I had only one night to explore the best bars* in Edinburgh before my trip with two other journalists exploring Scotland’s food and drink scene began.
Getting to Scotland was no easy feat: hundreds of dollars of liquids in my carry-on (make-up, supplements, oils) were confiscated in security due to ‘explosive residue??’ and in the frenzy, I left my Ziploc bag of power cords, battery packs and cameras at security. Plus, I’d sat on the plane on Heathrow’s tarmack for three hours due to a passenger’s illness (the flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh was 45 minutes; I practically could have walked faster). Then, upon arrival, I found out Lindsay had cancelled her trip and wouldn’t me meeting me in Scotland (she had been scheduled to arrive on a different flight). Needless to say, I needed a drink—badly.
After a crying jag over losing so much—time, techie gear and my travel partner—I took a taxi to Edinburgh’s only speakeasy: Panda & Sons. From the outside, it advertised itself as a barber shop.
Descending the stairs and entering through the door posing as a bookshelf, I quickly surmised the only things being cut were jokes and fruit garnishes.
Nabbing a corner bar stool, I perused the panda-themed bar and menu that read more like a children’s book, filled with anecdotes and illustrations about a fictional family of dapperly dressed pandas.
Next to me, two girls in their early thirties were sipping pink cocktails from red-and-white striped straws. We struck up a friendly conversation, chit-chatting about life’s details as we watched the talented bartender smoke a cocktail in a cloche. Saying something about needing to pack because she was moving to a new flat in the morning, one of the girls said goodbye and left.
“Do you think you want to keep going? And if that’s weird for me to ask, I won’t be offended if you say no,” the girl who stayed behind asks me.
“Keep going? Well, I’m hitting a few other bars for a story I’m working on, if that’s what you mean,” I reply.
Come to find out, this friendly Scots woman (Let’s call her Mary. How awful am I? I can’t remember her name!?) offering bar crawl companionship was in the restaurant industry. Not only did Mary know her way around town, but she also knew the bar scene and, more importantly, the bartenders. How perfect was that?
And that’s how I found Edinburgh’s best bars, compliments of a complete stranger, turned fast friend (albeit nameless!). Just in case you don’t run into a generous local willing to tour you around, here are my picks for best bars in Edinburgh:
As one of the pioneers of the craft cocktail trend in Edinburgh, Bramble Bar remains—seven years later—a local favorite. In fact, it’s been voted top 50 bars in the world by Drinks International Magazine two years in a row.
Head down a flight of stairs and you’ll find a lively crowd that fills every nook and cranny of this petite, stone-walled bar. Cocktails, a dizzying array of takes on the classic Bramble drink (gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, creme de mure, and crushed ice) are well-executed in both taste and appearance.
Behind the bar, there are bartenders who mix a fine drink with precision and care; and there are creative geniuses that turn happy hour into epicurean enlightenment. Babajide Sosimi aka JD for short, is the latter. Utilizing a total sensory approach, a cocktail will require more than sipping.
It will also involve smelling, licking and eating as well (Notice all the different elements of the cocktail above?). Just tell JD what flavors you’re into, like savory, sweet, or spicy, and he’ll dole out a multi-sensory masterpiece.
After the wild ride at the bar with JD, head to Balmoral’s new scotch bar to chill out with over 400 scotches to choose from (plus, complimentary scotch chocolates to boot!). Can’t decide which wee dram to have? Beckon over one of the kilt-clad whiskey ambassadors for stellar recommendations.
A bar that can turn an oat biscuit into a delicious drink or make a Bloody Mary sans tomato juice (Tomato juice is like my cryptonite. I avoid the vile stuff at all costs…) has my heart. Forever.
The talented crew at Lucky Liquor are a bit like mad scientists. Head to the intimate bar in the back and you’ll see all sorts of things brewing, infusing and centrifuging. Although the cocktail menu is chock full of intriguing sips, if you’re feeling extra adventurous, just say the word and they’ll whip up something off-menu that’s equally inventive.
Located in the basement of Rutland Hotel, Heads & Tales is a ridiculously cool, yet comfy space with exposed brick, velvet lounge chairs and glowing, cavernous alcoves (in photo below).
Touted as a gin bar, there’s a large selection of craft gins, including Edinburgh Gin that’s distilled on site. On the drinks menu, there’s roughly 20 original cocktails (made of gin and other spirits, such as whiskey or vodka).
Tours of the Edinburgh Gin distillery—the city’s first distillery in over 150 years— are available as well with the option to blend your own gin from dozens of botanicals with Edinburgh Gin’s master distiller David Robertson (in photo above) as your guide. Hot tip: Score a golden coin—something like the Willy Wonka golden ticket—that allows after hours entrance.
Other Edinburgh Bars With Amazing Cocktails to Check Out if You Have More than One Crazy Night
Bon Vivant (cocktails in photo above from Bon Vivant)
*Because everyone has their favorite type of watering hole, be it dive, pub or lounge, I need to define what the finest bars mean to me. Bars with innovative cocktails, which could include molecular mixology, weird ingredients, esoteric spirits and/or creative takes on classics, and bartenders that are more like chefs mixing up crazy concoctions are what I consider to be ‘best bars’.