I’m not well known for frequenting bars/pubs around Edinburgh. I usually prefer to drink at a tasting or the comfort of my home (just a lazy bum I guess) but I do go out occasionally when my friends urge me to join them. So I know a few good places around Edinburgh to grab a dram or pint.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I was recently invited to the Opening Event for the Usquabae Whisky Bar and Larder located just on the west end of Princes Street. You can see a picture of the front at the top of the post.
In case you are wondering about the unpronounceable name “Usquabae”, it is one form of spelling the gaelic term for whisky which roughly translates into “Water of Life”. The term is derived from the Roman word for spirits, “Aqua Vitae”. Well enough of the history lesson. I am sure I’ve heard people pronounce this is in different ways but as far as I can tell the way you would say it in Edinburgh is something like “oosh-ka-bay”. Someone will surely correct me on this. One issue is that it is spelled and pronounced differently between Scots and Irish Gaelic. Oh well.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about this new bar is that it is managed by Chris (Tiger) White of Edinburgh Whisky Blog fame. So perhaps needless to say, they know what they are doing when it comes to whisky. From my conversations with Tiger it seems that his philosophy for the bar is to create a place that works for all levels of whisky appreciation. That is to say that there is something for everyone on the path to whisky enlightenment. To this end, I would say that he has succeeded with flying colours.
The interior is whisky themed with class. Whisky staves are woven into the walls and the bar. Some are even used to create posh rocking chairs. Small alcoves line the outskirts of the space where you can relax with a small group or have an intimate dinner date. Each little room has different decorative features like backlit wood and glass whisky cabinets showcasing some famous whiskies or a large tv screen at the end of an oval table evoking a business meeting feel. All of this makes the space quite versatile and appealing for even the non-whisky drinkers out there.
While I haven’t actually tried any of the foods item on the menu yet, we were served a selection of canapes over the course of the evening. I can only guess that these were somewhat indicative of the type of fare. If that is indeed the case, then I am impressed. As mentioned in other posts, I am quite judgemental about food and I think my food opinions are fairly well respected amongst those who know me (or they are all snickering behind my back, equally possible). I grew up in LA, went to uni in NY and travelled a fair bit around Asia. So I believe I have a fairly international perspective on food. From that point of view, I believe Usquabae offer some spectacular modern Scottish cuisinie. The items of the night included:
Haggis, neeps and tatties dallop on oat cakes with raspberry pearls and wild greens. (please excuse the poor quality images)
Seared venison with raspberry pearls and some wild herb.
And there were various cheeses as well as a lovely dessert of which I had forgotten to take a picture. It was a chocolate coated thin biscuit with a dallop of sweet cream and berries and a flower on top. It went very well with whisky. I suspect it a paring of that and whisky might convert a few nonbelievers into the whisky order.
I will definitely be going back to try some of their menu items. I’ll probbaly just add the information to this post to prevent any confusion.
Now for the important bit! Recreational elixirs! Upon arrival we were handed a cocktail comprised of girvan grain whisky, elderflower cordial, lemon zest and I forgot what else. I don’t really drink whisky cocktails much but I have to admit it was quite tasty. The flavours all complemented each other to a surprising degree and I think anyone who likes cocktails would enjoy that one. So basically the point is that you don’t have to like whisky to enjoy this place.
But if you do like whisky, then you’ve definitely come to the right place. I was a bit skeptical at first because the bar is located just off of Princes Street where the rents are high, toursist are amuk and everything is generally overpriced. However, the dram prices at Usquabae were down right remarkable. Tiger had told me that he was focusing on using independent bottlings to offer great whiskies at great value but I did not expect it to be this good. The standard expressions were all reasonably priced and pretty much as low as you’ll find in Edinburgh which means for the occasional whisky drinker or those just getting into it, you are getting value for your money.
The really cool part is that they have loads of whiskies from closed distilleries or rare bottlings that I have not seen in any other bars and they are affordable! Really rare combination here. I myself partook in a 30 year old cask strength Glenugie bottled by Chivas Brothers. It was £15. I doubt this will last long. In case you are thinking that £15 is a lot for a dram, I can assure you that a dram of this would usually be at least 3 times the price elsewhere. Think of it this way, this is a 30 year old whisky at cask strength from a closed distillery. A bottle of this on the auctions went for £280 not too long ago. That means that even if you bought a full bottle and shared it with friends, it would cost you £10 per dram not accounting for spillage. With spillage, it’s more like £12 a dram. Plus it will probably continue increasing in price on the auctions so by the time you get a hold of the bottle it will be at or more than £15 per dram. Believe me now? QED.
There were quite a few drams like this on offer at the bar and I will defnintely be going back to try these before they are all gone. Although I am sure Tiger will keep the whisky well full with these gems. Even so, I won’t disclose the other treasures on the whisky menu. It wouldn’t do you any good anyway as I’ll probably have finished them all before you get there. Tough luck kid.
Well I am definitely going back and if you are in Edinburgh, you should check this place out. If you like whisky, then I feel sad for you if you don’t check this place out. So sad.
Usquabae Whisky Bar and Larder Details
2-4 Hope Street
Tel: 0131 290 2284
(International: +44 131 290 2284)
Open Midday-Midnight (1am close Fri & Sat)
It’s just at the west end of Princes Street where there is a funky intersection with roads going in all directions. There is one road which curves so much that it looks like a “V” or “U” on google maps. It starts out as Hope Street on one side and somehow becomes Queensferry Street after the bend (seriously why are streets like this in Edinburgh?). At the bend of this road you’ll see Ryan’s Bar jutting out like a peninsula and just on the right side of the bar you’ll see the black canopy of Usquabae. The bar is actually right down the first flight of stairs. For visual guidelines, you should be able to see St. Johns church lined up with the Edinburgh castle if you are standing right in front of Ryan’s bar.