Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands

Trip date: March 2018

I closed up our apartment in Edinburgh, Forest had left for the airport before I got up, and grabbed an Uber to the Hertz car rental. I was so excited about driving around Scotland but I was also really nervous. Like so nervous I had hardly slept the night before!

Driving on the wrong side, on tiny roads, over mountain passes, by myself. What could go wrong?

I started with an easy 1-hour drive to Stirling where I had pre-purchased my ticket into the castle. I grabbed a coffee and a Millionaire's shortbread while I waited for the free hour tour to meet.

This castle isn't pretty but its got a great history as one of the most important castles in Scotland. With stunning 360-views of the valley below it's obvious why the location was key. The buildings themselves are a mismatch of construction from the late 1400s to 1600.

Our guide also went into more detail about the unicorn symbol used throughout Scotland. Unicorns!

From Stirling I had another 1-hour drive to Edradour Distillery, once billed as Scotland's smallest distillery, it has been in operation since 1825.

The grounds are absolutely gorgeous! I checked in for the £10 tour which came with two tastes, and joined about 10 others for a film history of the distillery in the malt barn, tour of the rick house, distillation room, and property. I even saw the owner moving sherry butt casks on his tractor.

It had gotten "a wee bit" cold, as they say, and I was pretty tired from my first day of (successful!) driving. I left Edradour on a tiny road through farms and fields of sheep, and even had a bit of hail, before arriving in Pitlochry and the Knockendarroch Hotel. The 12-room Victorian style house is also known for their excellent dinners which was included in my room price.

I had a lovely corner room with views of the surrounding town and mountains. Best of all there was a bath tub! Chilled and tired I made tea and took a long hot soak while gazing at the view. Heaven!

They informed me that I would have cocktails at 7:30 in the lounge in front of the fireplace, followed by a 3-course dinner in the dining room. Very refined, very relaxing, and very good. I finished up with a whisky by the fire before going to bed.
The next morning I enjoyed some delicious scrambled eggs and smoked salmon for breakfast, before checking out. I could absolutely see staying 2-nights here, there is a very cute little town that I didn't have time to explore and there are also some really good sounding hikes in the area.

I was on a 4-hour drive, through the Scottish Highlands, to the Isle of Skye!  At first I was on the A9 and it was a normal 4-lane highway, so I was feeling comfortable and enjoyed the beautiful scenery.

But then I turned onto the A86 which was a small and windy 2-lane road. My car kept making this little chime noise which I finally figured out meant I was going over too far in my lane. As large trucks passed me going the opposite direction, I had to really watch to make sure I didn't put myself in the ditch as I moved over each time.

And although that was stressful, I also could just pull over whenever I wanted to take in the amazing mountains, lakes, dams, valleys, feral goats... and castles!!!

I could not even say how many times I pulled over to look at things! It was absolutely awesome and having such a gorgeous day as I pulled up to Eilean Donan Castle, built in 1220 and the most photographed castle in Scotland, was the cherry on top!

Now the A87 took me to the Skye Bridge, with the Cullin Hills right behind, and I crossed over to the Isle of Skye, one of the Inner Hebrides Islands. The car was still chiming at me, but not as much as earlier in the day. Progress!

All photos from Stirling, Pitlochry, and the drive through the Highlands here.

Other posts from this trip:
Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
An Introduction to Unicorns
The 45th
A Slice of Skye
Oban & the Isle of Mull

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The 45th

Trip date: March 2018

Mostly when I hear something about "The 45th" these days I get anxious, thinking it's about the current US President. Luckily my own personal 45th is all about Scotland, the 45th country I have traveled to! Not bad considering I didn't get off North America until I turned 30!

Forest and I had big plans for our last full day in Edinburgh. We started inside the gorgeous St. Giles' Cathedral, it had been closed for the evening when we went by the day before. There's a very opulent chapel called the Thistle Chapel that is dedicated to the 16 Knights and Ladies of the Order of the Thistle, Scotlands Order of Chivalry.

From here we walked over to the National Museum of Scotland where we were taking a free 1-hour "Scottish Hits" tour. The museum is absolutely massive so I was really happy to have a guide. It not only houses the history of Scotland but there are tons of rooms of science, technology, world culture, world history, design, etc. It's a bit overwhelming!
Each tour guide gets to choose what they want to show you, and I think we were very lucky in that our guide had an interest in oddities, death, and history. So over the hour he told us some great stories, showed us some very odd things, and taught us a bit more about the history of Scotland.

As there were only 4 of us on the tour we were able to get around quickly and we saw quite a bit. I'd absolutely recommend one of these tours, you are able to wander around for the rest of the day in the museum if you like afterwards.

We had lunch reservations at Dishoom and were starving so after peeking around a bit more we walked to the New Town area. Edinburgh is really gorgeous to stroll around. The brick buildings, monuments, and parks are so pretty!

I'd eaten at Dishoom in London years ago and was excited to check out this location. We were not disappointed! We had the chicken biryani (which I could not stop eating!), the house special Sali Boti, and paneer tikka.

Dishoom serves breakfast too which I would love to try one day!

After such a filling lunch Forest and I were ready for our late afternoon/early evening entertainment... a bar crawl in the New Town neighborhood. We had our own list ready to tackle but as we were walking down the very pretty George Street we came across The Printing Press bar.

They were advertising drinks made with their own Principal No. 25 Gin, and as I was on a quest to drink as many Scottish gins as possible we gave it a go. The bar also looked lovely! But the drinks were basic at best.

Next up was Bramble which took us a bit to find! The subterranean bar is quite well-known but is only marked by a small brass plaque that isn't really noticeable from the sidewalk.

As their name suggests, the bar is known for their Bramble cocktail. In fact I think I saw a Bramble on every bar menu in Edinburgh, but the drink was first created in London so not sure of the back story on that. I however opted for a martini using Electric Spirit Co gin. Bramble looks a little divey but has an upscale-ish menu, so if you like that vibe, this is the spot for you.

Everyone has The Bon Vivant on their cocktail drinking list so we stopped there next. But the crowd seemed to be all tourists and when we looked at the menu it was uninteresting (to us) and heavy on vodka. So we passed and went to check out the new-sh Lucky Liquor Co.

They've got a fun concept where they pick 13 bottles, create 13 drinks, and run the menu for 13 weeks. They also sell some bottled cocktails retail. It's a really fun and friendly spot (and owned by the same folks as Bramble). It's also super unique. I'd recommend stopping in here for sure!

A few bartenders had mentioned Panda & Sons to us so that was stop number 4. Upon entering the empty lobby we realized we'd need to find our own way inside.
The bar is a largish speakeasy with a very fun menu and some playful ingredients and garnishes. We sat at the bar and I tried some more Scottish gin. The free popcorn and the cocktails were a hit! This is another one to stop into for sure!

Did I mention how beautiful Edinburgh is? We had such nice weather also!

Our last stop of the night was a short walk away. Bryant & Mack Private Detectives had also been recommended to us and I absolutely loved it! And that's not just because it was our 5th stop!

It could have been overly precious with the dim light, tiny space, and cheeky "hidden in plain sight" location. But the bartenders were fantastic, the drinks were great, and the space was cozy vs. haughty.

We wrapped up our night at Whiski Restaurant, which was right next to our flat. Unfortunately the food was pretty horrible. Steer clear.

The next day Forest left early for the airport while I grabbed an Uber to go pick up my car at the rental office. I was so excited to explore and see more of Scotland! I was also pretty nervous about driving on the wrong side. Fingers crossed!

All Edinburgh photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
An Introduction to Unicorns
Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands
A Slice of Skye
Oban & the Isle of Mull

Friday, May 11, 2018

An Introduction to Unicorns

Trip date: March 2018

Forest and I left London via Kings Cross Station and took an absolutely lovely 4-hour train ride north to Edinburgh, Scotland. I had been wanting to visit Edinburgh for years and was super excited! We'd spend 3 nights in the city and then I'd be taking off on my own to drive around the country, my 45th!

The train ride was very picturesque and we had a great time chatting over wine while taking in the scenery. Unfortunately we had accidentally booked ourselves in the "quiet" car, which for any of you who know me is really the opposite of where I should be! We did our best to keep it quiet but I can guarantee that we had more fun then the rest of the folks around us!

Our Airbnb was just up the hill from the train station, something we didn't realize as we climbed in the taxi. I'm sure he thought we were crazy as he literally drove 2-blocks (but it was uphill!) We had chosen a beautiful, modern 2-bedroom/ 2-bathroom apartment with huge windows which overlooked the city.

We had dinner that evening at The Grain Store, a charming restaurant upstairs in the alcoves of an old building. We started with oysters, fresh out of Loch Crenan on the west coast of Scotland, which were fantastic! I had pigeon for my main, while Forest had beef. Both were absolutely delicious! I'd highly recommend this restaurant; it's comfortable and not stuffy and the dishes use traditional ingredients in a modern style and in a great space.
Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh Scotland, UK

Since Forest had been to Edinburgh numerous times, I left her the next morning and walked 5 minutes over to the castle.

Although it didn't seem that busy, I ended up standing in the queue for tickets for over 30 minutes. I should have purchased them on line as they have kiosks that you can just walk up to and print your pre-purchased ticket.

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh Scotland, UK

The castle has free hour guided tours so I grabbed a coffee, met up at the designated spot, and had a great time walking around and learning about the castle grounds, history of the city, and the country. I found it very interesting that at night the keys are handed back over to the army who is in charge of the castle (vs the Historic Environmental services who manage the tourism side of it).

Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh Scotland, UK

After the tour I headed inside to view the crown jewels (no photos allowed but they are impressive for sure!) and then on to the old prison to check out the barracks. It's quite a complete little city in there, besides just being a stronghold. And the views of the actual city below and the North Sea off in the distance are great!
views from Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh Scotland, UK

I walked down the hill and met Forest at Timberyard for lunch. The restaurant feels very Scandinavian/hygge with lots of candlelight, beautiful wood tables, and exposed brick from the old warehouse. We chose the 4 course menu for £55. Bread with smoked bone marrow, butter, and some house-cured charcuterie started us off.

Timberyard, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

Lunch was very good as was our service. Forest and I didn't agree with all the wine suggestions but that's ok! At night, I'd bet this restaurant is very dim, hip, and sexy!

On our way to walk to Grassmarket and the Royal Mile, we made a quick stop at Dragonfly, a very cute little cocktail bar. The drinks were good, the selection of booze was a tad on the cheap side, but the bartenders were super nice and gave us lots of good drinking advice.

The Royal Mile is filled with tourists, shops selling cheap plaid clothes, historical buildings, closes, statues, pubs, etc. Some of the highlights are Gladstone's Land (one of the surviving original tenements of the city), Parliament, the site of the last public execution, St Giles Church, a statue of the great thinker David Hume, and unicorns. UNICORNS???

The unicorn is Scotland's national animal and when it was chosen much of the world believed in their existence. Use of the animal's image goes back to the 12th century. Pharmacies use to sell powder that they claimed was from unicorn horns until 1741. There are many ideals on the iconology of the unicorn, from having magical powers to representing the incarnation of Jesus. I hadn't know any of this!

So shocked by our new unicorn knowledge, we made our way Under the Stairs for a happy hour drink. You kind of feel like you are in someone's living room here. The service again was very friendly, the drinks were fine, and it would be a cute casual spot to meet a bunch of friends and hang out. It's not what I would consider a cocktail destination.

We grabbed an Uber and had a quick 10-min drive to the harbor neighborhood of Leith where we were having dinner at The Kitchin. The restaurant and bar are absolutely lovely, a bit posh but not stuffy. We started with martinis, as it was time to start trying all the different Scottish gins (Rock Rose for me, Verdant for Forest), and some delicious snacks while we perused all the menus. We finally decided on the Chef's Surprise Tasting Menu with 7-courses for £85. We added in the wine pairings and  cheese course.

We thought everything was very good and the presentation was fantastic. Service was great but a tad rushed. Some of the wine pairings were a bit strange to us (like going red with duck but then back to white for the halibut) but all in all I thought it was a very nice dinner.

The cheese trolly was impressive and since neither of us knew much about British cheese we let the waitress lead us and we were not disappointed!

We were so stuffed by the end that they sent their Millionaire's shortbread home with us. I also hadn't known that Millionaire's shortbread is a Scottish thing but would happily continue to see as I traveled around!

We headed home and hung out with a bit of wine taking in the pretty views from our apartment.

A fantastic day in Edinburgh, I was excited for the next one! And my breakfast of that shortbread!

All Edinburgh photos here.

Other posts from this trip:

Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
The 45th
Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands
A Slice of Skye
Oban & the Isle of Mull

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The English Spirit

Trip date: March 2018

Booze and London go hand in hand. England has been drinking beer since medieval times and the "Gin Epidemic" started around 1698 (when the population, of less than seven million, was drinking ~18 million gallons of gin per year!)

So when in Rome, I mean London...

There are a lot of cocktail bars in London, it is impossible to visit them all. We decided on three separate evenings of cocktail crawls, and boy was that a good time!
The first night, Mel and I started at Dandelyan, inside the swank Mondrian London. In 2017 Dandelyan was awarded both World's Best Cocktail Bar by TOTC and also came in #2 at the 50 Best Bar awards.

The room here is a showstopper, lush fabrics, gold accents, huge windows looking out on the banks of the Thames. And the cocktails continue the glamour with unique ingredients, interesting storylines, and best of all, deliciously balanced recipes. My Concrete Sazerac was delicate in its delivery of the odd ingredient, while the Bastet, with catnip honey, was wildly different in flavor (and had me purring!)
I absolutely loved this place and plan on putting it on my London rotation list!

From here we headed up to the Kingsland area and met Forest and Kate at Untitled, the newest bar from Tony C of 69 Colebroke Row fame. Another killer space, this one sleek and hip, but for me the cocktails were just ok. My main issue is that the menu is very heavy on vodka (because he is using a lot of interesting flavors, so wanting that blank slate) but I just prefer the bigger flavor of a drink based on gin or whiskey.
Obviously, the drinks are gorgeous. Untitled is a full restaurant and the Japanese inspired menu looked good. If in the area I'd pop in and order some food!

Just a few doors down is the cozy and cute Three Sheets. Bartenders had been answering our "where do you like?" question with this spot and we weren't disappointed. The bottled French 75 was delicious! It's a tiny spot with a tiny rotation of cocktails. Go.
We wrapped up that first night at Cub, the newest from Mr. Lyan of Dandelyan, in partnership with others. The restaurant offers small plates with cocktail pairings and is reminiscent of the most hipster diner ever.
Service was great although our drinks and dishes were a bit hit or miss. Some were excellent while others were really really not. I think they are still finding their footing. The tasting menu with pairings was only £55 so at least we weren't out a bunch.

The next day Kate, Forest, and I made our way to The Distillery, a hotel with restaurants, on Portobello Road and had a tapas brunch at GinTonica. I had a gintonic made with the namesake gin, which was quite good. Unfortunately the rest of our meal was not. Our first bites of tinned boquerones on toasty garlicky bread had us hopeful, but after a few bland dishes and then sending back "crispy" potatoes bravos because they were soggy, and having them returned the exact same way we gave up.
Our server nicely sent out a pistachio salt caramel cheesecake on the house which was delicious, so at least we ended on a high note!

We were then off on the Gin Journey of Notting Hill tour. We had booked in advance and met the rest of the ~16 people at Mam Vietnamese restaurant where our tour guide Mickel started us off with tastes of a couple of gins, refreshing Tom Collins and then followed up with boozy overproof gin "mojitos" with chartreuse. And this was just the first of 5 stops!
At The Italian Job we were served a lemon gin and limoncello cocktail and the girls and I decided to order a few more bites of food.

A short bus ride later and we visited the beautiful 108 Brasserie, home of the Marleybone Distillery, who's gin still is tiny! The gin and tonics were not however! At this point some folks on the tour (not us!) were getting really smashed! Almost everyone was a local and I think it was just a good afternoon of drinking for them, without having to drive. People even chided me about not finishing all my drinks!!!
Next up, Old Mary's, a funny speakeasy of sorts. Upon entering it looks like a dive bar but the menu read full of nice classics. We were served a gin tonic sort of cocktail. It might have had St Germain. Things were fuzzy at this point...
The grand finale was a stop at Trailer Happiness, which I was very much looking forward to! Mickel gave everyone a quiz (but just gave us minis of Martin Miller gin as he knew we would get all the questions right!) and the winners proceeded to drink those minis straight down! The tour guests were really having a good, loud, messy time!

We finished our tour cocktail, got ourselves a table of our own away from the fray, and ordered another round off the menu. This a fun, kitschy tiki bar with lovely drinks. For sure one to visit if you are in the Portobello Road area.

The thing with the Gin Journey was that we rarely had a drink off any of the regular menus (besides a gin & tonic) so it is hard to say how these bars actually are. I don't think the other patrons minded but if you are wanting to really experience individual bars, this may not be for you. If you just want to drink a bunch of gin all day though, sign up now!

We made one more stop, on our own this time, to 9 Lives bar, which was quite near our apartment. Our friend Caitlin was waiting for us there. Shortly after we ordered our drinks, the space went dark with servers wrapping glow sticks around their arms and heads. We thought it was just what they did but turns out they were participating in Earth Hour! It's a cool bar with exposed concrete and indoor palm trees. Our drinks here were excellent, and it was super nice to see one of the great bartenders who use to be at Berners Tavern behind the stick. It was even nicer when he delivered some lovely snacks and a gratis cocktail!

Last day, last crawl. Forest and I were on our own and decided, spur of the moment, to do a "grand hotel bar" crawl. My favorite type! We started at The Ned, which has been recently renovated.

The entire lobby is a bar and on Sunday it was also a multi-station buffet for Sunday Roast complete with live music. Later in the evening it would turn into a swing dance party. The space is beautiful but we had other places to hit so we were one-and-done.
The last time I was at Artesian, I wasn't so impressed. Winner of many awards, the original staff then departed and it was left floundering. Recently though Paris' Little Red Door bar manager Remy Savage was brought on board to revamp the menu and breathe new life. And boy has he. It certainly didn't hurt that Forest and he are friends and he was excited to show us (a lot!) of their new drinks.
There were so many beautiful drinks, a gorgeous illustrated menu, wonderful engaging service, and even a little tour of their "lab". We had a fantastic time! I see many new awards in Artesian's future!
We were ready for some nightcap martinis at this point so walked to The Connaught Hotel and their famous martini trolley bar.  I love this bar so much! It's so pretty, so timeless, and they make a damn beautiful martini! It's also expensive AF! It will continue to be on my go-to list while in London.
Last stop, Dukes Bar. I hadn't been here before but was very much looking forward to trying out their famous martini, which is reported to have been Ian Fleming's inspiration for James Bond's martini.
Dukes uses pre-chilled gin, shakes it, and serves it to the brim off their martini trolly. I generally just go for one of those three things. But when in London after all...

All London photos here.

Other posts from this trip:

Hamilton & Other Hijinks in London
The English Spirit
An Introduction to Unicorns
The 45th
Big Castle, Small Distillery, Highlands
A Slice of Skye
Oban & the Isle of Mull

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