Backpacking Europe 2015- Scotland Part 1

Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

A Flight of Whisky for the Ladies

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

10:00 AM GMT

Castle Rock Hostel, Edinburgh, Scotland

Holy Mother of God, there’s a castle outside the door. The first thing I see, first glimpse of Scotland in the light, there’s a goddamn castle just sitting on the hill staring at me. Five stars for Castle Rock Hostel for location, that being LITERALLY NEXT DOOR TO A CASTLE.

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Now, I know I’m showing my American excitability here, but this is the first time I’ve ever witnessed anything like the castles in my story books growing up. A castle that truly used to stand as the garrison of the city. Obviously, my day is now already planned. There is a crooked set of stone steps that leads from the street outside the hostel, up the hill and straight into the entry plaza of the castle. I gleefully purchase my ticket (£16.50, $25) and head out onto the grounds.

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Everything is I could have hoped. It’s charming, intimidating, and offers some spectacular views of the city and bay.

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 However, it is winter and an icy wind buffets the castle as I wander around outside. Soon I retreat for the interiors of buildings, where, in addition to being cozily heated, the entire Scottish military history is meticulously preserved, offering a broad insight into a proud heritage as fighters of the region. There’s more than a half dozen buildings, each with their own series of exhibits, from the Kings of Scotland, to the Queens Guard, and even an exhibit that ties Edinburgh castle into the American Revolution, where it was used to keep American and French POW’s captured during the fight for independence from Great Britain. It takes hours to see everything, which makes it a great way to while away my first few hours. After I’ve had my fill of war history, I amble away from the castle and down main street.

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2:00 PM GMT

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland

Whisky shops, woolen scarves, and cozy pubs line this historic street, dotted in-between by curios and restaurants. Occasionally, the towering shops are broken by alley-like “closes” that link the upper streets to the lower streets. Edinburgh is a towering city despite its medieval age, and boasts the first “skyscrapers” in modern architecture, 7-10 floor buildings erected when the rest of the world were still living in cottages.

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This city just feels old and wise, its stone strong and sturdy and its streets worn with millions of footsteps. The architecture is something straight out of both a Charles Dickens novel and a medieval fairy tale. The wind cuts through my winter jacket but the charm around me makes it easier to ignore. I wander into shop after shop, feeling fine lambs wool scarves and hefty sweaters. As the light begins to dim I start to wander back to my hostel to plan the next move.

4:00 PM GMT

Castle Rock Hostel, Edinburgh, Scotland

Chilled to the bone, I return to Castle Rock. On the way home I picked up a steaming hot potato at The Baked Potato Shop which is wrapped in foil and filled to the brim with hearty toppings. Eating cheap is incredibly essential on the road, and this hefty potato only set me back £5. I head into the common room to eat, which is quite a spectacular space. It has massive ceilings and 10 foot windows on the wall facing out towards the hills. In the center of the room is a long oak table more suited to a grand banquet than a backpackers hostel, which is accompanied by a dozen or so heavy wooden dining chairs. In the far corner of the room is a cozy selection of couches and armchairs, and tucked into a nook is a kitchenette which has a constant supply of free coffee and tea. The latter is such a blessing when you’re freezing from a day traipsing through the blustery winter streets, so I settle in with my potato and tea and plan out my evening. My friend Nick, who is currently traveling around as a part of Penniless Nomads, recommended the Scotch Whisky Experience as an essential when in Edinburgh for the first time. I’ve been dying to learn about scotch while I’m here, but this at first blush seems a bit like a tourist trap. However, I trust Nick’s recommendation and I can’t argue with the location. The shop rests right at the foot of Edinburgh castle, a mere 5 min walk from my hostel.

5:00 PM GMT

The Scotch Whisky Experience, Edinburgh, Scotland

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The Scotch Whisky Experience, far right

Fancying myself already an American Whiskey fan,  I purchase a Gold Tour ticket (£24.50, $37) which in addition to their “ride” through the scotch whisky making process and guided tasting, also includes a tasting flight of 4 single malts after the tour. The price may make the average traveler balk a bit, but I compared it to my normal bar tab back home and it came out about even, plus I was hopefully going to come out just a tiny bit more educated into the preferred drink of men in smoky back rooms.

The tour begins with a Disney-like ride through the whisky making process. It’s a bit of a laugh at first, but the content is actually incredibly informative, as a thick-accented ghost leads you through grain mills, boiling vats, and whisky-filled bourbon casks, explaining each step of the whisky’s journey.

After the ride, we are brought into a tasting room where our guide takes us through everything from the regions in which whisky is produced, the flavor profiles associated with that region, the proper way to “nose” a glass, and how to identify things like body, color, top notes and finish. This is where I’m actually impressed, it’s a great crash course if you’re relatively scotch-ignorant like I am.

The tour concludes in a room which is floor-to-ceiling, row-after-row of bottles of whisky. This is the world’s largest private collection of Scotch Whisky, 3,500 plus bottles including editions that have been presented to only a select few, including the Queen.

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At the conclusion of the guided tour, we are given our tasting glasses to keep, and those of us who upgraded to the “Gold Tour” are taken to the adjacent restaurant where we are served with our tasting flight of single-malt whisky, one from each region, arranged in a tasting order. I settle into a comfy ottoman and feel a bit uneasy about sitting alone and drinking four glasses of whisky. My awkwardness is eased when a cheery couple from Australia, Jennifer and Susan, ask to join me at my small table. I oblige and all three of us begin happily eyeing the treat in front of us as introductions are made. Both ladies are school teachers on holiday, taking advantage of the cheap travel to the chillier climates like Scotland. Now, we soon realize that these “tasting” samples are each pretty generous pours, and soon my body is tingling in a warm, single-malt blanket. We continue to chat about life and work, as well as use our new-found whisky education to discover our favorite pours. Finally, after what is discovered to be about 2 hours, we head our separate ways, warmed to the core by the liquid gold. For the price of beers with friends in NYC, this is an experience that can’t be beat.

Thanks for reading!

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