Why does Edinburgh have such an eclectic array of local spirits? Ask a whisky distiller and they’ll tell you it’s in the quality of the water, pure and simple. The gin distillers will say the wildflowers and ancient herbs that thrive in Scotland’s wilderness make the perfect botanicals. Drambuie brewers will get specific; it’s the herby bristles of heather that bruise the wild hillsides.
With a cold climate putting a damper on viticulture, and an untamed landscape on their doorstep, Scots have always had to be inventive with their alcohol. This has created a drink scene in Edinburgh like no other, using ancient recipes with the natural bounty of Scotland’s countryside to resurrect forgotten spirits and concoct new cocktails. The cold months inspire warming spirits to go with that famous Scottish hospitality, making Edinburgh the perfect playground to raise a glass this autumn and beyond.
Local ale and gin at Ten Hill Place
Tucked into the Surgeons Quarter in Edinburgh’s Old Town, the boutique hotel Ten Hill Place has an inviting bar where connoisseurs of Scottish tipples can engage their taste buds as they unwind. Once the accommodation for the medics belonging to the Royal College of Surgeons, the history of the building is reflected in the gin and ale crafted especially for Surgeons Quarter.
One, 1505 Gin, is distilled around the corner from the hotel, at Summerhall. 1505 refers to the date when the Barbers Surgeons of Edinburgh, the forerunner of the Royal College, were granted their charter and the monopoly on distilling aqua vitae (used to preserve anatomical parts) in the city. The 21st-century gin recipe contains 15 of the original botanicals used in aqua vitae, creating a deliciously herby blend of lightly spiced gin. It’s perfect with Fever Tree tonic and a garnish of orange peel and rosemary (luckily no anatomical parts to be seen).
Knops Beer, a craft brewery on the East Lothian coast, has brewed a special ale for the hotel bar. The 1505 ale is a cardamom-infused, heady mix of herbs. It is said to be from an 18th-century recipe, a “physical ale” recommended by doctors. The 21st-century rendition may not keep the plague at bay, but it is undoubtedly enjoyable. The flavour light and refreshing, and the cardamom hinted at rather than overpowering.
The bar’s chic grey walls are accented with warm copper, and a wood-burning stove in the private snug invites you to linger a little longer.
Local tipples at the Scottish Malt Whisky Society’s Kaleidoscope Bar
The pursuit of the perfect Scottish whisky tends to come with a lot of peacocking and bluster. We all know that one person who reels off a list of distilleries, scoffing at your choice of peaty over sweet, ice over neat.
Kaleidoscope takes the wind out of the whisky talk. As the public bar of the Scottish Malt Whisky Society, the tasting experience at Kaleidoscope is bluster-free. The bottles have no distillery names and each of the 200+ single cask whiskies are unique. Here, it’s not about the name, only the flavour. A whisky host can guide you through the process to find your perfect dram.
Favourites like the smooth peaty smog of Lagavulin or the sherry-rich spice of Balvenie are always available, but plumping for the malt of the moment is worth doing. It might be an oaky, bourbon cask number with a nose of fresh apples. You can always ask for the name of the distillery after you’ve tasted, but you’ll never have a whisky exactly like it again.
Joining the society as a member will give you access to the members’ rooms, opulent private spaces in the Georgian townhouse on Queen Street.
Drambuie cocktails at the Devil’s Advocate
Edinburgh and Drambuie go way back. The heather-based whisky spirit was first commercially brewed in the city in 1910. The recipe is said to date back to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Royal Apothecary in the 1740s. It can make a sweet addition to a whisky cocktail too.
There are a few bars where classic Drambuie cocktails are on offer, but the Devil’s Advocate is one of the most atmospheric. Hidden down a narrow wynd (alley) off the Royal Mile, this industrial-chic bar is housed in the bones of a medieval tenement. Rows and rows of amber whisky bottles pack the bar. The bar staff can knock you up a Rusty Nail, a 1960s favourite of Frank Sinatra and his New York Rat Pack. Still standing the test of time, it’s a strong mix of Johnny Walker Black label and bitters – the Drambuie adding a hint of sweetness creating a drink like a smooth Old Fashioned.
But it’s the Devil’s Advocate twist on the classic Rob Roy that makes the most of Drambuie’s flavour. A Rob Roy – whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters – is enhanced with the honey-sweet hit of Drambuie and a dash of chocolate bitters. Garnished with a curl of orange peel, it’s like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange in a glass.
Scottish wine at the local off-licence
Scotland isn’t known for its wines. The cold north wind and deep winter frosts create a hard land with unsuitable terroir for grape growing. But in the agricultural heart of Perthshire there’s a vineyard not put off by the weather, or even lack of grapes. Cairn o’Mohr Fruit Wines has been taking advantage of the area’s burgeoning berry crops, wild flowers and fruits and making its wines since 1987. Owners Ron and Judith Gillies are dedicated to making the best of the local produce to create sparkling and fruity wines to rival the pinots of Puglia and sauvignons of South Africa.
Stocked in Edinburgh at various independent off-licences (Great Grog, The Whisky Trail), you can grab a bottle of this Scottish anomaly for sampling in your hotel room. The rhubarb wine has a sherbet-esque tartness and a faint hint of ginger. It is understandably sweeter than a grape wine, but far from sickly, with a hue somewhere between white and rosé. Fruit wine is the fermented cherry on top of Scotland’s alcohol heritage.
To discover all that Ten Hill Place has to offer, and to book your autumn break, head to the hotel’s website