I really wanted to write this post because Scotland and Whisky are two words that always go together. I want to tell you all about where to drink the best whisky in Edinburgh, what types of whisky to try during your trip to Scotland, and even where to start if it’s your first time with this drink that Gaelic-speaking Scots know as usquebaugh, or water of life.
I must also admit that writing this post was one of the funniest things we’ve ever done with the “excuse” of The Travel Blog, as for a few weeks we spent Thursdays after working on tasting different Edinburgh pubs, thus increasing our local knowledge and also getting our palates used to new flavours and smells of this Scottish alcoholic drink… which must be consumed in moderation.
The Basics of Scotch Whisky
The first thing you need to know is that for a whisky to be Scottish it must meet a number of mandatory conditions, established by various official government laws and regulations.
That means there may be other whiskies around the world and if they do not meet these standards, they cannot be called Scotch Whisky or as the Americans say, “Scotch”.
The first rule is that it must be distilled in Scotland. In addition, its ingredients must be water and malted barley, plus a little yeast for fermentation.
Once distilled, any whisky that wants to be Scottish must be aged in Scotland, using oak barrels, for at least three years. After its resting time, Scotch whisky is bottled with at least 40 degrees of alcohol by volume.
All whiskies that meet these indications are Scottish, and in turn will be divided into four different categories based on two factors:
Single or Blended
“Single” refers to the whisky being produced in a single distillery, using water and malted barley, without adding anything else. “Blended” means that whisky is a mixture of whiskies from various distilleries.
Malt or Grain
“Malt” means that only single malt (blended malt) was used, while “Grain” means that other cereals were used.
Combining the different possibilities, you can take for example a whisky that is single malt, which means that it is only malted barley and produced in a single distillery with stills or a blended malt, which again would only have malted barley in its composition of cereals but can be a mixture of two or more whiskies of this type.
Each person has their preference in terms of type of whiskey and as always my recommendation is that you try a little of everything to see what you like best.
Our favourite places to have a whisky in Edinburgh
Very close to Usher Hall and next to the Kings Theatre we find Bennets Bar.
This is a traditional Edinburgh pub that has been open since 1839 – almost two hundred years of history, although it did not always have the same name. The decoration is the same as in the Victorian era and the truth is that it is a most welcoming establishment.
It serves all kinds of drinks and also some food dishes, although it stands out for its extensive menu of beers and its more than 150 varieties of single malt whiskies. With so many names on the menu, we ourselves were hesitant about what to order, so we asked the bartender behind the bar, who proved to be up to our demands: not only did he know a lot about whisky, but he also listened to our personal taste.
At Bennets Bar we took a 12 year old Glenlivet, a single malt that is light and soft but without a doubt was a good start in our whiskera journey. It comes from the Speyside area, which is in the north-east of Scotland, just above the Highlands Whisky area.
This area is home to some of the world’s best known distilleries such as Macallan, Glenfiddich, Cardhu or Tamdhu. Our recommendation is to try at least a couple of these brands and then move on to more complex flavors … although as we said at the beginning of the post, you can also follow your intuition.
Just at the beginning of Princes St we find this Whisky bar that is a little hidden since its entrance is quite confusing: instead of entering the first bar you see when you cross the door, you have to go down the stairs. We almost missed it, but when we got to the place it really was, we loved it.
This is a more modern pub than Bennets where there are small reserved tables for dinner with absolute tranquility and privacy. A very special place where, in addition to having a dram of whiskey, you can stay for dinner.
One thing I liked very much is that they offer an experience called “flavours of Scotland” (A Taste of Scotland) which consists of a typical tasting menu (4 dishes and 2 desserts) which you can accompany if you want a whisky pairing. The price is very competitive and if it weren’t for the fact that there aren’t many vegetarian alternatives, I would have done it already.
In Usquabae we take a Kilchoman in its variety Loch Gorm. The distillery that produces it is in Islay, one of the Hebrides Islands, and we could feel how the taste changed completely with respect to the others we tried. This region produces some of my favorites, such as Ardbeg and Laphroaig, only for those travelers who dare with some intensity. The Scots often say that the whiskies on the islands are stronger because they carry with them the salt taste of the sea … and although it is a fairly romantic thought, I could not agree more.
The Black Cat
Edgar Allan Poe has a horror story called “The Black Cat” which is known as one of the scariest stories in the history of literature. In Edinburgh there is a pub that has this name and is undoubtedly the most gothic and gloomy of the establishments that we have visited on our whiskera route. However, we were positively surprised, as their menu has around 200 brands of whisky and although they do not have a tasting menu as such, you can ask the waiters to give you less than the amount you are interested in, to try.
Another point in favor of “The Black Cat” is that during the week they have live Scottish music (Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9.30 am; Sundays from 4.30 am), which makes it a planazo for any traveler interested in the folkloric part of Scotland.
We took a Laphroaig, which is a single malt from the Islay region… again, one of my favorites, and that is that the goat pulls into the mountain (or the Islay region in this case!).
Scotch, at the Hotel Caledonia
Very close to Waverley station is the Hotel Caledonia, which in addition to being one of the most beautiful buildings in downtown Edinburgh, is also one of the best hotels in the city, with its five stars. Inside the hotel is Scotch, a very luxurious and 100% Scottish little bar that although a little more expensive than the average whisky drinking places, is an experience that I would recommend to the most passionate. He’s got some marks I’ve never seen before, and his bartender’s a real expert.
I would recommend drinking a blended whisky (since so far we have only taken single malts in this post). A good option is one of the blended malts such as Ballantine’s or Johnnie Walker, two of the most internationally famous Scottish brands.
Another interesting option is to dare with a single grain, that is, a whisky that has other cereals besides malted barley, such as Haig Club, which has a sweeter and vanilla flavor. This whisky is produced in the Cameronbridge distillery, the oldest in Scotland making single grain.
This pub, with two different locations in the city, is a real institution in Edinburgh. In the Leith area is the larger of the two, which you can take advantage of to visit while you go to see the Britannia or take a tour of the port. If it catches you better downtown, they have another one very close to St Mary’s Cathedral.
Its whisky menu is so long that you will spend several minutes looking at it and it is possible that so many options leave you even more confused. Luckily, both the bartender and the other staff at both locations can make a recommendation.
We took the opportunity to have some dinner, as they have a lot of vegetarian and vegan options on their menu, and after dinner we enjoyed a Glenmorangie Signet, a single malt whisky that stands out for its quite sweet taste. The Scots think it’s perfect for dessert. The distillery of this whisky is in Tain, in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.
In short, for travellers in a hurry and without time to read: you can’t come to Edinburgh and not at least try a sip of some Scotch whisky. Its taste is strong, your throat will burn and you’ll feel that punch in the stomach. Scot Alexander Fleming himself, who discovered nothing less than penicillin, said: “a good shot of whisky at bedtime… is not scientific, but it helps”.