Features 2 August 2019

Just the tonic: Edinburgh’s gin bars capture the festival spirit

Scotland’s capital city plays host to the largest celebration of the arts on the planet throughout August, and gin is fast becoming the drink of choice to toast the festivities

Words by Peter Ranscombe

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Whisky may be Scotland’s national drink, but gin is what’s exciting spirits fans the most these days, and no more so than during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest arts show, which kicks off on 2 August. Over the coming three weeks, 59,600 performers from a record 63 countries will descend on Scotland’s capital city, performing 3,841 shows in 323 venues. And gin will be at the very heart of this year’s festivities.

The white spirit has a rich and varied history in Auld Reekie, stretching back hundreds of years. The Netherlands was one of Scotland’s key trading partners in the days of the Hanseatic League and the Port of Leith – once a separate town, but now part of Edinburgh. Dutch “genever”, the forerunner to gin, flowed into the city legally through Leith and illegally via smugglers further down the coast at Newhaven.

Spirit also flowed out of the harbour too. After Scotsman Robert Stein invented the continuous still – the method that was later perfected by Irishman Aeneas Coffey – Scottish distillers were able to produce cheap and reliable grain spirits. They were more aromatic than their predecessors, and quickly adopted by producers south of the border who used them to make London Dry Gin, a style that replaced the previous heavy and sweet Old To” interpretation.

Edinburgh Gin Distillery

Today, Scotland is home to more than 70 gin distilleries, from the smallest craft producers turning out gin in their converted garages through to major international players like Diageo – which makes Gordon’s and Tanqueray, as well as whiskies like Bell’s, J&B and Johnnie Walker – and William Grant & Sons, the company behind Hendrick’s, one of the brands that triggered the current gin boom.

Just as Edinburgh has seen a new wave of wine bars and craft beers pubs opening, so too has the city’s gin scene come alive. Boosted by the capital’s craft distilleries, these bars offer a wide variety of ambiance in which to enjoy gin, from the opulence of One Square or Juniper to the cocktail-induced frolics of Bramble or Panda & Sons.

Edinburgh Gin Distillery

Top 10 places to try gin in Edinburgh

56 North
2 West Crosscauseway, EH8 9JP
0131 662 8860

With Edinburgh packed to the gunnels during August, 56 North’s secret gin garden is the perfect place to relax. The bar has one of Scotland’s largest gin selections and even produces its own “distillery edition” spirit in its dinky apparatus on site, with its South Loch Gin released to retailers in August. If its extensive gin menu (broken down into categories from “unique base spirit” to “oak aged”) is impressive, then so is its list of tonics, which goes beyond the standard Fever Tree and Fentimans to include Scottish labels like Bon Accord, Cushiedoos and Walter Gregor’s.

The Royal Dick
1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL
0131 560 1572

How fresh do you like your gin? How about pumped straight from the distillery into the bar next door? The Royal Dick Bar sits adjacent to Pickering’s Gin, the first of the craft distilleries to open in the city in 2013. Its gin is dispensed from a copper kettle sitting on the bar, with a chalkboard hung from the front to tell you which batch is being served. Both the bar and distillery are part of Summerhall, an arts complex opened in the University of Edinburgh’s former Royal (Dick) Vet School, which relocated to the edge of the city in 2011.

One Square
1 Festival Square, EH3 9SR
0131 229 9131

Don’t be put off by the fact that the bar sits within a major chain like the Sheraton Hotel – they take their gin seriously at One Square. So seriously, in fact, that they teamed up with Pickering’s to create their own One Square gin. Its “Ginnasium” tasting experience is an excellent way to learn more about how gin is produced, but also to try your choice of four brands from its selection of more than 100. If the sun’s out then the gin terrace is the place to go, but if it’s cloudy then head inside to the elegant bar.

The Jolly Botanist
256-260 Morrison Street, EH3 8DT
0131 228 5596

It may go a little heavy on the Hendrick-style “curiosity and bafflement” illustrations on the walls, but The Jolly Botanist is a cornerstone of Edinburgh’s gin scene and a great place to explore both Scottish gins – like Kikjuvagr Orkney Gin, Colonsay’s Wild Island Botanic Gin and Seven Crofts Gin from Ullapool – and those from south of the border, including Adnams Copper House, Tarquin Cornish Gin and Silent Pool. Its menu layout is innovative, with gins listed in a giant graphic alongside their recommended tonics and garnishes, while the bar makes a great stopping point for tea and coffee during the day too.

Heads & Tails
1a Rutland Place, EH1 2AD
0131 656 2811

Home to Edinburgh Gin’s distillery, Heads & Tails has the feel of a classic speakeasy, tucked away in the basement beneath the Rutland Hotel at the West End of Princes Street. By day, visitors can tour the distillery and see its column and pot stills, named “Flora” and “Caledonia”, and by night, the bartenders take centre stage with their cocktails. Book ahead to grab one of the spacious booths with their brick-lined arched ceilings, or sink into the plush leather chairs in the bar, complete with plenty of wood and exposed metalwork to remind you you’re in a working distillery.

Stac Polly
29-33 Dublin Street, EH3 6NL
0131 556 2231

One of Edinburgh’s most-loved restaurants, Stac Polly is also home to a gin bar that serves charcuterie from the excellent East Coast Cured meat company, with highlights including chorizo, lomo and nduja. Named after Stac Pollaidh, a mountain in the North-West Highlands, the focus in the bar is exclusively on Scottish gins. Located down the hill on Dublin Street, a short walk from the hustle and bustle of St Andrew Square, it offers a more relaxed and tranquil setting. A more grown-up way to enjoy a gin and tonic.

Panda & Sons
79 Queen Street, EH2 4NF
0131 220 0443

Panda & Sons has picked up British, European and international awards for its cocktails. The facia on Queen Street may proclaim Panda & Sons to be a “barbershop”, but descend the stairs and open the door disguised as a bookcase and you enter a speakeasy. What stops the bar becoming pretentious or cynically hipster is the friendly and attentive service from the amazing waiting staff and bartenders, whose mixing skills are world-beating.

Juniper
20 Princes Street, EH2 2AN
0131 652 7370

A gin with a view – gaze out the windows of Hotel Indigo’s bar on Princes Street in one direction and you can see the Scott Monument, the Mound and Edinburgh Castle beyond, and in the other you can take in the Baronial splendour of The Balmoral Hotel across the road. Juniper is something of a forgotten gem; although it’s at the heart of the action on Princes Street, it’s usually that wee bit quieter than some of the street-level bars. Use the “gin map” flight of spirits from its menu to explore Scotland’s exciting craft gins or indulge in a cocktail.

Rose Street Garden
Rose Street, EH2 3DT
0131 624 8633

Bombay Sapphire may be one of the few big gins brands that isn’t Scottish, but it’s still found a home in Edinburgh as the partner for the new Rose Street Garden. Tucked away behind The Dome – one of the smartest venues on swanky George Street – the garden offers street food, from tacos and churros to pad Thai and Korean glazed wings. Just because it’s Bombay Sapphire’s patch doesn’t mean other gins don’t get a look-in, with Pickering’s Pink Grapefruit and Lemongrass Gin Liqueur even used to spice up glasses of prosecco. An ideal stopping-off point for a bite to eat between Fringe shows.

Bramble
16A Queen Street, EH2 1JE
0131 226 6343

Bramble is even harder to find than Panda & Sons, with no sign on the street and just a small brass plaque next to a doorway at the foot of an old flight of stone steps. It’s worth going down into the basement though to recapture something of what Edinburgh must have felt like after the New Town was built in the 1700s. This is the edgier way to enjoy gin, with Beastie Boys or Run DMC on the soundtrack. It gets packed at night – and noisy if a live DJ is playing – but the staff are welcoming and always experimenting with their cocktails.

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