Castle In The Air – Edinburgh Bars Guide

We locate the very best of Edinburgh's whisky bars
By Claire Smith
It surprises some visitors to Edinburgh to discover it is common for city bars to have thirty or forty different bottles of single malt behind the bar.

Scottish drinkers stick to what they know and many people will finish a night of drinking with a nip of their favourite whisky.

But in bars particularly known for their whisky you will often find a collection of a hundred or more single malts, including rare editions and bottles which are hard to find.

Whisky bars in Edinburgh cater not only for traditional drinkers but also for high rolling tourists keen to seek out the rarest whiskies and new generation hipster whisky fans looking for malts from Japan, India and the New World.

In short there is no typical style of whisky bar in Edinburgh.

But one thing you will find all over the city is whisky loving bar staff who love to chat.

Whether you are in a five star hotel on Princes Street, a smart bar in Stockbridge or a spit and sawdust joint in the Old Town you are likely to find an unusually well informed bar person who is more than happy to guide you on your whisky journey.

1 The Abbotsford

3 - 5 Rose Street, Edinburgh EH2 2PR

The Rose Street poets - including Sorley McLean and Hugh McDiarmaid would often start their drinking sessions in The Abbotsford while later the bar was a favourite of Robbie Coltrane, Billy Connolly and the novelist Iain Banks. Named after the Borders country seat of writer Sir Walter Scott, it has always been known as a whisky drinkers pub. There is a sizeable collection of around eighty single malts including Cadenheads cask strength bottlings. In keeping with its reputation as a haunt for writers and artists this is another drinking place where conversation is king - and the bar maintains a no music policy to this day. You'll find the prices - even for the rarer malts - are far keener than those found around the Royal Mile.

Tip: Read the mocked up newspapers framed around the bar to find out more about the Abbotsford and its famous clientele.

2 The Albanach

197 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1PE

Wander into this classy modern bar with pale stone walls and a popular restaurant and you could almost miss the 230 or so bottles of malt whisky perched around the gantry. Although it is right in the centre of tourist Edinburgh at the mid point of the Royal Mile this understated pub plays it cool and steers away from tartan, tweed and tat. Staff are trained to offer whisky flights for those who want an introduction or the chance to try something special. "Often what happens is people come in for a meal, notice the whisky selection and decide to give it a go." There is usually a bottle of something extra special on the bar. Today it is a White Bowmore - £149 a nip and one of the rarest bottles in the world.

Tip: The Albanach encourages customers to take away the whisky menu as a souvenir so you can remember what you've tried.

3 Angel's Share

9 - 11 Hope Street, Edinburgh EH2 4EL

With its chandeliers, shiny ceiling, fairy lights, loud music and garlanded pot plants this busy West End drinking hole is every inch the style bar. At lunch time and in the evenings it is bristling with women wearing outfits straight out of Sex and the City. It is hugely popular with office workers as a lively place to kick back and relax after work is done. There are more than 160 bottles of single malt behind the bar - all lovingly described in an extensive and constantly updated whisky menu. Spanish barman Victor Perea is delighted to talk whisky with

the clientele. "I love whisky. I'm always learning about it and going to visit distilleries."

Tip: See how many Scottish icons you can identify. Lulu, Alex Ferguson, Irvine Welsh all have pictures on the walls.

4 Bennets

8 Leven Street, Edinburgh EH3 9LG

Originally built in 1839 Bennets was modernised in 1906 and has a listed, largely Edwardian, interior.

While a lot of bars in the Scottish capital look old this one genuinely is, with wooden panels, stained glass, fancy mirrors and murals all amplifying the art deco feel.

Irish bar manager Kevin Weldon is a great whisky enthusiast and has been building up the collection with more than 186 single malts behind the bar.

Bennets has a great selection of Japanese whisky and even has a rare bottle of the Tasmanian Sullivan's Cove French oak cask recently named best in the world.

Weldon is planning to start a monthly tasting club where enthusiasts will be given a guided tour of malts, along with whisky themed snacks.

Tip: Don't miss the little known whisky fact written on a blackboard at the back of the bar. There's a new one every week.

5 The Black Cat

168 Rose Street, Edinburgh EH2 4BA

Rose Street, just behind Princes Street was once famous for having the highest concentration of pubs in Britain. That may no longer be true but there are certainly a lot of pubs here. Since it opened a year and a half ago the Black Cat has earned a loyal clientele particularly among adventurous whisky fans. Owner Chris Miles has built up an impressive collection of more than 200 bottles, some of them extremely rare like the "lost" 1977 Ardbeg - which was found in the ruins of an abandoned distillery. The decor is rough and ready, with chairs made of upturned whisky barrels, old distillery posters and prints of Highland cows. Guided tastings are available - but it is also fun to shoot the breeze and talk whisky with well informed staff.

Tip: Don't miss the malt of the month.

6 The Bow Bar

80 West Bow, Edinburgh EH1 2HH

If you wander into the Bow Bar on a quiet moment you'll find the bar staff are happy to chat about the 260 whiskies on their shelves. But there are not too many quiet moments in this spit and sawdust joint on one of the capital's prettiest streets. The Bow Bar doesn't shout about its credentials but for those in the know it is one of Edinburgh's favourite whisky bars and one where you'll always find something unusual. It has barely changed its decor in about 25 years. It's one of the very few bars in Edinburgh with a no music policy. Drink and chat is the order of the day. You won't find menus, whisky flights and guided tastings here but you can invent your own. It's one of those places where you can say: "Give me a whisky that tastes of liquorice and seaweed."

Tip: At lunch time you can stave off hunger pangs with a pie, brought daily from a butcher in Portobello.

7 The Caley Bar

The Caledonian, Princes Street, EH1 2AB

The cosy corner bar in the grand Caledonian Hotel was once famous for its glorious whisky collection. Sadly the collection, and the cabinets it was stored in, were removed when the grand pink lady of Princes Street became a Waldorf Astoria Bar manager Sam Buchanan is working on a whisky cocktail list while executive chef Craig Sandal, is designing a bar food menu of pub food: "with a Michelin twist.". The Caledonian already has its own specially bottled single malt and is currently in negotiation with a distiller to bring in some unique signature editions. Buchanan says: "The idea is to make sure there are some whiskies available here that you won't be able to find anywhere else."

Tip: Here you can see the old station clock and the edge of the railway platform from when this was a true railway hotel.

8 Devil's Advocate

9 Advocate's Close, Edinburgh EH1 1ND

Down a mediaeval close in the heart of the oldest part of Edinburgh this funky new bar restaurant has a contemporary feel and a great buzz. The walls are old stone but the inside is made of brick with a bar built roughly out of reclaimed wood. You'll find your way here from the Royal Mile by looking out for the billboards bearing quotes about whisky from writers and philosophers. The bar has a 200 plus and growing collection of whiskies - with an emphasis on rare and unusual selections. Here you can find Dutch, American and Swedish single malts. Food is good quality and hearty with large portions. There are seats outside but with towering Old Town tenements all around you'll rarely be sitting in sunshine.

Tip: Don't miss the Scots aphorisms carved over the doorways of the sixteenth century merchants house opposite.

9 Kay's Bar

39 Jamaica Street, Edinburgh EH3 6HF

Tucked away in a mews in the heart of Georgian Edinburgh, Kay's bar was once a wine and spirit merchants which served the whole of the New Town. Bar manager James Mann says: "This was where the scullery maids used to come to fill their jugs with sherry and they used to blend their own whisky here as well." There are huge wooden barrels along the walls, the original jugs and decanters and the Georgian signage, printed in real gold leaf runs along the top of the walls. Kay's has around 50 single malts ranged along the top of the bar and always has a few rare bottles stashed aside for the connoisseur.

Tip: Find your way to Kay's on a summer day and you'll find the front opened up and chairs on the pavement. With no noisy traffic nearby it is a great spot to catch some sunshine.

10 The Magnum

1 Albany Street, Edinburgh EH1 3PY

It's surprising there are not more dedicated whisky bars in the New Town of Edinburgh. Built in the Georgian era this up market residential district is the largest conservation area in Europe and is populated overwhelmingly by tweed wearing dog lovers. Although known more for its food and wine The Magnum has a sizeable whisky collection with a range of more than 80 single malts. The whisky menu is organised according to region dividing the list between Lowland, Highland, Islands and Speyside. While it used to offer standard bar meal fare the menu has recently gone upmarket with a big à la carte selection. The bar also claims to have the biggest range of designer crisps and nuts in Edinburgh.

Tip: Most homes in the Newtown have no gardens and the public gardens are strictly for residents only so it is surprisingly hard to find somewhere to sit outside in summer.

11 Scotch

The Balmoral, 1 Princes Street, Edinburgh EH2 2EQ

"Which is the best whisky bar in Edinburgh?" used to be a frequent question to the concierge at the Balmoral Hotel. With so many visitors on the whisky trail, management of the five star hotel at 1 Princes Street decided to try and create its own perfect upmarket whisky bar. Scotch, which opened in August 2013, and is open to non residents, is a distinctly swanky affair, with stags heads, mustard coloured walls, cow skin bar stools and Harris tweed armchairs. But the main attraction is a wall to ceiling cabinet stacked with 400 bottles of scotch, all lovingly described in a huge wooden bound menu. Behind the bar you'll find 'whisky ambassadors". West-coast born, James Quaile, said he was drawn to whisky "because of the stories" and because, as a trained furniture maker he was fascinated by the role of wood in whisky magic.

Tip: Enjoy the whisky-friendly bar snacks.

12 The Stockbridge Tap

16 The Stockbridge Tap, 2 - 6 Raeburn Place

Find The Stockbridge Tap on Twitter and Facebook

Real ales and good whiskies often go together and The Stockbridge Tap is a bar which prides itself on both. Owned by the same people who run The Bow Bar this friendly local bar is in the heart of Stockbridge, the upmarket bohemian village in the north of Edinburgh. There are around 72 single malts on offer, a big gin selection and seven real ale guest taps. At night time the bar is bustling with regulars. In this part of town tourists are a rare sight but The Stockbridge Tap goes out of its way to be welcoming. Bar person Emily Stix Moynahan remembers a riotous night with a visitor from Alabama who introduced his friends to various styles of whisky by explaining: "Sometimes you're in the mood for a burger, sometimes you want to eat a steak and other times you just want to eat some god damned chicken."

Tip: Wednesday night is top quality burger night.

13 Teuchters Landing

Leith, Teuchters Landing, 1c Dock Place, EH6 6LU

Although there are still some rough and ready bars the waterfront district of Leith also has its share of hip and funky bars and some wonderful places to eat including two Michelin starrred restaurants. Across the canal from the huge Scottish Government HQ you'll find Teuchters Landing, once the red brick waiting room for the ferry to Aberdeen. With more than a hundred single malts on offer, the owners came up with a novel way to encourage customers to experiment. For £3.70 punters are invited to take a gamble using the Ring of Destiny, a handmade hoop they can fling towards the loaded gantry in the hope of ringing a bottle of fine malt and winning a measure. Anyone who fails to hit the target is guaranteed consolation with a dram of the blended Sheep Dip.

Tip: Teuchters has an interesting range of rest of the world whiskies - including single malts from Japan and New Zealand.

14 Thomsons

182 - 184 Morrison Street, Edinburgh EH3 3EB

Stepping into Thomsons, in the west of Edinburgh, is like stepping back in time - with wood panelled walls, a bare floor and an almost entirely male clientele. And this pub, with a fine array of real ales and a collection of around a hundred whiskies is still a favourite with retired brewery workers, policemen and people in the drinks trade. Despite being a male enclave the pub is friendly enough. Finnish barman Jere Isokivi says he's learned a huge amount from the punters. "I didn't come here for the whisky but I have learned a lot from chatting to our customers. You can go on a whisky course but you won't learn as much as you will from talking to some old guy who's been drinking it all his life."

Tip: The whisky menu is hopelessly out of date but there are some rare treasures here.

15 Whiski

119 High Street, Edinburgh EH1 1SG

Opened six years ago by two expatriate Scots, Whiski is one of those pubs bristling from floor to ceiling with an extraordinary collection of ephemera. There are usually around 300 bottles of single malt ranged along the enormous wooden gantry, including rare editions bought at auction. But says general manager Rory Dalgety: "the rare editions are getting harder and harder to find." The popularity of this bar at the centre of the Royal Mile means the staff rarely have time to sit and chat. But they do offer whisky flights where customers are given a guided tour of a selection of whiskies. There's classic bar food, including fish and chips, burgers and good quality steak. And you'll find live folk music seven nights a week.

Tip: Buy a single malt from Whiski, keep the receipt and claim two pounds off any bottle in the Whiski Rooms.

16 Whiski Rooms

4 - 7 North Bank Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2LP

Built across two premises which used to be a bank and a supplier of ecclesiastical candles this bar, restaurant and shop is on the edge of the Old Town of Edinburgh, with sweeping views across Princes Street Gardens to the New Town. As well as whisky flights the bistro offers whisky experiences such as whisky and cheese and whisky and chocolate tastings. The food is a cut above pub food with specialities such as chateaubriand, while the purple walls and soft leather sofas give the bar area a spacious, comfortable vibe. The welcoming and relaxed atmosphere has also helped make this a favourite haunt for tourists and whisky loving locals alike. The shop has a much smaller selection than some other whisky specialists - but the bottles are well chosen - and the friendly chaps behind the counter have a treasury of knowledge.

Tip: Try the special edition malt bottled for Whiski Rooms.