If cities were cocktails, New York would be a cosmopolitan (if it's good enough for Carrie), London a dirty martini (sozzled with gin and a little muddled), and Edinburgh a Bellini (classic but a bit fruity). Or at least, that's the way the Scottish capital used to feel. Cocktail culture is so prevalent in Edinburgh these days - and the city's makeover so dramatic - that go out on the town and you're more likely to stagger home describing it as a western showgirl (Jim Beam, Chambord, grenadine, raspberries and prosecco) or a Brazilian all-star (cachaca, Benedictine, syrup, star fruit, lime, rum and soda).
Especially if you make your bar-hopping destination George Street. It was once a dowdy second fiddle to parallel Princes Street, but the reputations of these two roads have been dramatically reversed. Whether it's designer shops, chi-chi restaurants or the city's most stylish bars you're after, George Street and its surroundings are the place to find them. There are other great places for a tipple in the city - the Dragonfly bar on West Port, Villager on George IV Bridge or Swedish-run Victoria in Leith - but if it's density you're after no other street offers such a cluster of high-class highballs. It's why Visit Scotland's new Edinburgh cocktail trail stretches only from one end of George Street to the other. Still, who wants to have to read a map when they're tipsy? Follow this route and there's no danger of getting lost on the way to alcoholic oblivion, as I found out when I gave it a taste-drive last week.
With my best cocktail umbrella, a packet of Alka Seltzer and a couple of willing companions in tow, I headed up to the first bar on the list, the Forth Floor at Harvey Nichols. And then swiftly left when I read a sign saying it was closed for a private function.
This was a sour-sweet disappointment. On the one hand, I've had alcohol-free cocktails here before and even they were dizzyingly good, so I had high hopes for the real thing (especially something called a Miss Promiscuous in Winter, a mix of Hendrick's gin, redcurrants, lavender sugar and champagne). On the other, the last time I was in Harvey Nichols, I managed to spend an unseemly amount of money on a spur-of-the-moment purchase in the fashion department despite being sober. It was safer not to mix drinking with designer shopping.
Scuppered, but not defeated, we moved on to Tempus. Following the George Hotel's recent £12m refurbishment, on a Thursday night just before Christmas, there was more of a crush in here than in a raspberry smoothie - and a hefty queue for the two barmen on duty (one of them struggling with a bandaged hand). Eventually, jostling to the front of the line, we ordered cocktails to suit our moods - a crimson crush, a Palm Springs and a dark and stormy - and pounced when some seats at a central bar came up.
With its subtle oak flooring, icing-sugar cornices, chandeliers and Venetian-style mirrors, Tempus is classically stylish rather than cutting-edge trendy, and it shows in the clientele. Looking around, it was clear that new Edinburgh hasn't kicked old Edinburgh completely out of town; despite the roaring trade in crimson crushes, we were one of only three groups without grey hair, suits or head-to-toe corduroy.
When one of my group, transfixed by the unlikely presence of a TV above the bar, said that he could tell he was hungry because he thought "mmm" when an advert for cat food came on, it was time to make a move. Heading down George Street to the next bar, we noticed a party going on in a branch of Molton Brown and swerved momentarily inside to plunder its timely provision of cocktail sausages and mini Scotch eggs.
Next stop was Rick's, the grande dame of the Edinburgh bar scene. This has been around even longer than the clientele at Tempus but you wouldn't know it. Always ahead of the game, when the smoking ban came into effect in Scotland, Rick's constructed an atmospheric, Bedouin tent-like terrace by the entrance to cater for those who want to "smirt" (smoke and flirt). Inside, the atmosphere was on fire, too; the noise level was about 30 decibels higher than at Tempus, and the customers a good 30 degrees cooler.
Presumably, they're better off too, since Rick's sells some of the priciest cocktails in town. (Its "cocktail couture" range goes up to £9.50.) At least you get what you pay for. None of us quite mastered the courage to try a Christmas pudding batida (Sagatiba Velha, lime and Christmas pudding), but our French martini, a nutritious pear and pine nut creation, and a classic martini were voted the best cocktails of the night all round. And not just because they were made up by a glamorous blonde wearing ironic red braces. There were other recommendations too; "This is the first bar I ever saw with hair straighteners in the toilets," said one of the group approvingly.
From here the trail suggests backtracking east to the National Portrait Gallery to take in the latest exhibition, but we were too warmed to our mission to venture off the cocktail trail. So we skipped that in favour of more drinks at Tigerlily, the city's grooviest new hotel, bar, restaurant and nightclub (Lulu).
It's owned by the same company as Rick's, and it's not surprising that this is Edinburgh's current queen of aperitifs. With its chic booths, revolving glitterballs and ball-bearing curtains, this is the showgirl among Edinburgh's hotel bars and it wins brownie points for not taking itself too seriously (unlike the horribly naff Le Monde along the street).
If I had to pick one fault with Tigerlily it would be that it's a victim of its own success, too crowded for real comfort and with a slightly less hip clientele than Rick's. You can't argue with its vast drinks list, though, which, in celebration of Visit Scotland's cocktail trail, temporarily includes the Edinburgh Vibe, a blend of Glenmorangie, apricot liquor and cranberry juice.
Wary of overdoing the alcohol, at this point we did what any self-respecting bar-crawl aficionados do and detoured off for a curry. Not just any curry, mind. In keeping with the glamour of the rest of the evening, we skipped the city's more ordinary chicken tikka masala joints and headed for Roti. Owned by Tony Singh, the man behind Oloroso, this describes itself as a restaurant that serves Indian food rather than an Indian restaurant. What that translates as is really good food, in this case a delicately spiced John Dory, spinach dumplings and quail tikka with mint chutney.
Loosening our belts, we had time for one last pitstop on the cocktail trail, the Hudson Hotel. Housed in what used to be a post office, this is another new venture, though one that's slightly less successful than Tigerlily. At 10.30pm in the run-up to Christmas it should have been packed out but it was eerily quiet, despite the row of cute barmen in kilts. Designed to have a New York feel, it looks more like an All Bar One crossed with Cheers, not Scottish enough for tourists but not hip enough for locals who have visited the real thing.
The Hudson does have one saving grace, though: the drinks. They're not mind-blowingly good but they're really not bad, and at under £6 for a cocktail, they're a bargain. Now, where did I put that Alka Seltzer?Reuse content