doubt the devil will have scarpered.
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