This Turquoise Thistle review has been authored by friend of GreatDrams and Edinburgh resident, James Porteous who happens to also have just set up a new gin distillery.
It’s easy to be a deeply cynical bastard when you live in Edinburgh. Being an overtly tourist town, the number of naff bandwagons and the quantity of people wilfully jumping on them means the city centre groans under the weight of tartan trinkets, and is deafened by the endless skirl of piped pipe music streaming forth from the shops selling them.
They’re minor issues, but they do have the irritating knack of occasionally making you feel like you’re living in a theme park. As a whisky lover, this presents an issue.
You can find somewhere for a nip on pretty much any street in central Edinburgh – the difficulty comes in finding a place that feels like it cares about what they’re serving you and the manner they serve it.
Having been invited to a city centre hotel bar on a Friday night, I think it’s safe to say I’d braced myself.
The Turquoise Thistle lies within Hotel Indigo on York Place, directly opposite the tram terminus.
It kills me to say anything positive about the trams, but hell, it’s pretty damn convenient if you’re flying in as a visitor. I’d previously stayed in a suite at the brand’s Glasgow outpost and loved it to bits – the room was enormous for the money, well finished and bright. As it turns out, Indigo is a franchise, so each hotel has its own sense of self. While the Glasgow branch is huge and airy, Edinburgh’s is made up of several interlinked Georgian townhouses, giving a much cosier feel that is true to the area.
Our junior suite was on the top floor, tucked into the eaves, with a huge, bright living space, king bed and views out over York Place. So far – so good.
Our whisky experience – to call it a tasting would be selling it short in the extreme – was led by Stuart Horton, Food and Beverage Manager at the hotel.
Although it’s not unexpected to see good Scotch in this town, Stuart has taken on the growth and development of the bar and staff as a personal project – the whiskies are given particular prominence in their own cabinet, and each of the 70-odd bottles is there on merit. He’s hoping it’ll climb to 120 in time, but only when he finds the right spirits – and convinces his boss to let him have a bigger cabinet. You can’t help but share in his enthusiasm for all things whisky.
Our first drink of the night (well, following a quick G&T) is a nip of the local – a Glenkinchie 12, from about half an hour outside Edinburgh. It’s a light and shamelessly Lowland opener, with gentle notes of honey on the nose and a fresh, slightly grassy flavour with a little vanilla. It’s an accessible whisky, and one that Stuart says he suggests as a good option for guests who are new to Scotch.
We follow this up with the first flight of the evening. The bar offers six different whisky trios, including an international selection that features Japanese and Welsh single malts, and at the top end, a Glenfarclas sampler that showcases their 10, 30 and 40yr old expressions. Our first selection is off-menu, put together especially for the tasting, and features some of Glenmorangie’s less common drams – The Quinta Ruban, matured in Portugese ruby port casks; the 18 year-old, finished in Olorosso casks; and the multi award-winning, deeply unconventional Signet, whose chocolate malt and unusual barrel regime create something really different.
It’s easy to be hyperbolic, but this is an incredible little line-up. The Quinta has a solid hit of Terry’s Chocolate Orange about it, sweet caramel notes and a really chewy quality from those port casks. The 18yr old is lighter and fresher by comparison, but still has sweet lime and honey on the palate.
And that Signet. Holy moly. Burnt sugar and vanilla on the nose, sweet like the other two on the tongue, but with coffee, burnt toast and rich caramel to boot. Complex and delicious.
Next up, we moved into a bit of theatre, with a Balvenie Caribbean Cask served from one of their copper dogs. Back in the day, distillery workers used dogs (essentially small metal flasks) to liberate whisky from their employers, dropping them into the cask and hiding them in their clothes. It’s silly fun, but it’s a nice touch. The dram’s notably sweet across the nose, pallet and finish, likely as a result of finishing in the rum cask, and pineapple, passion fruit and vanilla all play a role.
The fun and games continued with a trip to the distant north, with a glass of Highland Park 18. The already lightly smoky, peaty liquid is then peat-smoked with a Polyscience Gun, giving a rich, musty wood-smoke nose. Although the spectacle of the huge bell jar filling with smoke is beautifully done, it does overpower the drink a little, and Stuart’s suggestion of resting the drink definitely brings things back into balance.
To bring things to a close, we headed over to Islay for a final flourish. The Ardbeg 10, Uigedail and Corryvreckan are all as characteristically peaty as you’d expect from the Port Ellen distillery. We tried the 10yr old with a cube of ice, which as much as I’d normally call sacrilege, works well in balancing out the huge phenol content. The Uigedal is a big cask strength bugger, but all that peat and smoke (and maybe a hint of brandy?) makes it remarkably drinkable for such a punchy drop.
Finally, the Corryvreckan, with its spicy, briny medicinal notes was served up with my one culinary nemesis – fresh oysters. Still, after this much whisky, Dutch courage and curiosity got the better of me, and the reward was a fantastic combination of heat, sea salt and spice.
But we weren’t quite done. Stuart’s protégé popped through from the bar to rustle up a Corryvreckan-based cocktail. Based on an idea involving poached pears, and named for the myth that surrounds the whirlpool itself, Breackan’s Last Breath marries the whisky with Xanthe and simple syrup, creating a sweet, smoky drink with a melon-like flavour. Huge flavours to balance, but really enjoyable, and a great little nightcap.
Yes, we were guests of the management, and yes, we had a tailored experience and the full attention of our wonderful host for the whole evening. That said, if you’re heading to Edinburgh, I’d recommend Indigo in a heartbeat. The room, the breakfast, the whiskies and undoubtedly the staff – it all put a massive smile on the face of a cynical local. And that, as you’ll have surmised, is no mean feat.