It’s a dreich night, and Arthur’s Seat is a brooding black mass.
This landmark is the dramatic backdrop to Edinburgh’s three-year-old Holyrood Distillery, which is the city centre’s first single malt distillery to be established since 1925. So far, they’ve produced Height of Arrows Gin, Elizabeth Yard Rum, Charmed Circle Strong Waters and the New Make Spirit that will eventually be their single malt.
This is my first visit. In fact, after almost a lifetime in the Capital, I don’t think I’ve ever had a reason to head along this cobbled street, somewhere near the Pleasance.
Although it’s evening time, they’ve still got their lights on at St Leonard’s Lane, and they’re welcoming guests to try their new Height of Arrows Gin Tasting Experience.
This 90-minute tour has been organised on the back of winning five awards at the Scottish Gin Awards and is a great introduction to the brand.
Despite the fact that pundits often say that the ‘ginaissance’ is on the wane, it seems that our thirst isn’t quenched, especially in Scotland.
I know plenty of people who want a bottle of this spirit from Rock Rose, Isle of Harris, Daffy’s, The Gin Bothy, Lind & Lime or one of the other Scottish names, to be weighing down their stocking this year.
On this tour, you enter through the bright gift shop, before heading to the upper level of the 19th century building, which was once a railway goods shed.
Tour participants are welcomed with a warming and toddy-ish cocktail, which contains apple juice, honey and Angostura bitters, among other ingredients. It’s their take on the prohibition era bee’s knees.
On my visit, the session is being led by Elsie Cinnamond, who is the brand home senior guide.
She’s also the resident cocktail guru at this place, which was founded by former master distiller at The Macallan, David Robertson, and Canadians Rob and Kelly Carpenter.
As we sip our drinks, Cinnamond does the brand background and general gin history bit, but keeps it light and relaxed. I’m very happy that, unlike many other distillery tours, we get comfy seats while listening to the spiel, which includes the fact that their gin is named after the literal translation of the Scots Gaelic name for Arthur’s Seat, Ard-Na-Said.
Apparently, the summit was the furthest reach that an archer could shoot a bow. Hopefully they didn’t hit one of the tourists at the top.
Our guide also covers the uses of juniper, which has been paired with alcohol for millennia, mainly for various spurious health reasons, as well as the reputation and origins of gin or ‘mother’s ruin’.
This is illustrated with Hogarth’s prints from 1751, Beer Street and Gin Lane. We pass them round, and the second cautionary image seems to resemble the Cowgate, round about this time of year at pub chucking out time.
According to Cinnamond, 15 years before these images were created, the Gin Act, which outlawed small scale distilleries, was enforced. It was only repealed in 2008, thanks in part to the campaigning efforts of Sam Galsworthy of gin brand Sipsmith.
Now, everybody’s making it, especially in Scotland.
Cinnamond tells us that 80 per cent of the UK’s gin is produced north of the border, courtesy of around 200 producers.
“To be practical, gin keeps the lights on, as there are a lot of rules to whisky”, she explains. “It has to mature in oak, sit for three years, it’s a lot of investment”.
The next stage of tour involves a visit to the laboratory, which you enter along a walkway over the whisky stills. On the wall of this room are the words, “Test. Learn. Improve. Repeat”, in yellow neon and the still - a smaller and less bonnie sister to the fancy copper ones - sits at the back of the room.
We take a communal pew, and Cinnamond talks us through the goodies that are in front of us. We have four healthy measures of Height of Arrows gins - Heavy, Funky, Bright and Original.
All of this brand’s gins are focused simply on juniper berries, with the addition of sea salt, as a flavour enhancer, and beeswax, which they source from The Edinburgh Honey Co. This ingredient looks like cheese and, apparently, an Instagrammer who was filming a visit, once took a big bite of one of the wedges on the back shelf.
There is some chat about the production of the gin, and the failed experiments they’ve had - haggis, apparently didn’t work out - though Drumstick lollipops did. Then we get to experiment with our gin selection. They’ve provided accompaniments, including orange peel, rosemary, star anise and grapefruit, to add, and mixers of tonic or ginger beer.
We have a play, and I especially enjoy the combo of Bright with grapefruit and rosemary.
Before we leave, there’s a final drink to make, but this time it’s a bit more professional. Cinnamond shows us how to make the Southside cocktail, which contains their Heavy gin, as well as lime juice, mint leaves and sugar syrup. We mix it up with ice-cubes in a shaker, and strain into coupe glasses.
After all that, I wonder how decent my archery aim would be. I’m certain that my arrows wouldn’t come anywhere close to Ard-Na-Said.
The Height of Arrows Gin Tasting Experience at Holyrood Distillery (19 St Leonard's Lane, Edinburgh) is £35, with the next session on December 17 at 5.30pm, then Thursday to Saturday at 5.15pm from January. Also available as a gift voucher, call 0131 285 8977 or see www.holyrooddistillery.co.uk