Edinburgh cocktail bars
Tucked away on Thistle Street in the New Town, The Bon Vivant has the external look of an informal eatery, and an internal décor dominated by warm, soft wood and candlelight: ersatz trad where no one really cares about the ersatz element. It feels comforting, the bistro-style menu is a major part of the experience and the venue has none of the aesthetic stridency associated with some twenty-first century cocktail vendors.
Arriving in late 2013, Panda & Sons is a concept bar for cocktail connoisseurs. At street level, it presents as an American barber’s shop; while down the stairs into the basement premises, the basic makings of a Queen Street bar are all present – wood panelling, old-fashioned look – with additional props and touches that can be quite a hoot if you’re in the mood: panda imagery, a bookshelf that doubles as a door, eccentric ornaments plus a plaque that reads, ‘In 1832 on this spot nothing happened.’
You’re either going to be intimidated by the Balmoral Hotel or you’re not. If the sheer heft of the place, its central location, doorman and pricing make you anxious, go somewhere else. If you want a cheeky cocktail at the city’s most iconic address however, then step through that door. There are a number of restaurants and bars here but the Balmoral Bar itself – not to be confused with Scotch, the hotel’s dedicated whisky bar – is your destination for mixology.
Although the Sheraton has been around for more than 30 years, it was a 2012 refurbishment that created its bright and eye-poppingly colourful One Square Bar and Restaurant with the bar focusing very much on mother’s ruin. Since 2015 it has had its very own brand of small batch gin in collaboration with local micro-distiller Pickering’s, there are around 60 other gins available behind the bar and, yes of course, you can do a connoisseur gin tasting here. Other spirits are available – and other cocktails obviously, even dessert cocktails – but if you want a gin cocktail in Scotland’s capital then you can’t ignore One Square.
One of the bars that helped kick-start the local cocktail scene more than a decade ago, Dragonfly remains all things to all people. Budding Bukowskis can sit downstairs, while the more discreet drinker can take their cocktail up to a small balcony-style mezzanine. It’s not the city’s most glamorous cocktail venue, more like an old pub with a nightclub-sensibility makeover, and it does show its age.
Launched in summer 2013, this sister venue to Bramble and the Last Word Saloon has 13 bottles of base spirit behind the bar and uses them to conjure up 13 cocktails with the drinks changing every three months or so. They also make some of their own syrups and cordials too which makes their creations unique. If you’re a regular, you see the cocktail menu change, season by season; if you visit every few months you’ll be surprised by a whole new drinks list every time. The approach is experimental, the décor straightforward and if it wasn’t a permanent enterprise you could say the bar had the stripped down appeal of a pop-up.
Tonic has been around for more than 15 years so it’s a survivor. Despite the handy and central location, just off George Street, you don’t last that long unless you have something good to offer. At the moment, it’s friendly staff creating a real sense of welcome in the contemporary, non-flashy interior – and a commendable cocktail list. There’s a logic and creativity here – the mixology tends to be thoughtful but fun. It doesn’t take many people to fill this place, but if you catch it on some quiet late afternoon just after opening, or midweek evening, it’s a chilled space for a quality drink.
Once upon a time the discerning Edinburgh drinker saw cocktails as hideous blue things, with umbrellas and sparklers, fit for immature palates and the weekend disco-mating crowd – or something that only popped up in old movies. However, back in 2006, Bramble sneaked on the scene in its New Town basement: discreet, skilled, hip and staffed by enthusiasts. With its alcoves, distressed look, tea lights and relaxed, speakeasy feel, it was a slow-burning hit.
A venue from the Bon Vivant stable, this arrived in 2013 and occupies one of the most atmospheric sites in the Old Town, on Advocate’s Close – a stepped, narrow thoroughfare that climbs from Cockburn Street to the High Street. It occupies a soaring old Victorian pump station and the interior has no shortage of space; the décor is all bare brick, beams and wood. Like the Bon Vivant mothership, it hardly looks like a cocktail bar at all - mainly because it’s not. Rather, it’s a modern bistro-bar with a decent food menu, a commendable selection of single malt Scotch whiskies – including the award-winning Ardbeg Uigeadail – but also a way with mixology that's wholly dexterous and certainly worth seeking out.
It would be easy to write Paradse Palms off as just another wacky student bar, but the vegetarian soul food menu, eclectic events calendar and fun cocktail list make it a far more attractive proposition. That cocktail menu in particular makes for happy browsing, starting with shots at £3.50 then going via five-quid classics and more complicated cocktails at the £7.50 level until the pricing tops out with teapots to share for up to £15.
Hotel Missoni arrived in Edinburgh in 2009 in a blaze of publicity, self-conscious chic and fairy dust, although the branding only lasted around five years before the premises were transformed into G&V Royal Mile Hotel. Irrespective of the name above the door, the cocktail bar remains an all out aesthetic assault thanks to Italian fashion house sensibilities, clean whites, bold colours, and attention-grabbing fixtures and fittings. Handily sited on the corner of the Royal Mile and George IV Bridge, this is about as central as the Old Town gets, with major attractions like Edinburgh Castle or the National Museum of Scotland just a few minutes’ walk away.
A spiral of stone stairs twists down from Merchant Street, past plant pots and fairy lights into this basement bar. Inside it’s a dimly lit, cosy hole to hide in with soft furnishings hanging off beat up armchairs, and vintage clocks ticking away above the glowing fish tank. It’s open from noon for espressos, herbal teas, or coffees and hot chocolates laced with liqueurs – which is worth remembering on a particularly nippy and bitter January afternoon.
In the basement of the Rutland Hotel, at the west end of Princes Street, Heads & Tales was a 2014 debutante that took the current trend for all things gin and made it manifest. Décor is a little bit steampunk and there's a gin micro-distillery on the premises, making the Edinburgh Gin brand. There are gin masterclasses and you can design your own gin cocktail under the guidance of the bar staff. During the day, before the bar opens, there are also distillery tours. The house cocktail menu offers yet more gin-based wonders, but allows that some drinkers might prefer a different spirit altogether, so juniper refuseniks may visit and still find something to suit.
If you’ve been running Bramble successfully in Queen Street for six years or so then the chance comes to open a second basement cocktail bar, but in Stockbridge, you’d give it a go, wouldn’t you? Much more of a neighbourhood venue than its stablemate, The Last Word has less of the twilight mystique of Bramble but feels more accessible, with friendly staff, a wall-mounted squirrel (modest by the standards of most hunting trophies) and no shortage of expertise in the mixology stakes.
Huge stencils of robots on the walls, metre-high porcelain tigers and retro ghetto-blasters: this much-loved bar-slash-restaurant has something of a unique approach to interior design. Alongside a long cocktail list, there’s an extensive food menu that covers everything from sharing platters and fish ‘n’ chips to roasts on a Sunday. The staff are friendly and DJs are brought in at weekends to get the party going.