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The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Edinburgh, restaurant review

We try the Kaleidoscope Bar, which is open to all

Scotsman Review
Our criteria 
  • Ambience - It's important that a restaurant is inviting. We rate the decor, comfort and atmosphere.
  • Drink - Is the wine or cocktail list as exciting as the food, or does it fall short? Same goes for soft drinks. 
  • Food - We judge dishes on flavour, but also use of produce, cooking skill and presentation
  • Service - The staff and pace of a meal can make or break a meal out.
  • Value - From the food on the plate to service and surroundings, we check that you get what you're paying for.
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It's the annual hunt for the most Christmassy nook in the capital.

Of course, there’s our dedicated market, where you can be squashed like a chocolate stick in a box of Matchmakers. Or some people tend to gravitate towards George Street and The Dome.

There’s also this venue, who have their original HQ at The Vaults on Giles Street.

I’m not sure what they’ve done in Leith or their other venues in Glasgow and London, but The Scotch Malt Whisky Society have wrapped their Georgian townhouse in sparkles like a Christmas present or marauding Gremlin. There’s also a bauble bedecked tree in the corridor, and an open fire, where you can roast your frozen chestnuts. Mine were so cold they’d come loose.

Although my parents were The Scotch Malt Whisky Society members, briefly, back when it opened in the early Eighties, I am not a subscriber. However, you don’t need any secret handshakes to rock up to the Kaleidoscope Bar, on the ground floor.

You can also still order a dram, from their selection of single cask and single malt whiskies.

Although we were intrigued by a few of their new releases, like a Speyside that was described as “a voluptuous vortex”, or another they’d dubbed “smokus fruticosus”, we were the rebel outliers who ordered cocktails.

I had the barrel-aged Oak Fashioned (£10), which made all the previous iterations of this cocktail that I’d experienced seem as if they were for the lily-livered. He went for the wintery spiced Plum Smash (£9.50) with whisky, pimiento, spiced plum syrup.

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I don’t think it was just the strength of those drinks that made us feel so relaxed.

Rather, it’s the snug and unpretentious vibe in this space, where tunes include The Lion Sleeps Tonight and Oh Yeah by Yello.

Not the most festive songs, but we enjoyed singing along to the “aweem-away” chorus and the high pitched bit in Tight Fit's song. If we’d hit that note, we might have shattered every bottle on the shelves behind the bar.

The staff here are hugely welcoming and as lovable as Elf, in their tartan waistcoats.

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So our only bugbear on our visit was our very low table. Still, my thoracic spine could just about handle it.

The starters were a surprise. They go in with a boom. Chef is not shy.

The fillet of singed peat-smoked haddock (£10) was a beauty, with so much smokey flavour that you could almost feel it whirling round your tastebuds, like a haar.

There was also Jerusalem artichoke three ways - as a puree, a more solid confit-ish chunk, and crunchy bits, as well as some knobbly buckwheat crisps. They’d also strewn a few Brussels sprout leaves over the top, as a reminder of what time of year it is.

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I’d gone for the cauliflower hummus and roast cauliflower (£10) and got a pulpy veggie mix, with struts of cumin-y flatbread, curry oil, a sprinkling of dukkah, crispy chickpeas and turmeric yellow florets.

My other half had complained about having double fish, after I made him order the hake (£19) but I was off the hook once he’d tried it. The fillet was beautifully cooked, with a copper-coloured skin that had been christened by blobs of rouille. There was also a rich, stocky and sweet sauce, which contained a generous contingent of the billed shellfish and cubes of winter veggies.

Along with chunky knits, this is the sort of thing that makes this season semi-bearable.

I had a great main course too, with roast haunch of venison (£19) on a squishy bean bag of polenta, a blueberry jus moat and a topping of crispy parsnip shards.

We did think about sticky toffee pudding but I thought we could share the Brillat-Savarin and caramel chocolate cheesecake (£7.50). According to our waiter, this is a SMWS classic.

Instead of the usual mascarpone-ish froth, this featured a honeycomb-ish biscuit-y base, and almost an unadulterated wedge of pure bouncy cheese, then a malty sweet layer. There was a scoop of glossy vanilla ice-cream on the side, biscuit crumbs and a few raspberries.

It was a sophisticated dessert, and perfect for those who can’t decide between a fromage or pudding course. I've been daydreaming about it ever since.

The food here is as punchy as whisky, and it’s the perfect Christmas dining spot. It makes me want to sing a festive tune.

Altogether now. “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight”.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

28 Queen Street


(0131 220 2044,


Gaby Soutar is a lifestyle editor at The Scotsman. She has been reviewing restaurants for The Scotsman Magazine since 2007 and edits the weekly food pages.
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