One of the best things about being in the drinks business is that if you do it right, you eventually find yourself with a sprawling global network of like-minded drinkers with hyper-discerning palates. You get to spend time with the industry’s finest in the most pleasurable way: Imbibing (and breaking bread) with distillers, blenders, bartenders, brand ambassadors, spirits educators, and founders—among many others. (An education in and of itself if you ask me.)
But beyond all that, one of the not-insignificant perks is being able to ask away about all the best places to drink, knowing you’ll get nothing but quality recommendations. I reach out all the time whenever I travel to new places—or cities I haven’t visited in a while. And now, as I plan yet another pilgrimage to Scotland, I connected with the great palate behind Johnnie Walker—Dr. Emma Walker (no relation), who lives in Leith, a waterfront district in northern Edinburgh with a rich maritime and trade history.
Walker, who is the first female master blender in Johnnie Walker’s 200-year history, initially joined Diageo as a project scientist in the company’s Menstrie-based whisky specialist team before moving on to blending and distilling roles at Cameronbridge, Knockando, and Leven—familiarizing herself in all the different aspects of whisky production. Having spent a few years doing that, she eventually found herself succeeding the legendary Jim Beveridge.
So it’s certainly no question that she knows her way around whisky—and a great many watering holes. And her enthusiasm for Auld Reekie, as Edinburgh is affectionately called, knows no bounds.
“Edinburgh is full of creative people who can think of new and different ways of delighting customers and can build amazing teams around them. It’s got a great environment and local culture—people are welcoming and enjoy a chat and they take on ideas from visitors,” Walker says. “And [Edinburgh] has great local raw ingredients and gifted suppliers across food, brewing, and distilling—along with the talented craftspeople who help to build these venues.”
Here, Walker graciously shares her top 13 bars in Edinburgh.
Where to Drink in Edinburgh, According to Johnnie Walker Master Blender Emma Walker
1820 ROOFTOP BAR
“Of course, the Johnnie Walker Princes Street’s 1820 Rooftop Bar is top of the list!!! It’s a fantastic bar with an unmissable view hosted by a great team including the gifted Miran Chauhan and Murray Dyrsdale, who have just introduced a new menu for their visitors. Even if I didn’t work for Johnnie Walker, I would still have this at the top of the recommendation list.”
THE VOYAGE OF BUCK
“The Voyage of Buck is ‘round the corner’ and our go-to place before heading to Johnnie Walker Princes Street. Amazing food and staff, with a great cocktail range, complemented by a good range of Johnnie Walker whiskies.
THE BLACK CAT
“The Black Cat is a great independent whisky bar in the other direction from Johnnie Walker Princes Street, with over 200 whiskies, local beer, and live folk music.”
“There is a great group of cocktail bars with amazing staff within the ‘Mothership’ and I would struggle to pick one from the three, so I will call them all out! First: Bramble—popular among bartenders and well-hidden in Edinburgh, a wee gem that surpasses its reputation.”
“Lucky Liquor Co. has a great premise behind its cocktail offerings: it only stocks 13 spirits at a time, with a menu that consists of just 13 drinks, and everything changes every 13 weeks.”
THE LAST WORD SALOON
“And my favorite: The Last Word Saloon. Same high standard as the other two above, with a more relaxed, neighborhood vibe and a larger selection of wines and beers—and of course, cocktails.”
“We’ll turn our journey towards Leith now, heading down Leith Walk. Victoria Bar is a lovely Swedish-Scottish bar on Leith Walk—very friendly, with a good range of beers, and lots of neighborhood events.”
“Another laidback offering is Leith Depot with its great food (including amazing vegan options), a great range of drinks, and a friendly atmosphere. It’s also a great live music venue.”
THE MOTHER SUPERIOR
“A couple of doors down [from Leith Depot], we have The Mother Superior. ‘Built by bartenders’ with great beers and a wide range of whiskies, it offers a friendly face for newcomers to Scotch.”
“Turning left along Duke Street and traveling to the end on the righthand side, we have Nauticus, which was created by great bartenders who’ve served their time in other bars across Edinburgh and created a great range of cocktails inspired by Leith’s history. This is complemented by an amazing range of Scotch whiskies and locally produced beers, which I would highly recommend!”
“Coming back towards The Shore, there is Bittersweet—where two brothers are bringing Italian style aperitivo to Leith, created using ingredients distilled at Old Poison distillery at the Biscuit Factory up the road. It’s matched with a well curated range of whiskies along with a cicchetti-style menu.”
LOST IN LEITH AND DREADNOUGHT PUB
“You then carry on along The Shore past Teuchters Landing (which has an amazing whisky range and food; great for watching rugby) to Lost in Leith—the Campervan Brewery bar, which has an absolutely fabulous range of beers available, to be enjoyed in lovely settings with great staff, along with different events throughout the week and a wide range of board games. Campervan Brewery is also supplying a bespoke lager into the Johnnie Walker Princes Street 1820 Rooftop Bar, which is lovely. And if you fancy traveling further along the water, I also recommend Dreadnought.”