Last week I was in Edinburgh, Scotland and was given a grand tour of the top cocktail bars in the city.
- Edinburgh looks really quite big in person (there is a castle on a cliff, after all) but you can walk from one side to the other in a matter of minutes- so it's great for barhopping.
- Bramble, Lucky Liquor, and Last Word are owned by one company and are bar-focussed: They do not serve food beyond bar snacks.
- Bon Vivant, Bon Vivant Stockbridge, and Devil's Advocate (along with the liquor store Bon Vivant's Companion and coffee shop Pep & Fodder) are owned by another company and are more like pubs that serve full meals along with the drinks.
- Panda & Sons and Heads and Tales are the independents.
- There are plenty of traditional pubs and beer bars too, of course. They're good for hydration stops in between cocktails.
The original Bon Vivant in Old Town was the winner of the 2014 Best International Restaurant Bar at Tales of the Cocktail; kind of a big deal. Without a huge sign or decor that screams for attention, it's the type of pub you could walk right past without noticing - except if you recognize the Tales award in the window.
Inside there is a bar on the left with the rest of the space filled out with wooden tables and chairs. It has a super casual feel to it, yet its operations seem to be firing on all cylinders: The staff are friendly, hip, and knowledgeable; the menu is understated but the food is creative and elegant (with both small bites and larger meal options); they have a huge wine and champagne by-the-glass list for a small bar; and the cocktails that I tried were great as well.
The Stockbridge location (that's not another city; just another neighborhood with lots of gourmet food shops) seems smaller but even more comfortable and welcoming, with a bar down the middle and tables in the front and back. Owner Stuart McCluskey described it as his Cheers since he lives closeby. The bar is also close to the Last Word.
Next door to the original Bon Vivant is the Bon Vivant's Companion, a beer, wine, liquor and barware shop. There is a downstairs room for tastings and classes, where I gave a talk to local bartenders about (wait for it....) ice.
This bar is more modern and design-focused, yet located in a very old building - a former pump station on a narrow, winding, steep street called a "close." The steepness of the street allows for two levels - a top one with a small (soon expanding) outdoor patio, and a downstairs with tall ceilings and a sexy wall of booze displayed behind the bar. It's all rock and brick walls, wood tables, black iron rails, and slate-colored wood accents that are reclaimed 300-year-old beams from a former building across the street.
The whisky selection is prominently featured and I had the feeling that this bar is made for the well-heeled set, though given its location it gets tons of tourists popping in for a refresher as well.
Cocktails on the menu are divided into small sections of Prescriptions, Re-Fresher, Forgotten, Sours & Flips, Digestives, and Sippers. Something for everybody.
The last time I was in Edinburgh was 2007. Bramble was already open but I learned of it too late to visit so this one was long overdue... but of course I got there 10 minutes to closing time so I was only there for one (terrific) cocktail. This place has been nominated or won just about every accolade in the bar business over the years in between.
Bramble is a bare bones bar down a set of stairs from the street, with a couple small rooms and a great cocktail menu.
I ended up in this bar three times within 24 hours, so that's a pretty good sign. Lucky Liquor's bar area, located at the back of a narrow room, has that strange energy of a kitchen at a house party - everybody gravitates there despite plenty of seating elsewhere in the venue.
Besides the small bar room are a couple of tables on the sidewalk, a narrow middle room, then a larger downstairs area with more tables.
On top of the bar was a Randall, a "filter system that allows the user to run draft beer through a chamber of whole leaf hops, spices, herbs, fruit, etc. so that the alcohol in the beer strips the flavor from whatever you add and puts it in the beer” that was created by Dogfish Head beer. But instead of using it for hopping beer on tap, they used it to make a hopped Negroni.
Other unseen equipment included a centrifuge, which they used to clarify scotch bonnet pepper juice served in a miniature Tabasco bottle which you'd add drops of to a drink that's between a Gin Martini and a Red Snapper. They also own a rotovap. I believe these pieces of high-tech equipment make ingredients for all their bars.
My last cocktail in Edinburgh was appropriately sampled at the Last Word Saloon. It is another small neighborhood bar, but one with Green Chartreuse on tap. Like every place I went in Edinburgh, the bartenders were lovely hosts.
There I had a version of the Derby cocktail made with "rotovapple" syrup and Fernet-Branca. It was delicious.
Upstairs is a window advertising Panda & Sons as a barber shop, so that's a great indication that there is a speakeasy bar within. A rather large one, in fact, with a couple of spacious rooms filled with tables and chairs, though I don't think they serve food.
Here is where all the bells and whistles go into cocktail service. I had a drink served in a tin can. Another one is a whisky and soda that comes as two drinks in a mini-basket. I saw a drink go out with a smoked cocktail served under a bell jar. There are more pictures on the website as well. I like big garnish and I cannot lie.
This bar just opened in June 2014 and is so very pretty. The main room features the bar, some tables, and windows through which gin stills are highlighted. There is another room for seating, and then several snugs that can seat groups, built into cave-like rooms. One of them has a piano in it.
The bar has a gin theme, with a menu divided into gin drinks and "not so much gin." The gin stills on display (one pot still and one tiny column) aren't only for that purpose - they are functioning and are/will produce Edinburgh Gin.
I'm not sure if many of the drinks are served with fancy preparations, but the one I ordered came wrapped in a giant, edible pound note. It tasted mostly like paper but the drink was great.
This was my first visit to Edinburgh in about 7 years. It had an outsized cocktail scene for a small city even back then and I'm psyched to see the venues have changed but the drink quality has only improved. Thanks to all the great bartenders there for hosting me.