Whisky experiences in Edinburgh
For something essentially comprising just barley and water, whisky has a venerated place in Scottish culture. Whereas other souvenir-shop staples like haggis and the bagpipes occupy a hazy area somewhere between tradition and cliché, whisky is very much the real deal. It’s distilled by masters, revered by connoisseurs and, most tellingly, consumed by the cellar-load. So what are the best ways of combining a trip to Edinburgh with a drop or two of ‘the water of life’? Pour yourself a dram and read on.
The basics of the bottle
Appreciating a good whisky is all about understanding exactly what’s gone into it. For a lively overview of the Scotch-making process, head up the Royal Mile to the Scotch Whisky Experience (354 Castlehill, 0131 220 0441). The attraction, which sits close to the moody ramparts of Edinburgh
Castle, begins by taking visitors on a ‘barrel ride’ through a replica distillery. It’s enjoyable, if unashamedly touristy. Guides then share their knowledge of the aromas, flavours and characteristics belonging to the different regional whiskies.
It also gives the chance to sample the finished product with a tutored whisky tasting. Drinking Scotch with someone who genuinely knows their stuff can be as enlightening as examining a Rembrandt with an art historian – expect plenty in the way of peaty notes, spicy finishes and otherwise imperceptible fruity tones. The on-site whisky shop even has its own ‘flavour map’, a neat idea for those looking to identify their favourite tipple.
Where to go for a nip
Edinburgh being what it is, you won’t have to search far for a decent whisky bar. Any pub or restaurant worth the name will have a passable choice of single malts. But for those in search of something more comprehensive, there’s a ‘Scotch Whisky Embassy’ accreditation scheme, currently incorporating a dozen specialist bars. A downloadable map gives visitors details of the full whisky trail, should a long (and probably rather blurred) bar-crawl appeal.
Among the best of the 12 is The Albanach (197 High Street, 0131 220 5277), which stocks close to 250 malt whiskies. The location makes it perennially popular with visitors, and you’ll find modern-but-cosy décor alongside a lengthy food menu. Whisky cream sauce with your steak? No problem.
For something more in keeping with traditional British pubs, Thomson’s Bar (182-184 Morrison Street, 0131 228 5700) is another safe bet. It’s known for its single malts, of course, but enjoys just as much kudos for its real ales. Wood panelling and a snug, secretive atmosphere add to the charm.
Other specialist bars worth a diversion are Leslies Bar (45 Ratcliffe Terrace, 0131 667 7205) and WHISKI Bar and Restaurant (119 High Street, 0131 556 3095). The former is a handsome Victorian-era pub away from the main throng of the city; the latter a multi-award-winning bar with 300 malts and blends, and live Scottish music seven nights a week.
Much of Scotch whisky’s warm, amber-hued appeal lies in its diversity. The taste of a particular whisky depends on a number of different variables, one of which is the area in which it’s distilled. Whiskies from the Highlands tend to be smoky, those from Speyside are generally a little sweeter, and so on. Whiskies distilled in the Lowlands around Edinburgh are the most light-bodied of the single malts. And the best way to understand why these permutations exist? Visit a distillery in person.
The closest to town – or at least the closest that’s open to the public – is the Glenkinchie Distillery (Pencaitland, East Lothian, 01875 342 004), which sits around 32 kilometres from the city. It ticks all the right boxes in terms of ambiance, from its countryside setting to its fat old copper-stills, and visitors are led through the full distilling process. It was founded way back in 1825, and its proximity to the capital has helped its whisky earn the handle ‘The Edinburgh Malt’.
Heading north into Perthshire, both Tullibardine Distillery (Blackford, 01764 682 252) and the Famous Grouse Experience (Glenturret Distillery, Crieff, 01764 656 565) sit under 90 minutes from Edinburgh by car.
At any of the above, don’t be surprised to find yourself weighed down with clinking bags when you leave. If you’re prepared to venture even further afield, meanwhile, your distillery options are only really limited by the degree of your thirst and the allowance of your wallet.
The spirit itself, incidentally, has to have been aged for at least three years to be officially defined as Scotch. And it’s always whisky without the ‘e’ in Scotland – the alternative ‘whiskey’ spelling is used by Irish and (most) American producers.
Trikes, tours and toasts
If travelling around by car or public transport seems a bit mundane, other options exist. Trike Tours Scotland (0131 319 1199) runs trips from central Edinburgh out to the aforementioned Glenkinchie Distillery. Think bullhorn handlebars, roaring engines and leather jackets. If you like the notion of growling through East Lothian on a chauffeur-driven road hog, it certainly beats taking the bus.
For those who want to stay in the city, meanwhile, whisky-tasting walking tours are readily available. These generally run in the evenings and stay within the confines of the Royal Mile. Over a couple of hours, you’ll visit a few bars, knock back malts from the five main whisky producing areas and be regaled with tales of old Edinburgh. The thick, steam-choked days when the city first earned the nickname ‘Auld Reekie’ might be long gone, but the place still has a richly pervasive atmosphere.
So when to visit? All the city’s major events and celebrations (Hogmanay, Burns Night, the Military Tattoo, the long, well-lubricated weeks of the Festival) see whisky flowing freely. In honesty though, there’s no bad time to come calling. The inaugural Edinburgh Whisky Stramash – roughly translated as ‘noisy racket’ – was held in May, and seems likely to return for a second outing in 2013. The three-day event combined a mind-boggling array of different whiskies with “mystery, entertainment, comicality and madcap pioneering”. And really, what more could you want?
Written by World Travel Guide.