It’s probably a cliché for Americans to compare Scotland’s capital to something out of a fairy tale, but that’s exactly what came to mind walking along the cobblestone streets of Old Town in the shadow of the 12th Century Edinburgh Castle. History is all well and good, mind you, but I didn’t come for a lesson. I came to drink. In decades past a trip to Scotland would mean hooking yourself up to an IV of whisky – and I had plenty of time for that in Aberfeldy a few days after my recent autumn visit. But in the past few years Edinburgh has been quietly carving itself out a space on the world cocktail map. And, as international plaudits have begun rolling in, it’s becoming less and less of a well-kept secret.
The most recent of those came for The Bon Vivant, which garnered “Best International Restaurant Bar” honors at this year’s coveted Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. The Thistle Street bar, opened in 2008, is tucked away on a side street off the main thoroughfare, and at first glance feels like an average, well-worn pub – low light, low ceilings, wooden tables strewn throughout.
But, behind the bar, they’re turning out cocktails that will appeal to any international drinker. And, maybe more importantly, doing so with a keen sense of hospitality. The cocktail menu here is lengthy, with an emphasis on simple drinks that are also inventive and fresh. Take a strawberry and mint infused Green Chartreuse-style sour — familiar tastes with just the unique finishing touch to make the flavors pop. Same goes with a white rum, pink grapefruit juice, lime juice and elderflower liqueur drink with a pinch of vanilla salt. Even better, the bar man is happy to cater to the vague stage directions given by the pain in the ass tipplers (that is, bartender’s choice). Looking for a explosion of peat employed in a cocktail (I was in Scotland after all), I was handed a drink improvised with Talisker, Laphroaig, Amaro Montenegro, fig liqueur and house bitters, with the dark stone fruit, and herbaceous orange notes taming, but not fighting with the smoke of the whisky. A Portobello Road gin, Cocchi di Torino, Cynar, Yellow Chartreuse and lemon offering swung toward the brighter end of the spectrum. 55 Thistle St., +44 0131 225 3275; bonvivantedinburgh.co.uk
Speaking of the other end of the spectrum, up the road at the Tigerlilly Bar, the scene is as boisterous, and well-heeled, as the Bon Vivant is understated. The multi-room hotel bar and restaurant was packed with drinkers of all ages – also adding to my sense of displacement was rubbing elbows at a bar next to teenagers and 60 somethings in the same space, without anyone seeming to think it strange. The cocktail menu here is a tome, stretching for multiple pages, and broken down into tasting note categories, like citrus, bright, refreshing; spirited, adventurous, bold; fruity, sweet, decadent; and classics, staples, twists. A Maker’s Mark, Lillet Blanc, Creme de Cacao and lemon juice drink was the right balance of spirit-forward and citrus, although I must admit I felt like it should’ve been illegal for an American to drink bourbon in Scotland. They’ve also got popcorn infused Jack Daniels on the menu here, which I’m not entirely sure I can endorse for taste, or health reasons, but the selection of classics – Aviation, a proper Daiquiri, mules and tiki favorites balance it out. 125 George St.; +44 131 225 5005; tigerlilyedinburgh.co.uk
Having had a taste of the modern scene, it seemed only appropriate to swing all the other way back into the past for a regrettably necessary dinner. Rhubarb at the Prestonfield estate provided a torrent of history – the setting dates back roughly 1,000 years, with a the building that serves as the hotel and restaurant now dating to the 17th century. While I wouldn’t classify it as a critical stop on the Edinburgh cocktail map (there’s a nice selection of whisky), I was too distracted by grilled venison, carrots cooked in salt clay, pickled ginger, glazed turnips and sauce poivrade to have time to drink anyway. Everyone from Ben Franklin, to even more important thinkers, like Oscar Wilde, stayed here. I’d like to tell you more about the history of the gorgeous space here, but I didn’t take enough notes. Work, after all, as Wilde once said, is the curse of the drinking classes. Priestfield Rd.; +44 131 225 1333; prestonfield.com/Dining-
Rhubarb is a cab ride away from the main bar district, but once you’re there, the high volume of bars makes a cocktail crawl easily accessible by walking, or short cab rides, which, considering how many you’re going to want to try, is probably a good idea. Not too far off the Royal Mile is another cocktail gem, the accurately named Under the Stairs, where you’ll find coolers and flips, like a decadent Pig’s Nose whisky, chestnut liqueur, olorosso sherry, grapefruit marmalade, lemon, sugar, egg white and grapefruit bitters concoction, or a beetroot, reposado tequila, agave syrup, Balsamico liqueur, lime and wasabi margarita that’s a balance of heat and earthiness. 3A Merchant St.; +44 131 466 8550; underthestairs.org
By far the most interesting option, however, is another underground bar, Bramble. Hard to find, even if you’re standing in front of it with your phone out gaping like a tourist, which, in fairness, you probably are, the bar has found itself on Drinks International’s list of the Best 50 Bars in the World for three years running now, among a slew of other plaudits. And for good reason. A lot of cocktail bars of late pride themselves in being no-frills, but the layout here is about as bare bones as you can be while still technically calling yourself a proper establishment.
The subterranean space is carved out of a cramped, low-lit basement, with slapdash alcoves throughout. The soundtrack is a mix of jazzy lounge and blaring hip hop, Wu-Tang being the most logical accompaniment to barrel-aged and classic cocktails. A Monkey Shoulder fat washed with butter, and served with Aperol, oloroso sherry, ginger jam, vanilla sugar and Peychaud’s bitters gives you an idea of the parameters. But what they excel at here is the same thing you look for in a cocktail bar anywhere in the world: simple recipes done right – a Springbank 10 year, Cherry Heering and Green Chartreuse for example. But, more importantly, a convivial atmosphere, and a jocular staff that makes you feel like you found the one place you want to be. 16A Queen St.; +44 131 226 6343; bramblebar.co.uk
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