Those in the pursuit of life’s little pleasures need look no further than sitting in a cosy pub with a whisky in hand. Don’t believe us? Make a beeline for one of Edinburgh’s legendary whisky bars to see for yourself.
There’s an old saying in Scotland: “Today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky”. There are well over 100 distilleries in the country, reflecting local pride for this coveted amber nectar. The Highlands and islands are where whisky is predominantly made, but it is in Edinburgh’s drinking dens where you’ll have the quintessential experience of the dram. Culture Trip has enlisted the help of World Whisky Day founder Blair Bowman, an Edinburgh-based whisky consultant and author, to bring you the best sources of ‘water of life’ in the Scottish capital.
SCOTCH at the Balmoral
SCOTCH at the Balmoral offers whisky from every region in Scotland | Courtesy of SCOTCH at the Balmoral
The Balmoral has long been a byword for sophistication in Edinburgh, so it’s little wonder the luxury hotel has one of the best whisky bars in the city. A landmark in its own right, it has been the first point of call for visitors to the city since it opened as a station hotel for the wealthy in 1902. Thanks to SCOTCH, it is now the first point of call for whisky lovers, too. “With luxurious surroundings and very knowledgeable staff, SCOTCH is a great spot for a night cap with friends visiting the city,” Blair tells Culture Trip. This exuberant whisky bar sports over 500 single malts and blends ranging in age and rarity, covering all of Scotland’s whisky regions.
The Last Word Saloon oozes old-world charm | Courtesy of The Last Word Saloon
Brought to you from the brains behind the legendary Bramble Bar, The Last Word Saloon makes for a sublime drinking experience, and then some. Bursting with endless character and old world charm, entering this bar is like walking into a debonair cowboy’s subconscious. Embellishing the revolutionary drinks menu is an abundance of single malt whiskies, sought-after spirits, lengthy list of liqueurs, divine wines and tempting ciders. Once the bartenders are done, expect to pinch yourself over the magic that emerges.
The ethereal laneways of Edinburgh’s Old Town have inspired the likes of Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and crime novelist Ian Rankin. A stroll down these cobbled alleys gives you a sense of walking hand in hand with the ghosts of history. Down one such close, you’ll discover the Devil’s Advocate, “an impressive whisky and cocktail den,” according to Blair. “These guys make some of the best whisky cocktails in town.” With 300 expressions behind the bar, including some rare and one-off bottlings, it is a hidden cave of whisky wonders.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, The Vaults | Courtesy of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
If whisky was a religion (and to some people, it may as well be), the Scotch Malt Whisky Society would be its principal place of worship. The Vaults occupy a former wine warehouse dating back to the 18th century in Leith, the epicentre of Scotland’s whisky export trade. All around the surrounding docklands, bonded warehouses brimmed with casks of the finest scotch. The Vaults continues this tradition with one of the most varied selections of single-malt, single-cask whiskies in the world. Anyone can become a member of what is arguably the greatest international members club around, giving you access to myriad rare whiskies in a venue that is in a league of its own.
With wood-panelled walls and ornate stained glass windows, Whiski harks back to a bygone age where pubs were as much works of art as the hard-crafted whisky in your glass. These touches give it the perfect ambience to try over 270 whiskies, alongside some of the best native cuisine in town. And yes, that means haggis. Did you know that, by happy accident, whisky is the perfect companion to Scotland’s national dish? Not only do Scots toast haggis with whisky, there is always a liberal helping of it to help with digestion. Put your reservations aside and try this moreish delicacy.
Try a whisky flight at Usquabae | Courtesy of Usquabae
“You’ll always bump into some other whisky fiends here,” confides Blair, as he lets Culture Trip in on another of his favourite whisky bars. And you know a bar means serious business when it refers to its drinks menu as the ‘whisky library’. With a hand-curated stock of over 400 whiskies of all styles, ages and expressions from the four corners of Scotland (and further afield), this basement West End bar prides itself on hand-selecting the highest quality drams for you to enjoy. One particular highlight is the Closed Distillery whisky flight: an unparalleled opportunity to sample single malts from legendary distilleries long since closed or mothballed.
Enjoy the authentic atmosphere at The Bow Bar | Courtesy of The Bow Bar
Those who like their whisky without pomp and ceremony should definitely pay a visit to the humble Bow Bar. As the old adage goes, never judge a book by its cover: the older, dog-eared books are often the best loved and most read, after all. Behind its doors are earthy interiors and a contagious atmosphere, where locals put the world to rights while sampling from the 310 whiskies in stock. The old-world feel is all the sweeter in good company with a dram in hand.
If there is one thing whisky can crow over, it’s versatility. While scotch purists may persuade you its best enjoyed on its own, the best flavours of a single malt often appear when complemented with food. With that in mind, head to the achingly cool and contemporary Michael Neave Kitchen and Whisky Bar, where the verve and energy of this young chef is making waves. Pairing a dining menu that focuses on locally sourced Scottish produce with an exceptionally extensive scotch whisky menu is a winning strategy in anyone’s book.
A one-stop shop for all things whisky, Whiski Rooms has covered all the bases for all the aficionados out there. As well as over 300 single malts and blends to slake the keenest thirst (with some bottles needing the ladder behind the bar to access them), this venue also serves up some of the most creative contemporary Scottish dishes in the city. With its ambient lighting and leather-clad snug, it is dangerously easy to lose hours of your life deep in conversation over a few drams. The bar’s whisky shop next door is also one of the best places in town to pick up a bottle to take pride of place in your drinks’ cabinet at home.
Much like the Vaults in Leith, its sister venue – a converted four-storey Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh’s New Town – is a paean to single-malt whisky. The bar is open to the public, while the top two floors are reserved for Scotch Malt Whisky Society members. The bar takes a different approach, choosing to focus more on flavour profiles than region. Most of the whiskies are bottled at cask strength, so don’t be too quick to shrug off a glass of water with your dram.
The popular Teuchter's Landing can be found in Leith’s trendy Shore area | Courtesy of Teuchter's Landing
A popular watering hole in Leith’s trendy Shore area – a derelict docklands now taken over by Michelin-star restaurants and hipster bars – Teuchter’s retains its credentials as a traditional-style, old man pub. And with age comes a certain degree of wisdom when it comes to judiciously curating its 90-strong whisky collection. The pub was put on the map when its now famous ‘hoop of destiny’ made the cut in a BBC documentary on scotch. The victors in this game of hoopla is richly rewarded with – you guessed it – single-malt whisky.
Rose Street is one of the most frequented thoroughfares in Edinburgh’s New Town – and the number of pubs and bars may have something to do with it. In an ever competitive crowd, the Black Cat, a wee hole-in-the wall pub, sets itself a part thanks to a rather fine selection of scotch whiskies. As with many of the city’s best loved pubs, the dim lighting, simple wooden chairs and quaint decor are prerequisites for a memorable evening of blethering over a nip or two. That said, the distinctive selection of scotch on offer does most of the talking for this wee gem.
Amber offers whisky expertise along with Scottish fayre in a former school | Courtesy of Amber
Housed in the basement of a former school, just a stone’s throw away from Edinburgh Castle, Amber is dripping in character, occupying old classrooms where alcohol has long since replaced algebra. Of course, the real reason for coming here for a drink is the expertise behind the bar. With over 400 whiskies to try, the quietly knowledgeable staff are on hand should you need guidance through the whisky regions and expressions to find the perfect blend for your palate. One definite bonus is the tempting aromas from the adjoining restaurant, which serves up Scottish fayre complemented with paired drams. Think peated whisky like a Lagavulin 18-year-old with a Scottish Dunsyre Blue cheese. Perfection.
Stepping over the threshold of the Abbey bar is stepping into the domain of serious whisky enthusiasts. With Malt of the Month offers and a plethora of whisky flights to get your lips around – including some old and rare whiskies – it is the place for a fine dram in Edinburgh’s Southside. If one thing sets the Abbey apart, it is the regular whisky tasting evenings with brand ambassadors (like Glenfiddich’s Scotland ambassador Mark Thomson) who personally take you through a selection of their distilleries single malt expressions. Tickets are usually £10 per person, or free for Abbey Whisky Club members.
Try Scotland’s national dish at Arcade Haggis and Whisky House | Courtesy of Arcade Haggis and Whisky House
Blink and you may miss the Arcade Haggis and Whisky House on Cockburn Street, a snaking cobbled lane straight from the imagination of JK Rowling. Pairing two pillars of Scottish culture in one, you’ll naturally get the chance to pick from an impeccably curated list of whiskies and enjoy the subtly spiced meaty goodness of haggis (veggies and gluten-free options available). You’ll need to try both to gain your much sought-after honorary Scot credentials. Although wonderfully random, the Arcade has the knack of creating a relaxed atmosphere whittled down to a fine art.