As Edinburgh moves towards becoming a truly cosmopolitan capital – standing toe-to-toe with London – the strength of its mixologists is on the rise. Here are the best cocktail joints in and around the Scottish capital.
Down the twisting set of stone stairs from Merchant Street is, appropriately, Under the Stairs. This is an Old Town basement bolthole open from noon each day. Inside the dimly lit cosy nook, mismatched furniture beckons customers forth. The additional soft furnishings – the vintage clocks, glowing fish tanks – are quirky enough to charm you into staying. In the afternoons, Under the Stairs’ trade is espressos, herbal teas and liqueur-laced coffees and hot chocolates. After dark, however, the expansive cocktail list – which changes every few weeks to incorporate seasonal ingredients into the drinks – is a decent draw. Some of the more recent inventions from this bar’s mixologists include the Mellow Yellow with lemon, vanilla and elderflower. There is also the beetroot and wasabi-tequila margarita and the green tea cooler with pear, cucumber, lime and vodka. One can always make a special request for an assemblage to suit personal tastes. It would be criminal to let the 16 types of rum and Cachaca behind the bar go to waste. Sharing plates are also available to help mop up the copious liquids. Served are items such as pitta breads with spiced hummus and goats cheese and pomegranate seed dips. Not to mention there are more filling mains like rump steak with blue cheese sauce.
Another cocktail joint with an easily overlooked shopfront is the Lucky Liquor Co. on Queen Street. Its bright neon ‘Liquor’ sign at streetside directs customers downstairs into the retro-ish hangout below. This is perhaps a deliberate positioning away from the showboating and glitz of the majority of nearby George Street bars. There’s a more eye-catching sense of humility at work in the bar interior with its New York Lower East Side-inspired teal chairs, clean white tiles and Motown soundtrack overhead. Behind the bar are only 13 liquor bottles, used to create a menu of 13 cocktails. Even then, the line-up of bottles changes every few months to ensure little chance of repeat orders. Don’t leave before sampling the signature drink, the Lucky 13. It has bourbon, Amer Picon, apricot liqueur, lemon and raspberry syrup.
An interesting bar on the West End of Edinburgh, Heads and Tales is in actual fact, home to the Edinburgh Gin Distillery every day from 10am to 4pm. It operates tours out of its below-ground Rutland Street location. At night, the distillery evolves into Heads and Tales bar, making excellent use of its subterranean home for maximum atmospheric effect. Notably, the copper gin stills, Flora and Caledonia, reside in the lounge area allowing punters the chance to see the stills in action. At this bar there is an extensive gin list and a curated selection of beers, spirits and wines. Unsurprisingly, gin cocktails are done very, very, very well in Heads and Tales with Scottish botanists Caorunn, The Botanist, Hendrick’s and Edinburgh Gin being used as base spirits. Signature drinks are the clean and smooth Savoury Collins (Hendrick’s, cucumber and ginger) and the seriously fruity Peachy Keen (Caorunn, citrus and peaches). However, it is undoubtedly the Thyme 4 A Bru (mixing The Botanist, orange, raisin and Irn Bru), that has to be ordered to be believed.
The Grassmarket is not always regarded as one of the most cosmopolitan enclaves in the capital. However, away from the boisterous stag and hen parties and other assorted late night revellers, is the colonial-era Dragonfly on West Port. Eschewing glitz and exposed timber and steel, Dragonfly is kitsch-ily outfitted with antique knick-knacks and Oriental curios. Oversized chandeliers illuminate the karate wallpaper and the mirrored bar which itself is strewn with paraphernalia such as skateboards, a miniature gong and a ceramic tiger keeping guard in the corner. Aside from table-delivered pizzas for emergency sustenance, Dragonfly is solely a watering hole with a keen mixologist’s eye. For example, look no further than the Peach Plum Pear, a champagne cocktail with white peach, plum liqueur and pear Cognac. The rest of the cocktail list is similarly playful and experimental with pop-culture themed drinks like Sage Against the Machine (José Cuervo Tradicional Tequila, fresh sage leaves, pineapple juice, lime juice and sugar syrup). Another is the Marty McFly or “Don’t call me ‘Chicken’” (Wild Turkey Kentucky bourbon, Grand Marnier, lemon, apple, egg white, sugar – laced with La Fée absinthe).
The Last Word Saloon oozes old-world charm | Courtesy of The Last Word Saloon
From the proprietors of the trendy and esteemed Edinburgh cocktail bar, Bramble, comes the Last Word Saloon, residing in subterranean premises in bohemian and hipster-ish Stockbridge. But any similarities to its sister establishment are quickly overturned by the shadowy and gothic decor, replete with Sherlock Holmes-esque open fire. Still, the same inquisitive attitude towards creating bold new drinks concoctions persists. Signature beverages are the adventurous Arnaud’s No.6 (Black Bottle blended whisky with Dubonnet, hibiscus syrup and orange bitters) and the Last Word (Fifty Pounds Gin, Green Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur & fresh lime juice).