Edinburgh is going through a cocktail revolution – a surprising notion in a city that runs on its history of whisky and craft beer.
From speakeasies hidden behind barbershop bookcases to boozers underneath gin distilleries, there are plenty of unique bars to try in Edinburgh. The city’s mixologists aren’t afraid to show off their innovation and creativity when coming up with drinks either, mixing new flavours with homages to Scotland’s traditional libations.
It’s no wonder then that world-renowned cocktail festival Tales of the Cocktail have chosen Edinburgh as its host city for two years in a row. As chairman Gary Solomon Jr said: “Edinburgh is exporting bartenders, not importing bartenders, and they’re doing it on a world-class level.”
Scotland’s capital certainly has a thriving cocktail scene, and if you hang around in the best bars (like the ones recommended below), you’ll often find the cream of the crop frequenting one another’s venues to discuss all things related to booze.
Cocktail Bar, Contemporary, $$$
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You’d be forgiven for missing the unassuming entrance to this basement hideout on the corner of Barony Street. Those willing to explore will find a compact cocktail bar that holds its own against some of Edinburgh’s biggest. Owned and hosted by a two-man team, Jody Buchan and Sam Baxendale, the wee bar is a closely guarded bartender’s secret. Jody and Sam are the first-ever joint winners of the Craft Spirits Enthusiast Award, given out by industry magazine Scottish License Trade News each year, so you know you’re in safe hands when it comes to all things shaken and stirred. Order a light and fizzy Beards & Blazers – a blend of Southern Comfort and three types of tea with a sour apple syrup that’s then carbonated, bottled and labelled by hand.
The Last Word Saloon oozes old-world charm | Courtesy of The Last Word Saloon
Located away from the city centre in Stockbridge, The Last Word Saloon, with its lounge-like open fireplace and rugs, feels like a home away from home. The menu is a carefully curated list of classics, paying homage to Prohibition-era cocktails. Its namesake concoction is a gin-based drink from the 1920s packing a hit of chartreuse, which you can find alongside all manner of juleps, flips and other traditional tipples. It’s the best place in Edinburgh for a discreet drink. Sit at the bar between the casks or nestle into leather furniture and soak in the bar’s old-world charm.
With an interior that’s somewhere between a soda parlour, ice-cream shop and cocktail bar, Lucky is all about the number 13. The menu? It features 13 drinks created from 13 different spirits, changed every 13 weeks. The self-imposed limitations of this system might sound restrictive, but it allows the staff to show off their creativity and technical knowledge. Expect the unexpected when it comes to the ingredients list: coconut vinegar, yellow peppers and mulled spiced hen’s eggs. Finding Lucky is easy; it has a neon ‘LIQUOR’ sign out front. If you’d prefer to buy a bottle to drink at home, it comes with its own off-license to boot.
Nightcap offers seasonal cocktails | Courtesy of Nightcap
This distinctive drinking den is deceptive – the small, entrance-level bar that greets guests is just the start of a whole labyrinth of nooks, snugs and alcoves that hides below. As it’s open until 3am, Nightcap is a rare treat for Edinburgh locals. Apart from a club, there are few places where you can drink late into the night, let alone one that has an excellent menu of seasonal cocktails and local beers. Each page of the menu has been created by one of its bartenders, who are always happy to chat proudly through their list of concoctions. Grab a table downstairs or stay on top for the buzz of Edinburgh’s bar industry heavyweights assembling after-work drinks.
Defined as “one who enjoys good living, especially when it comes to food and drink”, The Bon Vivant is an apt name for this Thistle Street establishment. Attracting locals looking for post-work drinks, couples on a date and in-the-know tourists, this bar has seen some of Edinburgh’s best bartenders behind it over the past decade. The owners have succeeded in creating an adventurous cocktail menu of perfectly crafted classics with innovative twists. The Post Tropical plays with tepache – a sweet Mexican drink made from pineapple rinds – which The Bon V clarifies and carbonates.
Hidden in plain sight beneath a tailor’s shop – with only an inconspicuous brass plaque announcing you’ve reached your destination – this New Town basement bar has been quenching Edinburgh’s thirst for years. Inside, you’ll find broody interiors, low ceilings and a selection of drinks that put Bramble at the forefront of Edinburgh’s drinks revolution. Its gimmick-free menu will welcome even the most novice cocktail drinker into the fold. The Pimiento, one of its classics, is a Mediterranean medley of red pepper cordial, tequila and martini bitter. Despite being highly decorated with awards and recognised as one of The World’s Top 50 Bars, there’s nothing pretentious about this place.
Panda and Sons is a Prohibition-inspired venue | Courtesy of Panda and Sons
What appears, at street level, to be a vintage barbershop is actually Panda and Sons – a bar with a sense of old-school mystery. Allegedly run by a family of beard-trimming pandas, this hidden Prohibition-themed cocktail bar lurks behind a false bookcase doorway at the bottom of the barbershop’s stairs, with askew books serving as handles. Even though the entrance is unique, the bar by no means puts style over substance, and the menu more than matches the excitement of the interior. Drinks are out of the ordinary and well mixed, with knowledgeable staff on hand to guide you – take their lead and allow them to match you with an innovative libation. The whisky-based Birdcage is a spectacle, served in a glass beneath a bell jar eerily filled with a clove and cinnamon smoke.
Edinburgh’s Old Town is known for its excellent atmosphere. Stashed down a narrow Medieval close in a former Victorian pumphouse, The Devil’s Advocate is no different. The bar is nearly stocked to the rafters with hundreds of bottles of Scottish whiskies and every other spirit imaginable. It’s not all about the drams here though – the cocktail menu boasts masterful creations that’ll leave you forgetting all about the gold stuff. The fragrant and fruity Plum Dog Millionaire is a bright mix of gin, prune and cherry, while the zesty and sharp Viva La Bamba mixes tequila with salted ginger and grapefruit.
This New Town bar is a steady and reliable bet whether you’re after a full-on party or a quiet after-work tipple. Previously a bank, 99 Hanover Street now hosts live DJs and regular events against a backdrop of classic movies projected against the back wall. The drinks list is compact and goes for quality over quantity. The quaffable Mo Mango has been a staple for years, while the Peatiful is a powerful blend of peat, vermouth, blueberry jam, yellow chartreuse and ginger liqueur.
Hoot the Redeemer has a vintage funfair theme | Courtesy of Hoot the Redeemer
It’s hard to imagine when you’re walking down the rush of Edinburgh’s Princes Street that you’re but a few steps away from 1950s New Orleans. Behind a door masked by a fortune-teller’s booth, Hoot the Redeemer goes all out on its funfair theme, without being gimmicky. With vintage suitcases as tables and cinema seats as chairs, it’s like being instantly transported into a childhood memory – or would be, if it wasn’t fuelled by alcohol. The drinks are top-quality and creatively mixed; if you don’t know what to order, a turn on the claw machine will determine your fate. Treat yourself to a Señor Scoop – a combination of boozy ice cream and sorbet (inspired by the owner’s father who was in the ice-cream business) that pays a tongue-in-cheek homage to Scotland’s flavours.
Unsurprisingly, you can find this wee Old Town bar down a set of plant-adorned stone stairs on Merchant Street. Inside is a familiar and comforting atmosphere that feels undeniably homely – low ceilings and exposed brickwork, with vintage fireplaces surrounding the soft furnishings and mismatched sofas and chairs. When it comes to cocktails, the bar team can whip you up a classic, but their own inventions are where they really hit their stride. Rave Nation packs a boozy and floral punch with mezcal, violette and maraschino while the Is it Spicy? Yes It’s Spicy features chilli vodka, yellow pepper, lemon and, unexpectedly, banana liqueur.
Everything about this community bar celebrates the area it calls home – with its decor drawing on Leith’s maritime heritage and taking inspiration from the port’s links to the spice trade. The longer you sit in the stylish yet comfortable pub, the more design details you’ll notice. The drinks have a similar local focus; Nauticus has sourced almost 90 percent of its menus from Scottish-made or Scottish-owned brands. Its Lind Fizz, a take on the classic gin fizz, uses locally produced Lind and Lime Gin, rhubarb, lemon, cherry and soda to create a drink that makes you want to order another before you’ve even drained the first.
This New Town bar has been delighting cocktail lovers for over a decade, standing the test of time as others close around it. It’s the watering hole of choice of many connoisseurs. However, don’t expect a sense of exclusiveness; the door is very much open to cocktail newcomers, with a bar team that is more than willing to share their encyclopaedic knowledge. The menu is divided by spirit, but you’ll want to read it front to back for the cocktail names alone. Ichiban, Lipstick for Men, is a bright blue mix of Tanqueray, sake, blue curaçao and plum, and Tell Me About It, Stud, is all about orange-infused rum.
A city centre favourite, the architectural grandeur of The Voodoo Rooms runs right from the floor to the ceiling. This sleek cocktail lounge features a leather studded bar, semi-circular booths and splashes of gold detailing against black walls. The splendour of the bar extends to the evocative cocktail list, created by a host of bartenders who’ve graced many national and international competitions. The bold world tour of bloody marys can conquer any hangover. Another favourite is the Can You Dig It – a refreshing mix of tequila, pink grapefruit compote, lime, vanilla and lashings of pineapple and mango juice.
Dragonfly Cocktail Bar has been a part of Edinburgh’s cocktail scene from the beginning, re-establishing itself in 2018. It offers a laid-back atmosphere where a wide variety of tastes and flavours can be explored under an expert’s guidance. It’s a welcome escape from the nearby tourist buzz of the Grassmarket, as patrons step into a minimalist bar that is home to a maximalist cocktail menu. Its tongue-in-cheek “For the ‘Gram” section features drinks that, thankfully, taste as good as they look.