Whisky's jewel

Amber at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre has established itself as a class act. Now it's taking whisky and food pairings to new heights. Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
It’s one thing putting on an expensive and elitist whisky dinner and matching specially-sourced food with the finest whiskies. But it’s quite another to do so and pitch it at a wider audience.

When Amber at the Scotch Whisky Experience, formerly the Heritage Centre, opened its doors a couple of years ago, that was part of its brief; be a restaurant with great whisky and not just a whisky restaurant. Steer clear of the old-fashioned and staid image that quite often goes with malt, and offer something contemporary and fresh. Create a new stage for whisky to star on.

And it has been doing so with some style. Now, though it’s raising the standards again as it faces a new set of challenges and an increasing demand for its services.

The Scotch Whisky Experience plays a major role in promoting whisky to visitors to Scotland. Its position under the shadow of Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Royal Mile guarantees it a higher than average tourist profile, and with funding from most of the major distillery owners, it is in a unique position to promote interest particularly to overseas visitors.

But it realised a couple of years back that it needed to upgrade its offering. With the distilleries themselves investing in better and better visitor centres and offering them a wider range of attractions, the Experience needed to raise its game. And that’s exactly what it set about doing in 2006.

Amber has spent the last two years building its reputation.

“There can be no doubt that we have established ourselves in Edinburgh,” says Amber’s Julie Trevisan-Hunter. “We have built up interest during the last couple of years but we have always taken a softly-softly approach and relied on word of mouth. But word has definitely got about, first through a lot of corporate events and then with people who had attended those events coming back with their own family and friends.

“It meant that last year we started to get very busy well before Christmas. We started opening five nights a week from October and it has been busy from then.”

The challenge for the staff of Amber was how to combine good food with good whisky without making the offering too pretentious and elitist.

The result is Amber Flavours. Thanks to extensive research and the hard work of the staff, the restaurant has introduced a specially-prepared menu offering a whisky and food matching that is breaking down long-held whisky conventions and presenting it in a new and exciting way.

Picking up what Diageo started with its whisky dinners a few years back, Amber is taking great quality whisky and offering it to diners with courses in a new and challenging way. That means unusual whiskies and unusual serves such as a chilled whisky with dessert.

Because the restaurant has succeeded in attracting a wide range of people because of its quality cuisine it’s in a unique position to offer them a range of new food and whisky pairings and in so doing helping them discover a taste for whisky they didn’t know they had.

“We could have gone down the route of providing fantastic and rare malts with expensive food using the best food sources and that would have been lovely, but we wanted to do something more varied than that.

“We still sourced some of the tastiest food we could find from some of our top suppliers and put together an offering that showed off whisky in a new light. We offer a five course flavour menu which starts with a selection of foods that stimulate the taste, offering sour and sweet, salt and sugar. And the meal itself gives diners a range of whiskies.”

Because the Experience has a range of share-holders from the whisky trade, the choice of whisky varies. But the aim is to provide as wide a variety of whisky tastes as possible. And that includes offering whisky cocktails and liqueurs as well as some exquisite and relatively rare single malts. There may well be other surprises too.

“We try and present whisky in new and exciting ways,” says Julie. “So we offer a chilled whisky with dessert, an older whisky in a large brandy glass and a special liqueur in the old crystal-style Jacobite glass for the traditional toast. It helps show people that there are few conventions with whisky and there are all sorts of different ways it can be drunk and enjoyed.”

While Amber quite obviously has a strong whisky theme, its menu has been designed to provide plenty for the non-whisky enthusiast, too. Quite intentionally the management of the restaurant have gone to great lengths not to put off people who do not enjoy the spirit.

So there is an expert on hand to guide you through the mass of quality whiskies on offer, but you can drink wine if you prefer. And whisky isn’t gratuitously served up in every meal as an ingredient; far from it. In fact the current evening menu offers just three dishes made with the help of whisky: a smoked salmon starter soaked in Highland whisky; saddle of venison with a whisky gravy; and an apple and spice crumble with whisky custard.

The restaurant stands and falls on its ability to compete with the finest dining establishments in Edinburgh and it is succeeding in some style. Reviews have been outstanding and it has been awarded a gold medal by the Edinburgh Restaurateurs’ Association. Now the team hope that Amber Flavours will move it forward again.

“That is the aim now,” says Julie. “We want to provide a top restaurant for the city and open people up to the possibilities of whisky through its great food.!”

A selection of Amber Flavours

Highland venison

Highland venison rolled in herbs, sealed and left to set; this gives you the fragrance of the herbs with the natural flavour of the venison.

Scottish prawns with whisky marmalade dressing

Mouth-wateringly fresh, cooked in butter accompanied by another great Scottish contribution.

Fennel sorbet and spiced tuille

A refreshing sorbet combined with fennel for an aniseed flavour.

Honey Buccleuch Tournedos

Pan fried beef with heather honey for a sweet caramelised flavour served with an Arran mustard and Lanark Blue potato cake.

Highland coffee mousse

Rich dark chocolate and coffee mousse with a hint of whisky liqueur, accompanied by crumbly shortbread biscuit.