There's a slight irony in the fact that Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, has no surviving examples of the nation's most famous industry, the traditional distillation of scotch whisky. Over the past couple of centuries, as many as nine distilleries, both malt and grain, have operated within the city. But today Edinburgh is home only to the North British grain distillery, whose fairly industrial process is not really representative of the craft, romance and heritage of the traditional malt whisky distillery.
Visitors to the capital who would like to experience something of this heritage have two choices. One is to find their way to Glenkinchie Distillery in East Lothian, some 13 miles south east of the centre of Edinburgh and today the closest traditional malt whisky distillery to the capital.
The second option is much closer to the city's doorstep. Just a few yards down Castlehill (the top section of the Royal Mile) from the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle is the Scotch Whisky Experience, a 5 Star Visitor Attraction located within an old school building. To avoid confusion it is worth noting that this used to be called the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre.
At first sight it might seem a slightly odd idea: to learn about an important part of Scotland's heritage by visiting somewhere with no historical links with that heritage. You should have no such doubts. The Scotch Whisky Experience is a superb place to visit.
On one level it is the perfect introduction to scotch whisky for those who know nothing beyond the fact that it is important to Scotland, and perhaps that it tastes nice. But the Experience is not just for beginners: there is something here for everyone. Even those who have visited many distilleries across Scotland will find they emerge from the Scotch Whisky Experience having thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and more than a little wiser than they were when they went in.
So what does a visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience offer? Well most visitors will want to take part in one of the full interactive tours, in a group under the guidance of an enthusiastic and knowledgable (and often multilingual) guide. Opening hours and admission prices can be found via the links on the right.
There are a number of different tours on offer, including the Silver and Gold Tours, plus a number of more specialised offerings. There are also private tutored whisky tastings and blending sessions available. It is perhaps simplest to discuss the Silver Tour as this forms the basis for most of the others, with extras such as additional tastings or dining experiences added on to differentiate between them.
Having perhaps visited the superb shop on your way in, your visit will begin in the welcoming reception area, and from here you embark on a barrel ride that takes you through the stages in the whisky-making process in a highly immersive way. Visitors board cars with bodywork formed from barrels and are taken through a series of sights and sounds that between them give an inside-out appreciation of the stages in the making of scotch whisky.
Having emerged from the barrel ride, you move past fascinating displays reinforcing the stages demonstrated in the barrel ride, and show the critically important effect of the casks in which spirit is stored on the character of the scotch whisky that eventually emerges. You then move into the Sense of Scotland room. Here you can begin to come to terms with the very different character given by climate, geography and regional style on the whiskies produced by Scotland's distilleries. The aim is to try to allow each visitor to match a scotch whisky to their own individual palate, and this is another part of the tour that newcomers and old hands will find equally fascinating.
We suspect that for most visitors, the highlight of any tour is a visit to the Diageo Claive Vidiz Collection, the world's largest collection of scotch whisky. Over a period of 35 years, Brazilian whisky enthusiast Claive Vidiz built up a staggering collection of 3,384 bottles of scotch whisky. This collection was purchased in 2008 by the multinational drinks company Diageo, and after being brought home to Scotland it was put on display at The Scotch Whisky Experience.
What do 3,384 bottles of whisky look like? When they are displayed as beautifully as they are here, the effect is amazing. There is no way any photograph can ever show more than a part of the collection, and to get the full experience you really have to come and see for yourself. You should certainly do so. Perhaps the most surprising thing is the extent to which evaporation over the years, even from within sealed bottles, has depleted some of the older bottles on display.
Whichever tour you have chosen, you will be offered, if you are 18 or over, the chance to taste at least one whisky. There are also audio guides available in 15 languages. Accessibility is very good: more information can be found via the link above right.
It may not be, and may never have been, a distillery, but a visit to the Scotch Whisky Experience is both an ideal primer for those who have never visited a distillery, and a great way of filling in the background for those who have.
It is worth knowing that parts of the Experience are open, without an admission fee, to anyone who wants to drop in. These include the shop on the ground floor of the Experience; the lower ground floor Amber Restaurant, which offers daytime, dinner and coffee shop menus; while evening diners can also enjoy the bar, which offers over 300 different scotch whiskies, scotch whisky liqueurs and scotch whisky cocktails. The Scotch Whisky Experience also has its own Training School, running courses for those who want to expand and deepen their knowledge of scotch whisky.