You may have seen from my Facebook that I spent a long weekend up in Edinburgh last weekend. We had a LOT of fun and of course comedy (and other performances) are normally washed down with beverages. So I made sure to check out everything that included ‘Gin’ in the name in the festival programme! So here is my gin guide to Edinburgh:
Gin guide to the Edinburgh Fringe
I started out with a gin safari, checked out an Arbikie gin masterclass and visited the distilleries of both Pickering’s and Edinburgh gin. Read all about these experiences, some of which are available year round. There is also a section at the end on some gin bars that I’d recommend to visit whatever time of year you visit Edinburgh, enjoy!
Edinburgh Gin Safari
This activity was a special one put on for the Edinburgh Fringe, so running most days (not Sunday or Monday) in August. If demand is really popular they may run it again – my tour was full so I think they have the demand!
The start – The Other Place
We started off at the Other Place in Bonnington. It was great to get out of the centre of the city which is always rammed with people during the Fringe. The pub was easy walking distance from the New Town (Assembly Rooms). It’s a bit more of a trek from the other main Fringe venues in the Old Town, but plenty of buses etc will get you there.
At the Other Place we were greeted by our guide Vanessa and the tour kicked off with Edinburgh gin liqueur topped with prosecco.
We then headed to the Marshmallow Lady around the corner for a milkshake made with local ice cream and topped with a toasted gin & tonic marshmallow.
I obviously ate my gin and tonic marshmallow first… the shake made with local ice cream was delicious too! The gin and tonic marshmallows were made with Pickering’s gin and lemon zest.
Walk along the waters of Leith
We walked into a rural idyl along the waters of Leith. This area has been cleaned up recently and otters have even been spotted here now!
Going past the first ‘housing estate’ for workers, we spotted the signs of the different trades people who built these houses:
G Armstrong Fishmongers
Next stop was for gin infused smoked salmon at the fishmongers. They smoke and infuse all their own salmon here. As well as the gin flavour they do a whiskey one and a saffron smoked salmon.
We tasted the salmon with a sample of Pickering’s – a match made in heaven!
Then we had a quick peek at the smoker – they use oak logs and it smelt amazing.
Coco source their cocoa beans from Fairtrade suppliers in Colombia. Because of this they recently lost their organic status, as the smaller Fairtrade suppliers can’t afford to go through the certification process.
The gin and tonic chocolate is 60% cocoa solids with lemon and lime oils to give the tonic flavour and juniper berry oil for the gin part. It went down very well! You can get this chocolate from a vast selection of shops around the UK. I saw it in a museum shop once (of course I bought it and ate the lot myself!).
The Last Word bar
The final stop of the gin safari was the Last Word bar in Stockbridge – a fitting end I think you’d agree! Here we had a Caorunn gin and FeverTree tonic.
Then a few of my fellow tour goers stayed for an additional drink. I had to get the negroni when I saw it was on tap (naturally!)
Arbikie gin masterclass
This was basically a tutored gin and vodka(!) tasting. During the Fringe Arbikie were sponsoring the Merchant’s Hall and every Saturday at 3pm they hosted a master class about their products.
The reason why we tried vodka as well as gin, is because Arbikie make their own base spirit = vodka. It’s from this the gin is made. So they are field to bottle producers.
This meant we tried 2 vodkas and 2 gins – the first were made from a potato spirit base and the second from a wheat base.
After hearing a bit about how Arbikie was started – to diversify from food production – we were guided through the tasting.
Arbikie potato vodka
We started with the potato vodka, because as the third biggest potato farm in the UK, they had a lot of those about (mainly the wonky ones the super markets won’t take). This vodka had a great thick mouth feel and a touch of creaminess, alongside the peppery spices and apple/pear flavour.
The legs on the glass indicate the viscosity of the drink – so it wasn’t a surprise about the thick mouth feel for this vodka. We also tried it topped with soda water.
The gin that is made from this base is Kirsty’s Gin- very much a Scottish gin. It includes ingredients that represent the sea, earth and rock of Scottland, including kelp. This gives it a sea breeze smell on the nose! The other botancials include Blayberries (Billberries) and Carline Thistle. They grow most of their botanicals, including the Scottish Juniper.
What is gin, but vodka with ambition?!
The gin is light and vibrant, with a smooth mouthful from the potato vodka base. I get some citrus notes, but I wasn’t sure which botanicals gave this flavour. There is a sweetness from the liquorice and apparently parma violets (but I didn’t taste this!). To get the gin from field to bottle takes 9-10 months including the growing season.
The suggested serve is blueberries, a lemon twist for the citrus oils and premium tonic.
Haar wheat vodka
The wheat vodka is called Haar after the rolling fog they get on the East coast of Scotland. It uses Zulu wheat which is traditionally used in cereals as it’s sweeter. They suggest having this as either a martini or a vodka coke.
AK’s gin is their homage to Alexander K, who’s favourite things were honey and ginger, so both those botanicals are included. The honey comes from the bees at the farm. It’s a sweet and spicy gin with black pepper, cardamom and mace – the ginger didn’t work, but this combination of spices evokes the ginger flavours. It is very tasty, with a lighter mouth feel and you do get ginger notes coming through, along with honey and butterscotch.
They also let us try a couple of other spirits that they make: chili vodka and strawberry vodka. The strawberries are grown across the road from the estate and at 50% ABV this packs a punch alongside the sweetness from the fruit. The chili vodka is made with smokey chipotle chillies (at least til they get their first home grown chili crop!) and was wonderfully smokey. It made me want to go get Mexican food!
The Arbroath FC gin includes smoked sea salt to evoke Arbroath smokies from the area. It’s a great story behind this gin too! (36-nil!)
Pickering’s gin jolly
Pickering’s have tours of their distillery at Summerhall available year round, but for the Festival they do a special ‘gin jolly’ one. There are three parts to the tour – the history of gin in general, how Pickering’s distill and then the best bit – the gin tasting!
Now if you’ve read enough of my gin tasting write ups you know the history of gin in general – so I won’t repeat this. Let me just tell you some of Pickering’s history:
Summerhall is an old vet school and Pickering’s is in the old cat and dog kennels. Matt Gamel and Marcus Pickering were the builders turning the old school into an arts venue and fancied making some gin as a hobby. By then Barney’s brewery had already moved into Summerhall and so they were inspired to base their gin venture there too.
Their gin originated from an old recipe from his Dad’s friend in India. However as an authentic Indian spiced recipe from the 40’s, it was not a modern gin and didn’t go with modern tonics! So they had to experiment and started with google! They removed the cinnamon and added Angelica root, to bring the juniper flavour forward and make it a more modern style of gin.
As the first exclusive gin distillery in Edinburgh for 150’s years the public was inspired and demand for Pickering’s was high – so they had to turn their hobby into a full time thing. They wanted to honour the vet school in their logo with an animal and started out with a pig, before settling on a peacock as the national bird of India.
Original red top
This gin is made to 42% ABV, diluted down from the 80% that it comes off the still at using filtered Edinburgh tap water. They also bottle their gin onsite using the four steps:
- Bottling, use gin to sterlise the bottles first, before filling using a pump. They also use a turkey baster to ensure each bottle is full!
- Cork, they like the look and feel of a cork, rather than a screw cap. They borrowed a bottle capping device from Barney’s to make this easier and never gave it back…
- Labels, as Matt used to work in glass and crystal industry he picked a bottle that feels great in the hand and looks fab, all curves. However it’s not circular or square, or straight sided… which meant that labelling was a nightmare! They had to design their own machine to do this.
- Waxing is the last step. They dip at 45 degrees to get the signature look and seal in cold water. Add a sticker on the top and the bottles are ready to go!
But let’s get to the tasting: you get a tingling on your lips from the juniper, then citrus from lemon and lime peels and I taste cloves too. The spices show themselves more at the back of the mouth, whereas the heat from the alcohol you feel in your chest.
They suggest to serve with tonic and pink grapefruit – a light citrus that doesn’t overpower the gin so much.
Navy strength (bear skin top – note they are fake fur!)
The navy strength is the official gin of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo at 57.1% (strong enough that if it spilled on the gun powder it would still light). At this % ABV the botanicals are more at the front, it’s also smoother and sweeter or more orangey. They suggest to serve neat over ice (keep the bottle in the freezer so it pours lovely and thick and lessens the tingling). Or it makes a great g&t and can stand up to lemon or lime garnishes. The smoothness also balances nicely in cocktails, for example a martini.
Orange top – 1947 recipe
When the Tattoo theme was East meets West, they decided to use the orginal 1947 recipe. Cinnamon is the key difference to the red top original recipe and you can taste the sweetness that it pulls out. In addition there is cardamom, liquorice, fennel and aniseed, coriander and cloves. They recommend serving in a g&t with a slice of orange, the sweetness brings out the flavours. You could also serve with ginger ale or as a hot gin toddy with hot apple juice and a stick of cinnamon with honey and lemon juice.
Grapefruit and lemongrass liqueur
The latest in the range, this liqueur is a celebration of the garnish they recommend for the red top. It’s made with the red top gin as the base, plus extra cardamom. Try with tonic for a lighter g&t, or just neat over ice, or to pimp your prosecco.
Edinburgh gin distillery tour and tasting
Edinburgh gin distillery is based underground and was a bit tricky to find! They actually sponsor a lot of the Fringe, so even if you can’t make it for a tour (and they book up far in advance), you’ll still be able to get their gin and tonics and gin liqueurs at the Fringe bars.
Again the tour started with a history of gin and tonics, then the making of Edinburgh gin, a quick walk around the still room (no pictures allowed due to alcohol vapours) and finishing up with the tasting:
The main thing that I learnt here is that the gin was added to tonic powder back in the day to make it easier to drink the tonic (needed for anti-malaria medication). The lime garnish comes from the scurvy rations and bitters for seasickness – so having it all together was taking the medicine all at once and was the origin of the G&T. We also got to see this gin pig:
The bitters turned the gin pink, so he looked like a proper piggy! This one is called Hammie (short for Hamlet).
Edinburgh gin botanicals
Juniper is obviously a legal requirement for a gin product, but they also include the classic London Dry ingredient of coriander seed, angelica root for dryness and mouthfeel. They add orange peel for a marmalade flavour and lime peel for a sharper citrus note, which is why orange or lime can be used as a garnish with their gin.
Instead of using lemon as well they use lemongrass – this gives a much subtler flavour. Sweetness is added naturally with Mulberries and liquorice root, which is 13/14 times sweeter than sugar (and doesn’t caramelise in the still!) They use cassia bark as closely related to cinnamon, I didn’t realise that you can only grow cinnamon in Sri Lanka, and that most ‘cinnamon’ you buy for cooking is actually cassia… learn something new everyday!
Local botanicals include milk thistle seeds which adds oils and hence mouthfeel and helps keep the gin soft. They also use pine cones, and they used to use heather, but now they use lavender instead as you can get it year round. Hazelnuts add to the mouth feel and they use Orris root to bind the flavours. This is very expensive, so it’s also a sign of quality!
The still room
We stood in the still room for a few minutes as the stills were working – so no photos allowed in case of a spark setting the alcohol fumes alight! Luckily they had windows I could take photos through! The stills are named Flora and Caledonia. They have a small column still for rectifying spirits and use the London dry method to make their gins in a single pot still.
We were sat at one of the tables in the vaults beneath the street, where this was all set up for us:
The original gin is made in larger quantities at their still in Leith and they recommend serving with the FeverTree Original Indian tonic water.
Next we tried the Seaside gin – the savoury ‘seaside’ notes are from the inclusion of seaweed. The suggested serve is with FeverTree Mediterranean tonic, grapefruit and rosemary garnish, to allow the savoury notes to shine through.
1670 limited edition
The 1670 limited edition includes mace, fennel and a Tasmanian pepper as the botanicals that come from the Edinburgh botanical gardens. This is a herbal ‘green’ and fresh gin. They suggest serving this with Bon Accord Scottish tonic water – but that can be hard to find, so you can make a substitute by using a 50:50 mix of tonic and soda water with a basil garnish.
The Cannonball gin is 57% Navy Strength and ups the juniper (double the amount of the Edinburgh original) and szechuan pepper. This is suggested as a sipping gin – like all Navy strength, it’s very smooth!
We then tried 2 of the famous Edinburgh Gin liqueurs – the Plum and Vanilla and the classic Elderflower liqueur. These are lovely and can be served as lighter gin or tonic, or used to flavour a regular g&t or to pimp your prosecco. They also mentioned several baking ideas – pimp your crumble with some liqueur, or even add to your hot chocolate (Plum or Raspberry liqueurs are best for this!). I think my favourite is the Rhubarb and Ginger – great on it’s own as well as in cocktails.
For the £25 tasting you get a 20cl bottle of the liqueur or classic Edinburgh gin to take away – score! (These also make excellent presents!) And you get 10% off in the shop.
Other places to drink gin all year round:
The Last Word
This was our last stop on the Edinburgh Gin Safari. We finished up our tour with Caorunn, and some people from the tour stayed and had a Botanist gin & tonic after that too.
They impressed me when I saw they had negroni on tap – so if you like the bitter juice this is the place for you! They also do break even whiskey – i.e. where they don’t make a profit and sell a dram of a special whiskey to you at cost price. A great way to try an expensive bottle.
Whilst I didn’t make it in here to drink gin and tonics or their cocktails, it came highly recommended by Katie from Pickering’s. They have over 400 bottles of gin and staff that know what to recommend. Also out back is a gin garden and they do BBQ’s at the weekends.
The Royal Dick
If you can’t get into the Pickering’s distillery tour, you can still taste their gin at the Summerhall pub – the Royal Dick. (Currently called the Royal Pussy for the festival as Pussy Riot have taken over!). I tried the Ginerosity gin here – which is also made by Pickering’s and is a gin that DOES GOOD. (All proceeds go to support disadvantaged young adults worldwide.)
Both Pickering’s and Edinburgh distilleries are available to visit year round – but you need to book a weekend tour a few months in advance as they sell out. Note that I did all the above over 4 days, so make sure you pace yourselves.
I hope you enjoyed my gin guide to Edinburgh!
Where will you visit when you visit Edinburgh?