Edinburgh - whisky flights & 40 year old whisky
July 27, 2017 4:57 AM   Subscribe

The wife and I are heading to Edinburgh for the first time and whisky is going to be a large part of the trip. Two questions: - Where is the best place to drink a whisky flight that will give us a feel for the different types of scotch? - Is it worth trying a whisky older than we are (33)? Any specific recommendations? Details below.

My wife and I are heading to London and Edinburgh this September. We very much enjoy whisky, but are by no means experts - most of our experience has been with American and Japanese whiskies, so we know very little about scotch. We wanted to correct this egregious lapse by trying a good whisky flight somewhere that could show us the difference between the whiskies in different parts of Scotland. I am leaning towars the "Regions" flight at the Balmoral hotel, but was wondering if it's that really the best option, both in terms of value for money and in terms of the atmosphere of the place.

On another, not unrelated note, we were toying with the idea of trying a whisky older than we are. As we are 33 years old, this is probably a window that is closing soon (where we live, good quality whisky is non-existent/ruinously expensive). On the one hand, I understand that age does not directly correlate to quality, especially as you approach the 40 year limit; on the other hand, I figure f we'll ever manage to do this anywhere, it will be Edinburgh. I saw that the menu at The Devil's Advocate has the Glenfarclas 40yo for 40 pounds for 25 ml - is this more or less what we should expect to pay? Any suggestions for places to go or specific whiskies of this age group to try? Any thoughts on the gimmicky idea of drinking a whisky older than oneself in the first place?
posted by LingeringMoon to Travel & Transportation around Edinburgh, Scotland (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Would the decades flight at the Balmoral not cover your second question?
posted by Akke at 6:11 AM on July 27, 2017

Edinburgh resident here (though not a Scot), your use of the word "flight" confused me, is it an Americanism? The more common word would be "tasting". The Balmoral event will be pitched at wealthy tourists, it'll be very charming but would probably make most Scots cringe; whether £10 a shot is worth it depends on the whiskies, I tend to doubt it. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has events but they may be for members only. A Glenfarclas 40 could set you back £675 a bottle (or £22.50 for 25ml).

Rather than choosing by age, learn about the different styles of whisky and which you do or don't like. I have never heard a bad word said about The Balvenie, whereas the likes of Highland Park are highly regarded by many but loathed by myself. Paying £40 for a glass you don't enjoy would be unfortunate.

My suggestion would be to look at the SMWS, one member can get the other in as a guest, get to know the staff and let them guide you.

Be aware that if you want to take some back which was bought landside that it will have to travel in hold luggage, I have no idea if that is even permitted these days.
posted by epo at 6:14 AM on July 27, 2017

I'm an Edinburgh resident, and the worst possible person to answer your question, because while I drink whisky very occasionally, I know next to nothing about it. Nonetheless, I'll use what local knowledge I have to answer what I can:

The atmosphere at the Balmoral hotel bar: It's quite a nice bar, in a famous and historic Victorian building. You won't at all feel like you're in a "hotel bar" if you go there.

Value for money at the Balmoral hotel bar: That looks like it's on the pricey side to me, which isn't surprising since the Balmoral is, as I said, Famous And Historic. But compare to the prices at the Whiski Rooms: they ask £22.50 per person for Introduction to Whisky and the same for History of Scotch, and £40 per person for Premium Whisky tasting, whereas Balmoral goes from £49 for regional to £105 for rare and old. That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad value for money, since I don't know what they're serving, but it is more than it costs elsewhere.

I don't know the best places to get whisky, but visitors here have sometimes requested the Albanach (although I don't know if they offer flights or tastings) and the Whiski Rooms have a good reputation as well. There might also be cheaper places further out from the center, but I don't know for sure, alas.

I have no idea if old whisky is worth the price, sorry.
posted by kyrademon at 6:22 AM on July 27, 2017

Epo beat me to it.

I'm a big fan of various whiskys (and whiskeys) and I was amazed at when I went into the Scottish Malt Whisky Society house when I was in Edinburgh. What they do is to buy casks from distillers and bottle it themselves. All of their bottles look identical and have ##.### written on it. The first two numbers before the dot are the distillery identifier and the numbers after the dot are sequential casks purchased from the distillery. I asked the bartender for something with a good bit of oakeyness without much smoke with hints of vanilla and they got down a bottle that was great. It also wasn't that expensive on a per measure basis, knowing that their measures go well into £20 each. It is £62.50 to join so it might be worth joining if you're really into your whisky.

As far as having a whisky older than you, it depends. I've done it, but when I did it I was much younger so having a taste of 18 year old scotch at 17 isn't really a big deal. It does get much more difficult with increasing age, the price will follow an exponential curve, but also the scotch will get better as well.
posted by koolkat at 6:34 AM on July 27, 2017

I don't think 'flight' is an Americanism, but it might be more familiar for wine.

The one at the Balmoral looks OK, although if it were me I'd prefer to focus on Islay and Speyside, rather the way that if I were doing French wine I'd probably go long on Bordeaux and Burgundy. (I think peaty Islay malts, above all Laphroaig and Lagavulin, are the most demanding and the most rewarding, of course YMMV). This sentence caused me to pause:

A selection of delicious bar bites such as smoked almonds and dark Swiss chocolate will be served during the tasting, chosen to bring out the flavours in the whisky.

Don't mind the almonds, but I can't believe a mouthful of chocolate is going to sharpen your palate!

Some alternative ideas here, including some already mentioned - alas I can't vouch for any of them.
posted by Segundus at 6:36 AM on July 27, 2017

Every city in the UK has no shortage of decent Scotch whisky tastings, and Edinburgh is going to have an order of magnitude more than most. While I'm sure the hotel's fine whisky tasting session will enjoyable, it is an expensive option, especially when you readily admit that you have little experience with Scotch.

I might suggest trying a cheaper introduction to Scotch (on preview, like the one in The Whiski Rooms), and then perhaps a further, more exotic tasting if you still feel intrigued by the idea. My reasoning is that unless your palette is used to the conventions of the common single malt whiskies, you're less likely to really appreciate the nuances, subtleties and plain novelty that more exotic single malts can bring.

On that note, I wouldn't necessarily convince you not to try some Scotch that's older than you. Just enjoy it knowing that it's a bit of a silly gimmick. If it blows your socks off, then that's an added bonus.

I've personally been for a few whisky tasting sessions, though none in Edinburgh. One of the best was actually in the Oxford branch of The Whisky Shop (an unremarkable national chain). The guy was passionate, very knowledgable. He happily waxed lyrical about the relationships between the specific geography of the distilleries and the resulting flavour. It cost £20 each for a group of 6 of us, which included the rest of the bottles that we opened.
posted by Magnakai at 6:36 AM on July 27, 2017

Also check out Ralfy on YouTube, more whisky reviews than you could possibly get through. A living legend though God knows what state his liver is in.
posted by epo at 6:42 AM on July 27, 2017

How do you feel about silly, campy tourist traps? If you're the type who loves them (and I know I am), don't miss The Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile. They actually take you through a Disney-style ride about the history of whisky production. It's a hoot, if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:47 AM on July 27, 2017

(FYI, I've seen flight used in this sense in Edinburgh, albeit for soup.)
posted by kyrademon at 7:20 AM on July 27, 2017

As a data point, I (an American with relatively little experience with whisky but am enthusiastic to learn) was very pleased with my tasting flights at the Whiski Rooms on Bank Street (mentioned above) last October.
posted by arco at 8:39 AM on July 27, 2017

For sampling whisky with knowledgeable bar staff, I recommend The Bow Bar just off the Royal Mile. It's very no-nonsense (you will get thrown out for being too drunk, noisy, and/or singing) but if you go at a quiet time of day you should get a staff member who is very knowledgeable about the 150+ single malts. I can't remember if they are currently doing flights. For whisky, it's a nice alternative to just SMWS (which imho is overpriced) and the Balmoral. And they do 35ml measures. And the beer's good too.
posted by sarahdal at 8:58 AM on July 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another Edinburgh resident here. The city has an astounding number of good places to try whisky. As with many things in Scotland - I would recommend "Scotland the Best" as a guide for picking out a few - in addition to the suggestions above. I would also recommend the Scottish Malt Whisky Society as a place to try to visit ("members only" in theory but you may be able to get invited in or otherwise get in as a guest - they have places both centrally on Queen Street and in Leith). This is where people who are passionate about their drinks - as opposed to merely wealthy - hang out.

If you do go there - and particularly since you are asking for some older malts - be careful about asking for the price of a dram from whatever dreamy sounding but anonymous cask you have narrowed down your choice to. There are some shocks to be had! They would also be good people to go to with the question about wanting to drink a whisky that is your age - because the answer to that will depend on the other sort of stuff that you like as well as the size of your wallet. And really it should be the former consideration that drives you: a 33 year old whisky that is heavily peated- when you don't like peat - will taste worse than a 10 year old which does not.

And for a cheaper place that does whisky flights aplenty: try the Albannach bar on the Royal Mile
posted by rongorongo at 9:00 AM on July 27, 2017

Follow up: I asked my g/f who works in the industry for her recommendations. She would talk your ears off in favour of Glengoyne - and, whether or not you agree, this illustrates an important point- enjoying whisky is partly about the story. Just as football supporters enjoy a match more if they support a team - then it helps to be passionate about a particular distillery. If you are looking to try fancier malts then depth rather than breadth of knowledge can be important.

In terms of places to taste- to the Albanach bar she would add Teuchters at the shore in Leith - flights, a means of choosing a malt by throwing a hoop at the bottles behind the bar, a huge choice and an interesting area with a long history with the drink. As for the Balmoral- that is "for afternoon tea and cocktails very much; not for malts".
posted by rongorongo at 12:18 PM on July 27, 2017

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