While England has been going through its “Ginaissance”, Scotland has seen its national drink –unfashionable as late as the 1980s - reach stratospheric levels of desirability around the world. Wealthy people want to own bottles that retail in four figure sums. Wealthy companies want to own whole distilleries.
Edinburgh doesn't have any distilleries within the city, but it is full of people who want to experience Scots whisky. Walk down the Royal Mile and you are assailed by shops selling whisky, tartan and cashmere. There is a subtle preponderance of certain retail companies who give their outlets different names but sell all the same whiskies at all the same prices.
So how to get an authentic experience of whisky while visiting in the Scottish capital? Here are ten places worth visiting where you are guaranteed to learn and enjoy – and not get ripped off in the process.
Located right by the famous castle inside an old school building, this interactive, ever-so-slightly Disney World experience is the perfect introduction to whisky if you're a beginner, and a fun reminder if you're not. Visitors start off on a ride for two people inside a giant whisky cask. The ride introduces you to the ghost of a master blender who takes each couple through the process of turning water, grain and yeast into Scots whisky. It may sound like a naff crowd-pleaser but this populist touch breaks visitors in gently and is available in 18 languages per “cask”. Later stages of the tour introduce the five regions of Scots whisky with a smell card to sniff for each and a wraparound film so gorgeous that you'll be signing up to spend the whole summer in Scotland. Then comes the tasting itself, and a chance to look round the biggest collection of whisky in the world.
Afterwards there is a shop where you can buy whisky books, whisky maps, whisky glasses and – of course – whisky. The shop stocks a very good selection from all over Scotland. All whiskies are from the nine companies who are shareholders in the Whisky Experience, and this means prices are reasonable. Tickets from £16.
The Royal Mile, 354 Castlehill, 0131 220 0441, www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk
Founded in 1983, the private club, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society opened some of its venue's doors to the public in 2016. Anyone can walk in for a drink in the bar or book a tasting or whisky pairing session, but if you join online beforehand there are savings. The society is based in a splendid Queen Street townhouse where the tasting rooms have retained their original circular or oval layout. There is also a dining room on the first floor where it is possible to order a five-course dinner with an imaginative whisky pairing for each course.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society began in the 1980s bottling whiskies down in Leith for sale solely to its members. Still today every whisky is presented in identical green glass bottles. The society's label records only the distillery's coded ID number and how many barrels of that particular whisky were distilled. The name of the distillery is never revealed so drinkers and buyers rely on Outturn, the member's illustrated price list, for detailed descriptions on what to choose. As a result, some labels carry evocative descriptions like Steamie Turkish Bath, Martini in a Trenchcoat and Pedro Packs a Punch.
28 Queen Street, 0131 220 2044, www.smws.com
There are so many whisky shops on the Royal Mile, the sequence of streets that runs east from the castle down to Holyrood Palace, that it can be disheartening to work out which places have staff who know their stuff, and which are simple tourist traps. Royal Mile Whiskies, opposite St Giles Cathedral, is definitely one worth visiting. Some of its staff have been there decades, and some of the whiskies longer. There's a single malt from Caol Ila Distillery that was bottled in 1968. It's kept in a glass case but can be yours for £7,000. There's also a special Macallan that's a snip at £3,000. But average single malts retail here for less than many of the surrounding shops. Unusually the shop also carries whiskies from all round the world, including the USA, Ireland and Japan. What matters here is good whisky and good value. It doesn't matter where it's made.
Mark Davidson, who manages Royal Mile Whiskies, also runs evening tastings that cost £25pp. Find out more at www.jollytopertastings.co.uk
379 High Street, 0131 225 3383, www.royalmilewhiskies.com
There are three distilleries near Edinburgh and the nearest is Glenkinchie, set in farmland fifteen miles south east of the capital. Its name comes from the Scots word for valley (glen) and a corruption of the surname De Quincy, the family who may have owned this land before a distillery was built in 1825. It's a small, pleasant rural site.
Production ceased at Glenkinchie in 1853 – whisky has gone through some difficult times in Scotland. For nearly 40 years this building was a sawmill. Fortunately, in 1881 a certain Major James Grey rebuilt the plant and resumed production and in 2013 the Glenkinchie 12-Year-Old was named Best Lowland Single Malt. It's an easy-drinking whisky with a distinct sweetness on the palate.
If you don't have a car Glenkinchie is an hour and a half by bus from Waverley Station, but the journey is well worth it. Each distillery has a distinct smell, a reassuring damp mix of wood and spirits, but it is the terroir outside also has such an impact on the taste of the whisky. The land through which the water flows is the beginning of the process of creating a whisky. Seeing the tranquil landscape around Glenkinchie certainly goes some way towards explaining that sweetness.
Tours cost £10 or £24 if you want the distillery to arrange return transport from Edinburgh.
Pencaitland, 01875 342012, www.malts.com
There is virtually no food at this very basic beer and spirits bar in a steep, curving street beneath Edinburgh Castle. There's no music or gaming machines either, and no TV (except on special match days). Mike Smith who manages Bow Bar does allow pies at lunch time (retailing at £4.50 each) but that's it. For wine drinkers there is a choice of one red wine and one white. There is however a fifteen-page whisky list for those who want to read up on the 400+ whiskies stocked here.
Drinkers can prop up the bar or sit at small, old-fashioned tables just big enough to hold a drink or two. The staff will advise first-time whisky-drinkers what to order depending on their personal likes and dislikes. The price range is huge, from £3.50 a dram up to £250 for a sip of a very rare 60-year old Glen Grant. The bar always has five “Malts of the Moment” on the go. These change frequently but provide a reasonably priced introduction to something you may not have tried before.
Best of all are the bar's own bottlings which they have taken from rare casks of whisky that cannot be bought elsewhere. At the moment there are just two Speyside single malts available - 100 bottles of a 1995 Glen Grant and 158 of a 2009 Linkwood. Neither is available anywhere else in the world. In the coming years Bow Bar intend to add more rare whiskies, two from every Scottish region.
80 West Bow, 0131 226 7667, www.thebowbar.co.uk
This relatively new venture in Jeffrey Street is the brainchild of Daniel from Mexico and Hector from the Isle of Mull. Hector does the whisky tastings in the shop window while Daniel looks after the shop, which not only sells whisky but Cuban cigars, snuff and reconditioned pipes of the kind your grandfather smoked.
There's a wide range of prices from an introductory Whisky Basics tasting covering everything a beginner needs to know (via three seminal whiskies) for just £15, up to a £48 tasting of four rare whiskies that are guaranteed to be 18 years or older. There is also a whisky and chocolate tasting that pairs three whiskies and three little-known chocolate squares for £18.
Jeffrey Street's premises are bright and airy, a change from many of the darker venues in Edinburgh. It tends to attract a younger clientele too. The retail end of the operation includes gin as this is becoming another premium Scottish product. Distillers who by law are required to wait three years before bottling a whisky can market their gins within days of distillation. In this way England's national drink is helping to balance Scotland's books.
2-14 Jeffrey Street, 0131 556 9930, www.jeffreyst.com
The Balmoral Hotel in Princes Street has a long-established commitment to whisky-drinking from the days when it was known as the North British Hotel. Today, just to the right of reception there is a tall, gracious whisky bar known as Scotch, where “whisky ambassadors” kitted out in the hotel's own tartan will not only serve you whisky but provide a personal introduction to whisky. These hour length sessions consist of four individually chosen drams per person, a few nibbles and a lot of history. The style is informal and the whiskies excellent – including the occasional blast of something at cask strength. The great advantage of Scotch is that the tasting is just for you – ask as many questions as you wish. The session is yours for £100 per person.
You don't have to be a guest to visit Scotch but those who are staying overnight at the Balmoral in one of its suites receive the added treat of a whisky turn-down service in the evening. This involves whisky and chocolates being left at your bedside with tasting glasses and water.
1 Princes Street, 0131 524 7142, www.roccofortehotels.com
“Not Just Another Whisky Shop” is painted on the front of this small grey building below the Royal Mile. The Victoria Street Whisky Shop is in fact one of two outlets in Edinburgh for the international online dealer that specialises in bottling single malts (and the occasional blend) from casks that they have purchased. Inside the shop you can see some of the casks and all the bottles with their charming handwritten labels. Pricing is very reasonable and the shop also markets smaller bottles for those worried about their luggage allowance.
There is also a rare writers' series of whiskies on sale in the Whisky Shop which features (amongst others luminaries) a 25-year-old George Sand from Highland Park, a Leo Tolstoy 19-year-old from the Ben Nevis Distillery and a 33-year-old Alfred, Lord Tennyson from Port Ellen; all bottles are priced well into three figures should you be tempted to buy.
The young staff know their whiskies so this is a good place to come if you're looking to take home something just a little bit different.
28 Victoria Street, 0131 225 4666, www.whiskyshop.com
The Snug is to be found inside the Glasshouse Hotel at the top of Leith Walk. The hotel is a modern glass structure that retains the façade of Lady Glenorchy's Church on whose site it was constructed. To its rear the Glasshouse has a lovely roof garden overlooking Calton Hill. All the suites are named after famous distilleries and face into the garden, but they lie along a long, dark curving corridor. At the end of this corridor sits The Snug, a bar built around a large copper firepit. Locked cases line the walls full of hundreds of whiskies, the majority of them Scots.
A number of tasting opportunities are available here from Reuben and his knowledgeable team. The £60pp introduction will bring you two measures of whisky – and very generous measures at that – of two whiskies chosen for you after a bit of a chat about where your tastes run – sweet or smoky? Highland or Islay? The whiskies come with a generous cold sharing platter prepared by the kitchen. It's a very good way to expand your knowledge of whisky without just sticking a pin in the whisky map.
2 Greenside Place, 0131 525 8200, www.theglasshousehotel.co.uk
The Oxford is a small pub down an old side street in Edinburgh's new town. It derives its name from the Edinburgh offices of Oxford University Press, which in the early years of the twentieth century were based opposite. The Oxford is just two rooms, a slim bar where customers can stand two-deep facing the counter, and a slightly larger back room heated with a coal fire. Up the stairs and just outside the lavatories is a single table and two chairs that has been nicknamed the Carousel Bar.
The Oxford is a basic Edinburgh drinking den. It was built in the eighteenth century behind the grand houses of Edinburgh's Georgian overspill and once functioned as a small school but by 1811 it was being identified on maps as a public house. Today it is run by Kirsty Grant who offers three blended whiskies and over 20 single malts to her customers. Several Edinburgh writers have been associated with the Oxford, including Ian Rankin whose Inspector Rebus is said to be a regular. When Colin Dexter, the creator of Inspector Morse came to Edinburgh the Oxford was one of the first places he visited. The Oxford Bar is a blast of friendly authenticity.
8 Young Street, 0131 539 7119.