One of the perks of a Scotch Malt Whisky Society membership is that members-only bars and lounges in the UK (and elsewhere) become open to you. That was hardly on my mind when I joined, but if you do happen to travel to Edinburgh or London as a member it’s a nice little benefit you should try to take advantage of.
Not having an abundance of time on this brief trip I decided to forego The Vaults, the grandly-named original Society HQ, in favour of the newer location on Queen Street. Unlike the slightly further-afield Vaults in Leith, Queen Street is right in Edinburgh’s busy city center where you’re more likely to find yourself as a tourist.
Arriving at the address, you’ll find a smart three-story Georgian terrace dating from the end of the 18th century facing the leafy Queen Street Gardens across the road. A rather modern glass entrance invites you inside with some of the more desirable keywords and phrases from the Society’s famously quirky tasting notes engraved on it. Lemon, coconut, vanilla ice cream, fudge… though I didn’t see any mention of the more colourful Islay notes like carbolic soap, ashtrays or drying kelp!
There are two main attractions inside. The first, a fine-dining restaurant called The Dining Room, is open to anyone, but the bar upstairs is members-only and requires a membership card to gain access or to buy anything. The good news is that as a member you can take up to three guests with you.
The ground floor houses The Dining Room, which has been reviewed very favourably by much better food writers than myself. We did splurge on a meal here and it was as enjoyable as you would expect – the tone being set very nicely with a small dram (3.197 – “Body shop and bath salts”) paired with an amuse bouche of salmon on a bed of fresh tomato salsa. My favourite course was probably the scallop appetizer which was served with mussels and crisp vegetables in a delicious saffron vinaigrette, a riot of textures, colours, and flavours, as complex as a good whisky. The room itself is bright and outfitted in a simple, elegant fashion, and overall this is an extremely pleasant way to spend an hour (as well as the best part of your food budget for the week).
Upstairs, though, is where the real action is for a Society member. The bar is stocked with enough whisky to keep any enthusiast happy over a dozen visits or more; I made it up to around 150 of those familiar dark green bottles before I gave up counting. Food is served up here too, so don’t feel too bad if you skip the dining room as we found the menu here to be just as good in its own right. The venison burger especially was probably the best burger I had in the UK this time around, though a few more chips would be nice!
The whisky menu is presented as an impressively thick binder, with tasting notes on all the bottlings available. A tier system for the prices means it’s easy to see what each dram will cost you. As well as a great selection of past bottlings, the new outturn is always available, and you can pick up a bottle to take home from a healthy stock should you fall in love with something. I grabbed a bottle of 3.204, “A 1950′s Seaside Scene”, from the July outturn myself – a very unusual Bowmore with a light smoke behind an incredible array of unexpected sweet-shop flavours.
The bar itself continues the sort of minimalist outfittings from downstairs; there isn’t much decoration in the main room but it’s bright and airy with lots of comfortable seating. The room off the main bar is interesting; called “the sample room” it houses the many fascinating bottles of spirit seen in the picture at the top of this article. I wonder if the whisky inside is affected by the sunlight shining through it every day?
We enjoyed the Queen Street bar so much we went back on two successive evenings. My advice would be to make sure you chat with the friendly staff and get their recommendations, then just relax, enjoy the food, whisky and pleasant surroundings – and make plans to visit again on the next trip!