Preface: When our friends at The Glenlivet invited us to don kilts and drink with them at the Speyside Whisky Festival, we removed our pants straight away. No underwear, no problem. Bring on the haggis, neeps and tatties, whatever that means, we said. We knew too that there were riches to be found in Scotland outside of barrels and drams, especially in Edinburgh, home of the Scottish Enlightenment that produced influential thinkers like Adam Smith and David Hume, and still a cultural center of Europe today. We were out to experience it all, but had little time to do so. Finding Nessie would have to wait.
Read on about our trip after the break.
The Speyside region holds over half the distilleries in Scotland, and holds the greatest concentration of malt whiskeys of any whisky producing region.
Speyside whisky is notable for its honey and fruit flavors mixed with floral aromas.
The word “whisky” comes from the Gaelic “Usquebaugh,” meaning “water of life”
The Dram is a standard measure, but the “wee dram” is a unit of whisky as large as the host pours it, and based only on a wealth (or lack of) hospitality.
Blended whisky contains anywhere from 15 to 50 single malt whiskys.
Whisky must be matured a minimum of 3 years in Scotland to earn the title of Scotch whisky.
Approximately 2% of all whisky made each year evaporates; this percentage is known as the “angel’s share.”
Blending whisky was pioneered by Andrew Usher in 1860.
The streets of Europe have their history written all over them: They’re narrow, intimate, layered metaphorically and actually with stories. It’s especially true in the Scottish capital. Edinburgh Castle sits atop a volcanic crag, the city’s original settlement and the royal residence since at least the 12th century. It looms over the rest of the city, often in a sort of hazy fog. It’s a goddam big stony thing and seen from everywhere. It’s right there when you pick up your morning coffee, kick back with a book in the Princes Street Gardens, duck into H&M for boxer briefs (if you pack light), finish an elegant lunch at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, go out mapless for a long run in the morning. Sometimes it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t.
Then there’s the city below the city, Mary King’s Close, a network of streets and courtyards beneath the Royal Mile — the main drag that runs from the castle on down to Holyrood Abbey and the Scottish Parliament — that were buried and built over in the 17th century, maybe with plague victims still inside. For the admission price of £12.95 a fellow can take a tour down there. The guide tells us we’ll be able to smell how old it is and that’s just enough for us to skip that business and go about our trip. We can smell old rubbish all summer long outside the apartment buildings in New York.
That’s just the Old Town, the medieval-era stuff. North across the train tracks there’s New Town, full of beautiful Georgian period architecture, cobblestone streets, shops, bars and areas that used to be villages until they were incorporated into the city. One of them is Stockbridge, where we find ourselves the first morning of our visit, in a bookstore, buying a neatly bound little jobby called Scots Proverbs for £1 even. Seems like as good a travel guide as any.
A Good Beginning Makes a Good Ending
The guide tells us we’ll be able to smell how old it is and that’s just enough for us to skip that business and go about our trip. We can smell old rubbish all summer long outside apartment buildings in New York.
Our philosophy on travel accommodations is that they should be top-tier or somewhere near the bottom, though not quite rock bottom unless it involves only the outdoors. Extremes make for good stories. We’d be spending a night at the 5-star Scotsman later in the trip, so we booked a room in some guy’s apartment in Leith using Airbnb. Leith is the port in the northern section of Edinburgh, and though it’s technically part of the city it has its own identity: a little rougher around the edges and definitely more blue collar, sort of like South Boston. No dandies in tweed walking around Leith. We called The Scotsman from the airport for a lift. They were a little confused about why they should give me a ride to Leith, but they did so nevertheless. Ask and ye shall receive. Add that to the book of proverbs.
The walk from the middle of Leith into the center of Edinburgh and all the sights are only about 20 minutes (and there’s a pub on every block).
Better Say Here It Was, Than There It Was
Edinburgh is a great city to explore on foot, and for us a long morning run is the easiest way to get our bearings. We like to commit the neighborhoods — who lives there, what they eat, what it smells like — to memory in the first 24 hours of the trip. Edinburgh has a rich variety of neighborhoods. In the city center there’s Old Town and New Town — that’s where the nightlife is, the three-story Irish pubs that inevitably pop up next to hostels in Europe, the restaurants serving smoked fish and haggis, bars with cask ales, bars with beer boots. But there’s a lot to see beyond that: Inverlaith Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens, the weekend farmer’s market in Stockbridge, big houses and expensive cars in Morningside, excellent coffee and hot 20-somethings in Marchmont. Repeat, Marchmont.
He That’s Welcome Fares Well
Traveling alone doesn’t mean spending the whole trip alone. Here’s how to make friends in Edinburgh:
- Head to any bar in Grassmarket or Cowgate, but especially The Bow Bar
- Sit down with an old man named Duncan or Rory.
- Produce the cheese you’ve purchased at the Stockbridge farmers market and share it around.
- Accept Rory’s offer to meet later that night at Whiski Bar on the Royal Mile, where his old college pal will be playing the fiddle.
- Don’t write off the Royal Mile because it’s touristy. It’s a fine place to pick up a Swiss date for the Beltane Fire Festival.
Ye May Get War Bodes or Beltan
Don’t write off the Royal Mile because it’s touristy. It’s a fine place to pick up a Swiss date for the Beltane Fire Festival.
A visit to Edinburgh is inevitably punctuated by climbing hills. Everyone is going to or coming from a hill — Castle Rock, Calton Hill with it’s monuments, and Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, which is both the best vantage point to view the other hills and the best spot to dangle your feet over a very large cliff. These hills are destinations in their own right, but Calton Hill is also home to the Beltane Fire Festival every April 30. It’s a revival of the ancient Celtic festival celebrating May 1, the beginning of summer on pre-Christian calendars. What this means for the traveler is lots of fire, beer, naked dancers painted red, drumming, and a mean fish and chips.
Drink Little That Ye May Drink Lang
Even if Edinburgh has everything a guy needs for a long weekend, it’d be a shame to miss out on the local hooch, which in Scotland just happens to be some of the best booze on the planet. Several hours north of Edinburgh is Speyside, a region known for whisky that’s elegantly balanced, fruity, floral and sweet — the kind of thing that suits a warm summer day just fine (nothing personal Ardbeg, you peaty bastard). The Glenlivet was kind enough to host us at the distillery for tastings, classes with Master Distiller Alan Winchester, and a walk along a famous whisky smuggling route on the distillery grounds. We stayed in a castle. It had a snooker table. Kilts were provided.
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