It’s been three months since we got back from the UK and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my planned Scotland posts, to say nothing of my London food posts. I’m going to try to get at least most of the Scotland stuff done by the end of October. There’ll be a few posts on eating in Edinburgh, a few on eating in the Speyside and on Orkney, and starting with this one, there’ll be a few posts on whisky stores in Edinburgh (following my brief look at the excellent Cadenhead’s store there, which I’d posted in June). This post combines a look at two places: the Scotch Whisky Experience at the opposite end of the Royal Mile from Cadenhead’s, and the Victoria St. location of the Whisky Shop, not too far away. In different ways these are both quite different from Cadenhead’s; I wouldn’t really suggest shopping there over Cadenhead’s or Royal Mile Whiskies (report coming soon) but it was still interesting to go into both places.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
Located just a few steps from the climb up to Edinburgh Castle, the Scotch Whisky Experience describes itself as “a five star visitor attraction” and is something like what you’d expect if a theme park designer was asked to build a whisky extravaganza in Las Vegas. There’s a big shiny whisky store, a restaurant, and a “tour” of the whisky production process that begins with a barrel ride. I put “tour” in quotes because there is obviously no actual distillery on site. But as far as I can make out (I did not take any of the tours) you get most of the information you would on a tour at an actual distillery without any of the experience of being there. This seems like a rather faint approximation of the experience to me but to be fair there are visitors to Edinburgh who do not have time to get out to actual distilleries; and there are also far more visitors to Scotland with a faint interest in whisky than there are people who want to gaze at washbacks or gape at barrels in a dunnage warehouse. For the average regular tourist the Scotch Whisky Experience is probably pitched just right. And as confirmation they’re now in their 30th year of operation.
I did not take a tour or eat at their restaurant, Amber, which seems to specialize in Scottish ingredients and dishes. All I can offer you therefore is a glimpse at their shop. As you would expect from an enterprise launched collectively by a large number of whisky companies, the shop’s focus is on official distillery releases. It was quite crowded while I was there and I was not moved to linger but I don’t recall seeing any independent releases. It’s all rather shiny and covered in tartan in a way that none of the other stores I popped into in Edinburgh were.
Take a quick look and scroll down for an even quicker look at the Whisky Shop.
The Whisky Shop
The Whisky Shop is a chain with a number of locations all over the UK—there’s another in Edinburgh itself. There’s no real compelling reason to go there—other than the fact that coming from the US any whisky shop is an upgrade—but we were waiting for a table at the Pizza Express at the top of the street and passed the time by wandering up and down the street, which apparently was also the inspiration or location or both for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books and movies. The store’s selection is not particularly remarkable, though, unlike the Scotch Whisky Experience, they do carry independent bottlers. And they also carry a bunch of whiskies with the Loch Fyne label on them. As you may know, the Whisky Shop purchased the once very idiosyncratic Loch Fyne Whiskies store in Inverary some years ago and proceeded to de-idiosyncratize it. What the connection between these whiskies and that store is, I don’t know.
Of more interest to me was their selection of private barrel releases—these seem to be put out under the Glen Keir label. In the shop when I visited were five barrels. Four of them were young whiskies from named distilleries—Glenlossie, Glengoyne, Craigellachie and Mortlach, all 10 years old or younger—and one was labelled “the Secret Islay”. It’s not much of a secret though as the gent manning the barrels unbidden told my friend and me it was a young Bowmore. We all got little tastes and because we weren’t paying attention to the prices we each bought a 100 ml bottle. I mention prices because these were pretty high compared to Cadenhead’s and for whiskies bottled at 40%: for most of the barrels the rates were £12 for 100 ml, £24 for 200 ml and £50 for 500 ml. In comparison, a 70 cl bottle of an excellent 15 yo sherry cask Springbank at cask strength at Cadenhead’s was £48.
Here’s a quick look. At the end of the slideshow are a few pictures of the famous Bow Bar, which is located mere steps away and where my friends and I met James for a drink a couple of nights later. It’s very nice bar indeed—a very good whisky list and fair prices, and a good selection of beer too.
Coming next on the whisky front from Edinburgh, a look at two whisky stores I’d never heard of before I got there and also a look at the Royal Mile Whiskies mothership, featuring the legendary Jolly Toper. And I’ll soon have a few food reports from the city as well before heading up north again.