A Distiller’s Guide to Edinburgh With Marc Watson

Marc Watson of Holyrood Distillery shares his favourite spots for a tipple around Edinburgh
Marc Watson of Holyrood Distillery shares his favourite spots for a tipple around Edinburgh | Courtesy of Holyrood Distillery
Photo of Alicia Miller
3 December 2021
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Whether you’re seeking a cosy whisky bar for winter, or a place to celebrate Hogmanay, our local insider knows the best places to head for a dram.

The Scottish capital isn’t shy about having a good time. This is a city that knows how to let its hair down, usually with a stiff drink in hand. So who better to charge our glasses than the chief distiller at Holyrood Distillery, a new boutique producer in Edinburgh city centre? Marc Watson was born and raised in the Scottish capital and, after stints working in Finland, Shetland and Fife, he returned home to make booze, first at John Crabbie & Company and now at Holyrood, where he crafts the brand’s whisky and Height of Arrows Gin. Over a few rounds, we got his tips on the city’s best hotels in converted ships, hunker-down bars and hip-flask-ready hikes.

Holyrood Distillery

Distillery
Holyrood Distillery, Edinburgh, Scotland
Courtesy of Holyrood Distillery
“At our distillery in the centre of Edinburgh, the approach to making whisky is very explorative. In Scotland, we’re surrounded by historical breweries and distilleries with heritage recipes, yet here we’re trying to create something new. We can use heritage malt types and different yeast strains in innovative ways because we’re unburdened by a long history. We run tours Tuesday through Sunday, and we’ll take you through the distillery and explain how we make our gin and whisky. Of course, there’s plenty to taste along the way, too.”

Fingal

Fingal - A Luxury Floating Hotel
Courtesy of Fingal – A Luxury Floating Hotel / Expedia
“This isn’t your average hotel – it’s on a converted ship. I guess you’d call it a luxury floating hotel. It’s right on the waterfront in Leith and has been done up beautifully, with wooden siding and shimmering copper ceiling in the restaurant. It’s a great place for a decadent afternoon tea, washed down with champagne or many negronis. Despite what you might think, most of the rooms are the size of a regular hotel with comfy beds and stylish bathrooms.”

The Palmerston

Restaurant, British
“A recent opening, this cosy, bustling restaurant has an amazing bakery, delicious coffees and an incredible whisky menu. The three best things in the world. When I have friends in town, I tell them to go here right away. I’m a real sucker for the pastel de nata and the highball cocktail – with Suntory Toki (Japanese whisky), lemonade and soda. They also have Nikka Yoichi Single Malt, which you don’t see often. I know I’m a Scotch whisky maker, but this Japanese whisky is one of my favourite drams.”

Usquabae

Bar, Restaurant, British, $$$
Interior of Usquabae
Courtesy of Usquabae
“Normally for Hogmanay I go to the famous city street party, but this incredibly cosy bar would be a great place to celebrate it. If you’re a whisky person, you know about it. It’s not just the excellent, wide selection of drams, many of which are hard to find. It’s also got a wonderful atmosphere in an old cellar with booths carved out of stone. It used to be my go-to for haggis, but they don’t do it anymore. I suppose you can’t have it all.”

The Bonham Hotel

Guest suite at The Bonham Hotel
Courtesy of The Bonham Hotel / Hotels.com
“This old townhouse hotel has a real Great Gatsby feel to it and is a lovely place to people-watch. It overlooks Stockbridge, a gorgeous little village that feels like it’s fallen out of the sky, but is actually only a 15-minute walk from Princes Street. The rooms are traditional, with high ceilings and lovely old furniture, and on the weekends they do a “boozy snoozy” lunch, a three-course menu. I’d get the heirloom tomato salad followed by the free-range chicken with chorizo. And sticky toffee pudding to finish.”

Arthur’s Seat

Hiking Trail
View to Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh , Scotland
© Susanne Pommer / Alamy Stock Photo
“There’s nothing like walking up Arthur’s Seat in winter, when the weather is crisp. The distillery is at the base of Edinburgh’s highest hill, so I keep saying I’ll do it on my lunch break. If you aren’t up for the steep walk, try Calton Hill, right at the end of Princes Street, which also has incredible views. Go as the sun is setting and you’ll see the Christmas lights turning on and the city and castle starting to light up. Bring a hip flask filled with whisky and peppermint cordial for sipping.”

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Bar, British, $$$
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, The Vaults
Courtesy of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
“It’s easy to get caught up with judging whiskies by brand name or release, but this place takes you back to the beginning. There are no names on the menu – every dram is just listed by number, so you don’t actually know what you’re tasting. It becomes about drinking with your senses, not your preconceptions, which is refreshing. If you fancy it, this is also a great place to sample haggis, neeps and tatties.”

Royal Mile Whiskies

Shop
The Royal Mile Whiskies Shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh Scotland
© Edward Herdwick / Alamy Stock Photo
“Oh, the paychecks I’ve put into this place. This is an incredible shop for buying whiskies in the city. They have the big brands, but also independent bottlings. They support little companies like us at Holyrood and Woven Whisky, a blender from Leith. I’ve bought some great stuff here, but one thing that was particularly memorable was the release of Bramble Whisky Co’s Ardmore 12-year-old 2008 single-cask whisky. The artwork on the bottle is wild, but it was the flavour note of toasted marshmallow that really got me.”

The Smiddy

Restaurant, American
“The food at this American-style barbecue spot in the New Town is immense. It’s a real hidden gem, tucked in a little industrial estate. Actually, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. They have this brisket sharing platter and these ribs – they really are incredible. I confess, when I went there for lunch, they had just put our gin on the menu and that’s all I drank. I just sat there and ate sausages, ribs and brisket, and drank my gin. It was wonderful.”

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