All Articles 8 can’t-miss pubs and distilleries in Edinburgh

8 can’t-miss pubs and distilleries in Edinburgh

From whisky-blending experiences to natural wines.

Freya Herring
By Freya Herring4 Apr 2024 5 minutes read
The bar at Port of Leith Distillery in Edinburgh, Scotland
The bar at Port of Leith Distillery in Edinburgh, Scotland
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

It wasn’t long ago that visiting a Scottish distillery meant trekking out to the back of beyond, and getting only a dram of whisky at the end of it. Today, however, distilleries have reached urban quarters, with the country’s capital of Edinburgh sporting many of Scotland’s most exciting. And there’s everything from gin, vodka, and even rum on offer, with distillers focusing in on the minutiae of the process—the yeasts, hops, and grains, as well as the art of blending—rather than sticking to the traditional single malt route.

Edinburgh’s pubs, too, have come a long way, with some catering to niche areas like minimal intervention (natural) wines, while for others locality is key. But there’s still room for historical pubs too, with their lush Victorian interiors, pints of ale, and, of course, tumblers of whisky—it’s just that now the spirits they’re serving can be made around the corner, rather than in a glen 100 miles away. Here are the distilleries and pubs you don’t want to miss in Auld Reekie.

The modern pick: Port of Leith Distillery

The world’s first vertical distillery is a sight to behold. Jutting almost out of the Firth of Forth itself, the Port of Leith Distillery sits at Whisky Quay overlooking the historic Royal Yacht Britannia. Here, you can experience innovative takes on whisky, like the beautifully bottled Perpetuity—which features continuously blended whiskies from across Scotland, so each batch evolves with new flavors and characteristics. Take the elevator to the eighth floor to get to the bar, where views, small plates, and excellent, reasonably priced cocktails await.

What to order: The Negroni here has developed a cult following. It’s a heady blend of local Lind and Lime gin (from Port of Leith’s sister distillery, just down the road), bitter Campari, and a good dousing of herbaceous, blended-in-house vermouth.

Tip: Hop on the recently reinstalled—and much hyped—tramline to get here, alighting at Ocean Terminal.

The historic pub: The Sheep Heid Inn

Exterior of the Sheep Heid Inn
Exterior of the Sheep Heid Inn
Image: Codylawless/Tripadvisor

Off the beaten track on the southeast tip of Holyrood Park, the Sheep Heid Inn is said to be the oldest surviving public house not only in Edinburgh, but possibly in all of Scotland, as it dates back to 1360. Everyone from Robert Burns to Robert Louis Stevenson, and even the late Queen Elizabeth II, is said to have sipped a drink within these historic walls. The building today dates back to the 18th century, with the interiors reworked to appease modern tastes—but the pub still holds lots of Old World charm with its round, paneled bar, muntin window, and regal, high-backed chairs.

What to order: There is a restaurant menu here, but even if you can’t manage a whole meal, stop in for a taste of the Scotland of auld. I recommend a traditional beer, or if you’re after something stronger, a wee dram of local whisky.

Tip: Check out the pub’s Victorian-era skittles alley (the original 10-pin bowling), once a regular haunt of soldiers from the local barracks. You can even book it out for groups.

The one-stop shop: Holyrood Distillery

A flight of whiskey at Holyrood Distillery
A flight of whiskey at Holyrood Distillery
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

To find a distillery in Edinburgh’s crowded, ramshackle Old Town seemed like an impossibility until Holyrood Distillery opened its doors in 2019. With aged whisky to come, they’re currently making gins infused with roasted botanicals (Height of Arrows Heavy), fermented elements (Height of Arrows Funk), and new makes (unaged whiskies).  Innovation is key to their distilling approach, and experimenting with yeasts, barleys, and malts is their modus operandi, so expect the unexpected here when it comes to taste.

What to order: The Height of Arrows gin has won multiple awards—unusually, juniper is its only botanical, while salt, and beeswax act as balancers. Try some seated at a table in their wood-paneled, industrial-chic bar while gazing at the breathtaking view of Arthur’s Seat.

Tip: Holyrood’s range of tours is award-winning, so if you’re only going to walk through one distillery in Edinburgh, make it this one. The signature Holyrood Distillery Tour lasts an hour, welcomes children along with adults, and includes a welcome cocktail and spirit tastings throughout. You’ll explore the distillery and learn all about how they make their astonishing drops.

The natural wine bar: Spry

With a natural wine bent, Spry is one of Leith’s hottest haunts for drinking—but the food is also top-tier, as recognized by the Michelin Guide. Choose from the à la carte or tasting menu, to be enjoyed within elegant but relaxed surroundings amongst Edinburgh’s chicest crowds. Or grab some wine to-go for a picnic—Gayfield Square is a small, leafy park just around the corner.

What to order: If you’ve never had it, this is the place to try an orange wine (white wine that’s been fermented like red, i.e. with grape skins). It can range from faintly zingy to tremendously funky, and it’s always an adventure. The food menu at Spry changes on the reg, but the staff take pride in knowing what’s good—ask them what’s reflective of the season, and you’re sure to get that day’s best.

Tip: The yeastiness doesn’t stop here—head over here in the morning to try the artisanal bakery and café downstairs at Ante. Alongside their beautiful breads, sip exceptional coffee and dig into velvety-smooth omelets.

The secret pub: The Devil’s Advocate

Patrons chatting at the bar of  The Devil’s Advocate
Patrons chatting at the bar of The Devil’s Advocate
Image: Mark H./Tripadvisor

Take a sharp turn off the Royal Mile and down the steps of one of the Old Town’s most famed “closes” (narrow alleyways), Advocate’s Close. Here, you’ll find The Devil’s Advocate pub, located in an old Victorian pumphouse. It’s dark and atmospheric; a place where you can tell your secrets in one of the clandestine booths, dine on award-winning steaks by John Gilmour Butchers in the mezzanine restaurant, or spend some time with their delicious cocktail menu propped up at the bar.

What to order: Cocktails, baby. The list is ever-changing, so opt for a staff recommendation.

Tip: During Edinburgh Fringe Festival, The Devil’s Advocate offers a welcome respite from the never-ending energy, despite being just steps from the action on the Royal Mile. The intimate patio is mostly shaded by the tall buildings all around, so it’s an ideal place to keep cool when temps rise come August.

The distillery idyll: The Secret Garden Distillery

Using plants and flowers from their garden, The Secret Garden Distillery is a little paradise about six miles from central Edinburgh. Blend your own gin at The Alchemy Experience, or see all that its beautiful garden has to offer at The Discovery Experience—think: expansive herb gardens, quaint potting sheds, and charming vintage cars embedded in foliage.

What to order: The Lemon Verbena gin is a multi-award winner. No need to add citrus—the lemon verbena does that job for you, so you can just tonic up and boom: the easiest cocktail in the world. And can we talk about its beautiful bottle? It’s like something from a Victorian apothecary.

Tip: If you just want to try their gins rather than do a tour, settle in for lunch amongst the flora in the Insta-ready glasshouse café next door, The Secret Garden Café and Bistro, where they offer a selection.

The whisky special: Scotch Whisky Experience

The world's largest collection of Scotch whisky at The Scotch Whisky Experience
The world's largest collection of scotch whisky at The Scotch Whisky Experience
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Part pub, part classroom, the Scotch Whisky Experience near Edinburgh Castle is a surefire way to learn all about the locals’ libation of choice. With sessions ranging from around $30 to +$100 per person, choose from several whisky-tasting tutorials befitting your budget and timing.

What to order: At the Tasting Tales experience, not only do you try four very different Scottish whiskies, but they’re paired with local produce from the restaurant (think smoked salmon, venison, cheese, and even chocolate) so you get a wee snack while you’re swallying.

Tip: Short on time? Head to their onsite pub, Amber Whisky Bar, to sample some of their 450 whiskies or dine at the restaurant-proper, Amber.

The Edinburgh icon: Bennets Bar

Looking for a beautiful old pub with more than 100 whiskies, ready to be sampled? Then Bennets Bar is your spot. With a historically recognized interior dating from 1906, its ornate stained glass features are worth the journey alone, although you won’t have to travel far as it’s centrally located, just northwest of The Meadows in the Tollcross area of Edinburgh.

What to order: They do Jarl—a well-rounded, award-winning session blonde ale by Fyne Ales in Argyle—on tap here. Try that or go with a whisky (with water; never ice), standing up by the bar.

Tip: See a show at the King’s Theatre next door once it reopens in 2025—Bennets is perfect for pre-theatre drinks, or for impassioned discussions post-show.

Freya Herring
Food, travel and arts writer Freya Herring is Contributing Editor at Vogue Living magazine, and writes for numerous titles internationally including Condé Nast Traveller, The Guardian and delicious, among other publications. She spent six years as a pastry chef before spending two as Chief Restaurant Critic for Time Out Sydney in Australia. She loves to travel, and she really loves to eat. Follow her adventures on Insta @freyaherring, X @freyaherring and Facebook @freyaherring1.