- Food & Drink
Gin on tap. Let's just stop there and appreciate that
“I’m here to drink gin.”
He lit up. “You have to go to this bar. It’s in a basement. There are pipes everywhere!” He leaned forward, conspiratorially. “And they do great cocktails.”
The bar, Heads & Tales, had been my first stop that morning. I’d rolled off the tram, staggering slightly from the affects of a brutally early morning flight, and wandered up and down Rutland Place until an emissary from Edinburgh Gin rescued me. They lead me down a set of steps into a bar that was part Prohibition era speakeasy and part medieval dungeon.
The receptionist had been right about the decor. Copper piping ran back and forth across the ceiling, while demijohns had been press-ganged into service as lights. Posed behind glass panels were the copper pot stills, Calendonia and Flora. After a lesson in the history of gin-making (which made me grateful for food safety legislation) we shuffled down the narrow corridor that acts as the distillery to admire the gleaming stills up close.
Edinburgh Gin, set up in 2010 by Alex Nicol, is a family affair, and his wife Jane was on hand to talk us through a line up of their gins and liqueurs.
Their house gin, Edinburgh Gin, is a beefy juniper gin with enough citrus in it to keep it sharp. For those who like a bit more heft in their G&T, there’s the Cannonball Gin. Navy strength and with a punch of Szechuan pepper, it makes the kind of martini that would pickle an admiral.
Edinburgh Gin also steeps Scottish fruits with their gin to make liqueurs. The rhubarb and ginger one would make me very happy over ice or, even better, mixed with prosecco. And many a trifle would be improved by a splash of the raspberry liqueur.
If Edinburgh Gin are slick old hands at distilling, then Pickering’s are the enthusiastic, let’s-put-the-show-on-right-here ingénues. Their distillery is located in a jumble of out buildings at the old veterinary school in Summerhall, which has been turned into an arts venue with a hodgepodge of small food businesses circling the courtyard.
Armed with a recipe for gin from 1947 and an A-Teamesque ability to build what they need out of oddities and ends, Pickering’s founders Marcus and Matt have been turning out small batches of gin since March last year. Their still, Gert, sits in what was the kennels, while the smallest mobile gin bar in the world (not official) is parked up outside, attached to a tiny scooter.
A small pipe runs out of the distillery. We followed it to the pub that sits in the middle of the complex, The Royal Dick. The pipe surfaces there in a grand copper tap that dispenses gin to a grateful crowd. The gin itself tastes like an über London Dry, with juniper, citrus and spice in full gallop. I loved it. Warming up for dinner, we sat among the vestiges of the veterinary school, sinking fresh-from-the-dstillery gins and contemplating the glory that is gin in the 21st century.
I was a guest of Scotland Food & Drink. If you want to go for a gin crawl around Edinburgh, here are all the details you need.
Travel, bed and breakfast
Flights from London to Edinburgh with Easyjet start at £60 return and a return ticket on the tram from the airport to the town centre is £8. If you’ve got the time, I recommend stretching out on the train. A longer, slower journey than the plane, but much less brutal.
I stayed at the G&V Royal Mile Hotel, where a cosy room with breakfast costs from £191 a night. Formerly the Hotel Missoni Edinburgh, it’s a slab of modish Italian luxe on the Royal Mile. The decor mixes conventional high-end tastefulness with clashing prints so bright that, were the lights not kept so flatteringly low, you’d need to wear sunglasses. At breakfast they let you eat as many custard doughnuts (which they call bomboloni, but we all know they mean doughnuts) as you can manage.
Edinburgh Gin offers tours of the distillery, including a tasting, three times a day from £10 per person. Book ahead on the website. Their Heads and Tales Bar is open Tuesday-Sunday from 5pm and you can book a table here. Edinburgh Gin (£27.95) is widely stocked and you can also shop for it here.
Pickering’s Gin offer tours by appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Tours are £10 a head and include a G&T from the tap at The Royal Dick Bar. Pickering’s Gin (£29.50) is starting to be stocked at various nice off licenses and you can buy it online here.
Food and drink
We soaked up the gin with lunch at The Edinburgh Larder Bistro on our first day. A homespun sort of place, with scaff board furniture and jars of fruit in syrup for sale by the front door. The menu is theoretically influenced by seasonal eating, although my chunk of roast pork belly came with summer greens – a puzzling bit of seasonality given that the Christmas decorations were up. Proudly Scottish might be a better description, with plenty of local producers getting a name check, and Scottish grown fruit, veg and herbs feature in homemade condiments, cordials and ice creams. Call 0131 225 4599 to book.
I failed to take a single decent picture of the food at The Gardener's Cottage, but you should all go because it's wonderful
Dinner was at the glorious Gardener’s Cottage, a tiny restaurant tucked at the bottom of Calton Hill. Dinner was a six course set menu served at a long communal table, while good taste jazz records span on a proper needle-and-groove player tucked into the old fireplace. The menu changes every day in accordance with what can be picked out of the vegetable patch or pulled from their pantry filled with homemade pickles, chutneys and whatnots.
The food is firmly rooted in Scotland and the seasons. Our December dinner was run through with the blood and iron flavours of winter. A delicate plate of raw beef, cured egg and watercress was everything an anaemic might dream of, while the duck, apple and crow garlic broth that followed was so rejuvenating it could make invalids cast down their crutches and dance their way back to health.
My favourite course was a vegetarian wander through the cold stores. Caramelised cauliflower, salt baked turnip, garlic ricotta and hazelnuts – a little sweet, a little salty, a lot lovely. A dessert of milk fir jelly and carrot cream, for once, didn’t make me curse René Redzepi and everyone who has forced an innocent vegetable into a pudding in imitation of him. I would go back to Edinburgh just to eat here. To book, ring 0131 558 1221.
The day after the gin before I recovered at Treacle Bar and Kitchen. An all day bar and kitchen (think they mean restaurant) that serves a mixture of stout breakfasts, burgers and pies and Asian-inspired salads, sandwiches and noodles. So whichever way your hangover leans you can salve it, especially as they mix cocktails that are far too easy to drink. My breakfast manhattan (bacon infused Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel, Broughton Street tea bitters, PX Sherry and maple syrup) tasted surprisingly like liquid chocolate.
Edinburgh Farmers’ Market has the good fortune to take place on Castle Terrace below the castle, making it by far the most attractive farmers’ market I’ve ever been to. Two shops I bought beautiful things in were Artisan Roast on Broughton Street, whose bright Kenyan kiangoi peaberry coffee has kept my family going over Christmas, and the nearby Coco Chocolate, for cardamom-flavoured hot chocolate and rum soaked, chocolate-covered raisins.