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Of Whiskys and Speakeasies, Edinburgh

It’s no secret, I’m partial to whiskey (in this case, whisky) and speakeasies. As well as craft beers but we’ll save those for another time.


If you have the same affinities, this post is for you. I thought it would be fun to run through some of my many whisky and speakeasy stops in Edinburgh, Scotland.


Distillery Tours


There was no way, absolutely none, that I was going to travel 4,000 miles to Edinburgh and not check out a distillery or two. I mean, after all, that was one of the main reasons for the trip in the first place.


Suspension bridge to far left, traditional bridge beside it and red rail bridge to far left over water.
The Firth of Forth bridges. Far left is the vehicle bridge that replaced the original one, just to the right. That original one is still used by limited to only buses and tour vans. Red bridge to far right is a rail bridge. **

Having no clue what distilleries were even in the general area I took the easy way out and booked a tour through Rabbie’s. Rabbie’s does a great job and their one-day tours are very affordable. (FYI. I’m getting nothing for saying that. I’m not making any money from this blog. As they say, it’s a labor of love.)


Glengoyne Distillery sign near the ground in front with large white building in background.
Road between the Glengoyne Distillery sign in foreground and building in back is the dividing line for the Scottish Highlands and Lowlands. **

Their buses are small, only 15 passenger. In fact, there were only two other people on my tour, both American foreign service officers. One was stationed in the Republic of Georgia, and the other in Uzbekistan.

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For the geographically challenged, those are just north of the Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan region. Needless to say, it made for some interesting conversation.


The trip included visits to Glengoyne Distillery in the morning and Deanston Distillery in the afternoon. With extra time between the two, our driver also took us for a little sightseeing along the way, traveling near Loch Lomond National Park, and stopping for a view of the Queensferry Crossing Bridge, Forth Bridge and Forth Road Bridge, as well as a view of Stirling Castle and its surrounding lands.


This post isn’t about bridges so I’m not going into detail but they're a pretty impressive site. All three are within a mile of each other crossing a body of water called the Firth of Forth.


Large, silver, metal sculptures of two horse heads near highway.
The Kelpies are a testament to getting behind big ideas. Some people opposed their construction but, standing nearly 100 feet high, they now draw people from all over the world. **

Personally, I got my biggest thrill from seeing the Kelpies, even if it was just as we passed by them on the highway.


Glengoyne Distillery - Fun fact. The Glengoyne Distillery is just a few miles north of Glasgow, sitting on either side of Road A81, the dividing line between Scotland’s Highlands and Lowlands, so it can claim allegiance to both - and use whichever in marketing they think will be to their greater advantage.


The distillery has been around since 1833 and, of the two we visited, its tour was the more professionally done with some slick displays and a special tasting room. (Not saying one tour was better than the other, just different.)


But you’d be mistaken to think it’s the kind of place driven by drawing in more and more tourists. Our bus driver shared that Glengoyne does not allow large Greyhound bus-size tour groups. Tours are limited to a dozen people so they can maintain a personal approach.


Three copper pot-style stills on a raised platform.
The copper pot stills inside Glengoyne Distillery. **

For a deeper dive into the tour, here’s a fun video from a couple of young women who, coincidentally, met when they were both working as tour guides at our afternoon stop, Deanston Distillery. Let’s see how well you do with understanding Scottish accents.


Deanston Distillery opened for business in 1966 in what was an abandoned cotton mill between the towns of Deanston and Doune.


You might recognize that second name, it’s better known as the home of Doune Castle, used in the Outlander tv series as Castle Leoch, and many years earlier as the main castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I’ve also heard it was used in Game of Thrones. (You can read a short note about it in a previous post.)


Deanston has what I would call a much more low-key family feel about it. There’s not a lot of bells and whistles to the tour. You really get the feel of being in an old cotton mill/factory kind of place.


Indoor warehouse with a concrete ceiling, filled with large scotch whisky barrels.
The Deanston Distillery scotch whisky warehouse is quite different than the Kentuck bourbon rickhouses. **

The storage room was especially interesting. Unlike the tall, wooden, rickhouses you see in Kentucky bourbon land, this was a huge concrete cavern of a room with barrels stacked upon each other.


Also, the distillery sits right across the road from River Teith, the second fastest flowing river in Scotland. Water from the river is used in the distilling process and for generating the distillery’s power.


I found this video with a little view of what the tour is like.


We received two tastings at each of the distilleries. And you know I wasn’t going to leave without purchasing some bottles to bring home, two from each place.


Tasting room with whisky barrels as tables and sign in back that reads, We make Deanston Whisky so you can make it disappear.
I'll do my best to support the slogan in the Deanston Scotch Whisky Distillery tasting room. **

FYI - If you’re wondering about bringing home whisky in your luggage, I had no problem, though I don’t know if I would try it in my carry on.


I have Global Entry, you should too by the way. I simply went to the facial recognition screen, passed through in a handful of seconds, waited in line behind three other people for the customs agent, told him I had the whisky in my suitcase, he didn’t even bat an eye, and let me right through.


I don’t think Global Entry made a huge difference as far as being allowed in with my whisky, but it cut at least an hour off the amount of time I would have spent standing in line.


Johnny Walker Experience


The Johnny Walker Experience, on Princes Street in Edinburgh, includes a large store on the first floor, rooftop venue on top, and a variety of tours from which to choose.


Blue and purple room with four tables filled with jars holding samples.
One of the colorful rooms in the Johnny Walker Experience. Visitors in this one have the opportunity to experience the scents of the many herbs and grasses involved in scotch whisky production. Look closely and you'll see the ceiling image is in the shape of Scotland. **

Their signature tour, the Journey of Flavor, takes you into the history of Johnny Walker, explains how whisky is made, and includes three whisky cocktails. Not tastings, actual, albeit small, cocktails.


My fellow passengers on the aforementioned distillery tour referred to it as the Disney Experience and I can kind of see where that comes from, but so what? I loved it. I know a couple Kentucky distilleries that could take a lesson from this place.


There is a lot of sensory imaging going on throughout the tour. Lighting, animation, video and even a live actor telling the story of how Johnny Walker came to be.


He performs on a stage that is essentially a large treadmill-like platform. He can walk across the stage, from one end to the other, or look like he’s walking in place with the stage moving below his feet. His entire performance is timed out with images on the screen behind him seeming to magically appear and disappear at just the right times as he is speaking.


Imagine if this video was performed on a stage and you get a good feel for what it's like. Oh, and, here’s a decent video of the Johnny Walker Experience overall.


Scotch Whisky Experience


The largest scotch whisky collection in the world, 3,384 bottles. The oldest bottles more than 200 years old.


Tour participants, sampling whisky while gathered around large round table, Glass shelving behind them is filled with whisky bottles.
Sampling scotch whiskys while surrounded by some of the more than 3,000 bottles at Edinburgh's Scotch Whisky Experience. **

It exists. It’s real, but you can only find it in one place, the Scotch Whisky Experience, located just footsteps away from Edinburgh Castle on the Royal Mile.


The Whisky Experience has had the collection for just 18 years. The logical question is, then, how did it manage to accumulate the largest scotch whisky collection in the world in such a short period of time?


The answer is pretty simple, it bought it, from someone else.


The collection originally belonged to a man by the name of Claive Vidiz from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He began acquiring bottles in the 1970s.


Sidewalk sign reads Whisky is Liquid Sunshine. image is a rainy night outside old stone building.
Whisky is Liquid Sunshine! Outside the Scotch Whisky Experience on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. **

In 2006, Vidiz got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Diageo, a British multinational alcoholic beverage company with 132 sites around the world. How much that offer was, no one knows but Vidiz and whoever signed that check at Diageo.


Let’s just say, if Vidiz wasn’t already a rich man, he certainly is now.


Whisky Experience tours include the opportunity to walk down the halls of glass shelving displaying all those bottles, a history of whisky-making and lessons on the proper way to sample whisky. Things like examining its color, looking at how it forms on the glass as you swirl it around, the proper way to smell it before drinking, and identifying tasting notes.


With an onsite restaurant, there are also tour options that include food pairings.


Panda & Sons


As soon as you walk inside the front door of the bright red Panda & Sons Barbershop, you know something is up.


Bright red storefront with Panda & Sons Barbershop printed on front window.
Don't let that Panda & Sons Barbershop sign fool you. Inside is one of the world's Top 50 speakeasy bars. **

The place is only about six-feet deep, and the sole piece of equipment inside is an old hair dryer chair that looks like a reject from the 1950s, maybe even older. But, walk down the stairs to your left, pull back on the large bookshelf at the bottom, and a new world appears.


Inside is the real Panda & Sons, a speakeasy ranked as one of the World's 50 Best Bars, number 39 to be precise.


The bar has a 40s kind of feel to it. If you squint a bit and imagine everything in blacks, whites and shades of gray, you might be transported to Casablanca with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart sitting nearby.


What makes it especially unique are the drinks. The owners lean heavily into freezing techniques that probably aren’t attempted at too many other, if any, places.


The drink menus, in a quite adorable booklet entitled Transcend, explain the freezing processes. I’m not even going to try. If you’re interested, you can learn about them on their website.


Hoot the Redeemer


Hoot the Redeemer is a real hoot. Sorry, I had to go there. But really, it’s a hoot. If I had to pick a favorite stop from my time in Edinburgh, this is it.


Large red vertical sign that reads Hoot the Redeemer, Psychic Palm Readings.
If you aren't looking for that palm reading sign outside Hoot the Redeemer, it's easy to walk on by the speakeasy's entrance. **

Walk by it on the street and there’s a good chance you won’t even see the door, and you certainly won’t know there’s a bar inside.


I only found it because I had the address in hand, and then I still walked by it once and missed it, having to turn around and search more closely.


If you find yourself searching for Hoot the Redeemer, keep your eyes peeled for a red sign advertising psychic palm readings, and a gold and black door a few steps behind it that looks like it came from ancient Egypt.


That’s the door, the street level one. There is no storefront by the way, only the door.

Entering, you’ll walk down a dimly-lit stairway with red curtains draped slightly across the top. At the bottom is a second door. This one mounted in front with a fortune teller, similar to ones you might find in those coin operated machines along the Coney Island boardwalk.


That’s the door, into the bar.


It’s a bit of a challenge describing the place. It’s like someone took a fortune teller’s shop, tossed in a heavy dose of old time kitsch artwork and advertising, and sprinkled in a bit of tiki bar. Maybe they explain it best:


“It’s the 1950s and you are in New Orleans embracing a vintage funfair. There’s a Tarot reader ahead of you, a claw crane machine on your left, and an ice cream parlour on your right with a happy ice cream pot on the sign. No, this isn’t the beginning of a very strange dream – it’s what it’ll feel like walking into Hoot The Redeemer.”


Small ice cream cup sitting on a bar coaster that reads, Hoot the Redeemer.
A whisky and dark chocolate ice cream cup? Yes please! **

The specialty drink menu can be a bit overwhelming. There’s 13 different drinks based on 13 different tarot cards.


Then, fun, fun, there’s the boozy ice cream. These aren’t your typical ice cream drinks like Grasshoppers and Brandy Alexanders. These are, quite literally, little ice cream cups like you’d get at the ballpark, or your hospital room, whichever memory you prefer to conjure up.


There’s a dozen different flavors from which to choose. Of course I headed straight for the whisky and dark chocolate. I mean really, two of my favorite things, blended into another of my favorite things, ice cream. There was no going wrong here.


The staff was great. My only regret is I wasn’t able to make it back a second time before heading home.


Frankenstein’s


This place is insane. Really. It’s not a speakeasy, but I have to include it in this list.


Tall Frankenstein monster statue stands just inside entrance to Frankenstein bar.
Pretty hard to miss the entrance to Frankenstein's Bar in Edinburgh with that big guy standing there. **

I dare you to miss it when you’re walking along Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge. (P.S. It’s nearly next door to The Elephant House, where JK Rowling spent a lot of her time when writing the first Harry Potter books.)


I’m not sure what will tip you off first that you’ve arrived, that the exterior looks like an old castle, or the eight-foot-tall Frankenstein statue at the top of the steps.


The World Famous (that’s what they say) Frankenstein is housed in a 19th century church and it’s all things, all the time, Frankenstein. The decor is Frankenstein on steroids.


Everywhere you look, the interior has the feeling of walking into the monster-makers laboratory. It can be a bit of a visual overload with flashing lights mimicking electrical waves, Frankenstein images throughout, and the 1931 Frankenstein film masterpiece showing on the big screens.


If that’s not enough to entertain you, stick around for a while until the big guy himself makes an appearance. As dark music begins to play, a metal rack lowers from the ceiling two stories above.


Suspended on the rack is Frankenstein’s monster, and as he nears the bar patrons he suddenly sits up.


He’s alive! He’s alive!


It’s definitely worth a visit.


Here's a short video of the monster being lowered. My apologies, I was literally in the middle of getting my drink from the bartender when this all started happening. I didn't want to be rude to her, so had to kind of stop, give her money, etc., while trying to video it. But, I think you get the idea:




Ok, that's it, I’m off to watch the Frankenstein movie, the one with Boris Karloff. I probably watched a fourth of it while sitting in the bar. Haven’t seen it since I was a kid and forgot how good it is.


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**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.


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