For visitors making the pilgrimage north to the distilleries of Speyside and the Highlands, Edinburgh often proves a helpful staging post to break up the journey. But with an increasingly lively and creative spirit scene, Scotland’s capital now offers more than a souvenir-shop stop on the way to the airport – there’s enough for it to be considered a drinking destination in its own right.
Of course, the city has long punched above its weight in terms of bars. ‘Considering it’s one of the smaller cities, it’s up there on the international stage,’ says Nicky Craig, General Manager at Panda & Sons, a speakeasy-style bar that was listed in this year’s World’s 50 Best Bars. ‘Cutting your teeth here is almost a rite of passage, and there’s a lot of synergy and crossover with the bar scene in London and Melbourne.’
That creativity has spilled over into drink production – rum, liqueurs, and aperitifs are some of the unexpected spirits being made in the city by graduates of some of its best bars.
There’s also gin, of course, and soon there’ll be Scotch. In 2019, Holyrood became the first whisky distillery to open in the capital since 1925, and it’ll soon be joined by Port of Leith, whose striking vertical distillery is set to open in the summer of 2022 – adding Scotch to the Lind & Lime Gin it already makes, and the Oloroso sherry it bottles.
‘There absolutely is an exciting, creative energy in Edinburgh right now,’ says Ian Stirling, Port of Leith’s founder. ‘Our whisky distillery is just one manifestation of that.’
Perhaps recognising this shift, Diageo has invested £185 million in the transformation of an empty Princes Street department store into the Johnnie Walker Experience, a Scotch emporium and temple to the water of life. Its slick, all-singing, all-dancing feel might not be for everyone, but there’s no arguing that it’s putting Edinburgh on the map for lovers of a dram who usually make a beeline for the Highlands and Islands instead. Whether you’re in the city to shop, learn, or drink, Edinburgh is rising to the challenge. Here are some of the best bars, distillery tours and drinking experiences the city has to offer.
9 of the best Edinburgh drinking experiences
One of the first gin makers to open a distillery after the relaxation of craft distilling rules in 2010, Edinburgh Gin is practically a household name in the city. It also acts as the city’s biggest advocates, tailoring its distillery tour and tasting around Edinburgh’s history as a major trading and drinks-making centre. If you’re distilleried-out, it also runs workshops where you can craft a gin to your own recipe.
1a Rutland Place, edinburghgin.com. Tours £25; gin making from £100.
The first whisky distillery to open in the city since 1925, Holyrood Distillery doesn’t plan to be pinned down to a signature style. Every month its makers change the recipe of their whisky distillations, playing with formulas and experimenting with yeasts, almost like a craft brewery might. The tour offers tastings of new-make spirit – as well as its excellent gin, Height of Arrows – as you’re shown the workings of the distillery, giving you a sense of the innovation at the heart of the operation.
19 St Leonard’s Lane, holyrooddistillery.co.uk. Tours and tastings from £15.50.
Jeffrey St Whisky and Cigars
Forget the tourist-trap whisky shops of the Royal Mile: the team at Jeffrey St are approachable and engaging, keen to present whisky as a modern drink, rather than just a relic of Scots culture to be taken home as a souvenir. With a good range of whiskies on offer, including non-Scotch and blends, the shop is a treat to explore. The tastings, hosted by the entertaining and knowledgeable Hector Maclean, are also strongly recommended.
12-14 Jeffrey St, jeffreyst.com. Tastings from £28.
The Johnnie Walker Experience
Lights, sound, scent, performance – the Johnnie Walker Experience is an immersive and multisensory exploration of how whisky, and particularly, blends, are made, with added musical theatre, animation, gadgets, and graphics to keep you entertained. It’s low on Scots clichés – tartan, bagpipes and the like – and big on the global story of Scotch. If you prefer your drinks served in less cinematic style, the near-360˚ views of the Edinburgh skyline from the rooftop bar are, well, bar none.
145 Princes St, johnniewalker.com. Flavour journey from £25.
You’ll find no age statements or distillery names in sight at this whisky bar. Instead, choose a dram based on flavour profile and price point, and let the bar staff curate your drinking experience. Although part of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, this ground-floor bar at 28 Queen Street is open to non-members and is a decidedly unstuffy way to enjoy Scotch.
28 Queen Street, smws.com/venues/kaleidoscope-bar.
Panda and Sons
With a front as a barber’s shop, this speakeasy-style basement bar is bigger than you’d expect. Listed as one of the world’s 50 Best Bars in 2020, it’s most notable for what it calls ‘switched’ drinks. By freezing spirits in a laboratory, the bar’s team can then manipulate its flavour, replacing the water content with something else – for example, switching the water content of a Scotch aged in an IPA barrel with an actual IPA. This process leads to fascinating twists on classic drinks on the bar’s ‘switched’ cocktail menu.
79 Queen Street, pandaandsons.com.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
For the complete whisky novice, the Scotch Whisky Experience is an unintimidating entry point. Its Silver Tour clearly sets out how whisky is made, the impact the Scottish landscape, barrels and time have on flavour, and even how to get the most from a tasting. The floor-to-ceiling display of Claive Vidiz’s collection of almost 4,000 bottles of whisky makes it worth the visit for the Scotch connoisseur – and everyone gets a dram in the bar at the end.
354 Castlehill, scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk. Tours, tastings and masterclasses from £17.
Secret Garden Distillery
Just – but only just – the other side of the Edinburgh city bypass is the Secret Herb Garden, home to Secret Garden distillery. All the botanicals used in the making of their gins are grown on site, and the passion and enthusiasm for both biodiversity and flavour comes through on the tours, which start with an exploration of the gardens and end with a full tasting of six gins.
32a Old Pentland Road, Lothianburn, secretgardendistillery.co.uk. Tours and tastings from £15.
Exploring the distillery that makes Pickering’s Gin will take you to an old veterinary college. Here, you’ll find yourself reading the recipe for its spiced gin, dated 1947, framed on the wall of the old cattery where the stills now sit. Let’s just say there’s plenty of eccentricity on display here, and for such a small distillery, the tour packs in history and humour, starting with a gin and tonic, and ending with a tasting of the four core gins.
1 Summerhall, Newington, pickeringsgin.com. Tours and tastings from £15.