- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland for centuries, a bulwark and proud symbol of Scottish culture in the northern portion of the United Kingdom that has for centuries enjoyed a culture and lifestyle completely different from their English brethren to the south. Ancient Gaelic and Celtic language and culture met here with Anglo-Saxon influence to create something entirely new for the world. And it was also here where the legendary Camelot is said to have been historically sited.

Modern-day Edinburgh allows the visitor to step into the incredible history of the Scottish people, their culture, their food, their spirit and, of course, their most famous “spirit.” For it was here that whiskey — spelled locally as “whisky” — was invented, and where scotch continues to be the proud export of this fascinating city.

The Washington Times toured “Auld Reekie” (old smoky) to experience the cuisine, history and, of course, the whisky. (Alas, no trainspotting happened in the course of such research.)

 

Saturday:

The Celtic crosses seem to be everywhere as our Uber takes us from Edinburgh Airport to our Airbnb in the Comely Bank part of town. We check into our home away from home thanks to an eager and kindly hostess named Heather. Naturally, she turns out to be English, but as my girlfriend and traveling companion Victoria is also from the south of Britannia, it will suit our designs just find.

After putting our things down, Victoria and I set out on foot for the historic center of town, the Royal Mile. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is out, and no rainclouds loom. It’s also Fringe Festival weekend, so it’s quite a scene, and thousands have descended upon Edinburgh for the world-renowned festivus. Along Princes Street, huge crowds of revelers are present, with the streetcar shuttling even more from the suburban hotels and ersatz homes into the center of town.

We pass by St. Cuthbert’s Church and the Scottish National Galleries as we penetrate the center of town. In front of the museum we step into the Edinburgh iCentre (3 Princes Street, Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, EH2 2QP, +44 131 473 3868), which is here to help the visitor learn more about the town as well as to fashion a reasonable itinerary given your amount of time here — and is fully stocked with brochures and tour guide info.

John Abernethy, an assistant area manager at the office, helpfully gives us some options to enjoy during the limited time we have. Given the hour, and the fine weather, he suggests we continue our walk to nearby Calton Hill.

Atop Calton Hill stand the columns for a never-completed acropolis monument to the bravery of those who fought and died against Napoleon’s forces. While the structure was abandoned due to lack of funds in the 19th century, visitors can still come here to enjoy the structure that still seems somewhat out of place.

I head into the nearby Nelson Monument, built to honor the legendary admiral who lost his life at the Battle of Trafalgar during the same Napoleonic wars. According to the monument’s website, the stone pillar contains a time ball that is dropped daily at 1 p.m.

I pay the nominal entrance fee and then head up several very curving stairs to reach the top of the 51-meter (169 ft.) structure. Mind you, there are no elevators, and it’s a long way up, so just be forewarned. However, once you reach the top, the Nelson offers absolutely spectacular views of the beautiful medieval city and its host of Edinburghers. From up here I can also see Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Abbey, built in the 12th century and now Scotland’s home for the royal family when they visit, as well as the Salisbury Crags and accompanying Arthur’s Seat, the top of an extinct volcano that, the story goes, may be one of the possible locations of the legendary Camelot of King Arthur.

Turn to the north atop the monument and bear witness to the nearby town of Leith and the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh’s sprawling port area, where imports come and in and where outgoing goods — including scotch, of course — are loaded up on container ships heading out into the North Sea and to the world’s markets.

I wave to Victoria, seated near the base of the statue below me, and head back down to meet her.

Back in the city center we pass by the local news outpost of my fellow journalists, which is, appropriately enough, called The Scotsman.

Along the Royal Mile we pass by a statue of Adam Smith a philosopher and professor at Glasgow University widely considered one of the fathers of modern economics. Crowds are out, with Fringers everywhere celebrating, singing and drinking.

For dinner we head south of the border — the U.S. border, that is, for Mexican food at Maro’s Cantina Mexicana (184 Rose St, Edinburgh EH2 4BA, +44 131 225 4376), a homely joint that reminds me of my time in both Mexico and California. It fills us up enough to be a base for more local spirits.

And so, in need of a pint and a whisky, Victoria and I pop into The Wash Bar pub (11-13 North Bank Street, The Mound, Edinburgh, +44 131 225 6193), a thoroughly hopping spot with hipsters a-plenty and a fine selection of whisky, Scottish beers and some rather cheekily named shots. These include the Haggis Bomb, Washbar Wipeout and, of course, named for that old James Bond character, the Pussy Galore, a combination of liquor and a “natural” British energy drink named in honor of our president-elect’s, uh, favorite region of the anatomy by which to grab a female.

Of course we have to order a round.

 

Sunday:

At the top of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is a holy site, The Scotch Whisky Experience at The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre (354 Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, EH1 2NE, +44 131 477 8471), a combination museum, tasting venue and all-around peek into the history of the lifeblood beverage of Scotland.

We are here for the Morning Masterclass, which entails tour, tasting and a light breakfast of tea and shortbread to soak up that delicious goodness to follow.

It seems a little bit early to start drinking, but our informed and friendly guide Heather offers a crash course in the history of whisky, such as that the word itself derives from a Gaelic term, “uisge beatha,” meaning “the water of life.” She also offers notes on its commerce, telling us of the huge tax that distillers pay on each bottle long before they ever hit the shelves.

The crown jewel of the museum is the over 3,500 bottles of scotch from the collection of Brazilian billionaire Claive Vidiz, who sold his 35 years’ worth of purchases and trades — the world’s largest personal cache — to Diageo in 2006, who in turn set it up at the The Scotch Whisky Experience for permanent display. Mr. Vidiz’s stash takes up several rooms to warehouse all of the bottles, some of them so rare that it might be a sin to even open them. Heather informs us that when Mr. Vidiz first came to see the collection — which initially began with just six bottles — he wept at the care and respect the Experience gave to its prominent display, now for all visitors to behold.

(You can see my video tour of the bottle collection here.)

And on into the tasting room itself, where Heather has us all seated before a few drams of the good stuff. She teaches how to properly nose each sample by inserting the nose into the glass while keeping your mouth open to take in the aromas through both senses.

“Give it a swish,” she then says, which opens up the flavor, allowing for a completely different nose profile upon the second sniff. Taste gingerly, she advises, and then add some drops of water to unleash even more flavor.

Thus she guides us through a single grain and two single malts, not only advising but also inquiring of her “students,” in a Socratic fashion, what they notice on the aroma, the palate, the aftertaste.

I read an article in The New Yorker a few years back about a distillery called Bruichladdich, located on the island of Islay. I ask Heather if she knows of it — pronouncing it “Broo-id-lad-ick” from “Ee-lay” — and I am somewhat embarrassed when she immediately responds with the correct “Brook-laddy from “Eye-lah.”

After scotch we head over to the nearby Edinburgh Castle, located atop the city’s famous Castle Rock. Dating from the first millennium A.D., Edinburgh Castle is a fantastic fortress that provides a peek into Scotland’s lengthy royal past as well as into its status as a country under constant threat for centuries, necessitating such fortifications.

It was here that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, James VI, in 1566. According to the Castle’s official website, James became Scotland’s king just after he turned just 1, and it was in 1603 that he became king of both Scotland and England, resulting in the newly named United Kingdom.

You can also visit The Stone of Destiny, for eons the place where Scottish regents were crowned. The stone was once moved to Westminster Abbey in London, but it returned in 1996, and will only leave again for the next coronation at Westminster, whenever that shall be.

The castle also hosts coats of arms, statues of Robert the Bruce (if you saw “Braveheart,” he should be familiar), swords of all manner and artwork galore. From the courtyard we also can spy the Nelson Monument atop Calton Hill, where we were just yesterday.

For our big meal of the day we head into Lovage Restaurant (38 St Mary’s St, Edinburgh EH1 1SX, +44 131 557 5754), renowned locally for putting a contemporary spin onto traditional Scottish food.

We’ve had a lot of whisky today, so it’s a nice change to go in for some French wine. Victoria orders the hake, a tasty fish from South America, and, because I must, I dine on haggis this evening. It’s fried and crusted, and served with potatoes and greens — a gourmet preparation of the national dish.

Whatever preconceived notions I had about ingesting sheep’s innards are briskly quashed as Lovage has prepared it to a crispy, perfect, tasty finish. A delicacy. I’m happy.

After a few more stops at pubs for beers like Red MacGregor, Merlin’s Ale and, of course, the Bruichladdich Classic Laddie whisky, Victoria and I retire back to our Airbnb for an early-morning flight back to London. It’s been a far too quick trip, but we saw and did so much, and the door is wide open for more explorations upon my next trip.

Slangevar!

Eric Althoff is Travel Editor for The Washington Times.

EDITOR’S NOTE: At the Edinburgh Airport the following morning, a vendor was set up for whisky tastings at the duty-free shops. Eric brought home a bottle of Jura Turas Mara, also from Islay.

 


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