As Edinburgh Airport celebrated its centenary in 2016, we look back at another Edinburgh landmark…
Scotland’s busiest airport welcomes more than 12 million passengers annually, many of whom are here on holiday. Learning about our national drink, Scotch whisky, is often high on their holiday hit list. The Scotch Whisky Experience, a modern five-star visitor attraction close to Edinburgh Castle, is one of the best places in Edinburgh to learn and understand more about whisky.
What is fascinating about the building which houses The Scotch Whisky Experience is that 100 years ago it was a thriving school. Like the airport and so much of our intriguing city, the venue has seen considerable change and development over the years, but at its heart, the building still focuses on education and inspiration.
Set at the top of the Royal Mile, just a stone’s throw from the castle, the building was originally built to offer a different type of education when it opened as Castlehill School in 1888. At its peak, the school could accommodate up to 899 pupils – quite a squeeze, considering the size of the building.
Both boys and girls were enrolled in the school, but the building was designed to ensure their paths would never cross, with separate entrances and staircases; a design feature that exists in the building today and creates the perfect route for guests taking the Experience’s renowned tour.
The school roll remained steady right up until the Second World War, when many children were evacuated to the Scottish Borders. After this, pupil numbers never really recovered due to changing demographics in Edinburgh’s Old Town, with the school finally closing its doors in 1951.
After this, it went through a number of guises, including a catering school and a Civil Defence office, before being redeveloped and opened as The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre in 1988. Although satchels may have been replaced by spirits, The Scotch Whisky Experience is still fulfilling the educational remit Castlehill School used to play and has firmly established itself as the flag-bearer of whisky tourism in Scotland.
With many distilleries located in remote areas, the venue provides a convenient location in the country’s capital to learn about whisky, with more than 300,000 novices and experts alike passing over its threshold each year.
As visitors walk around the historic building where children once played, small reminders of its origins still remain, with a number of architectural gems to spot. While the venue has undergone two major refurbishments during its ifetime – when it initially opened in 1988 and more recently to upgrade it into the modern facility it is now – the character of the old building still shines through.
Alongside a bubbling barrel ride which whisks visitors through 500 years of whisky history in just over 10 minutes, tours of the attraction also include expertly guided whisky tastings, and the jewel in the attraction’s crown – the World’s Largest Collection of Scotch Whisky.
Returning to its Scottish home in 2009 after being sold by Brazilian whisky collector Claive Vidiz, the collection comprises 3,384 bottles of Scotch Whisky, with the oldest bottle dating back more than 120 years – even older than the airport.
Susan Morrison, General Manager of The Scotch Whisky Experience, explained the unique insight the collection’s history offers: “Despite its history and longevity, the Scotch Whisky industry is always changing and adapting to the needs of its global audience. The 20th century proved a bit of a roller coaster for the spirit, with numerous peaks and troughs in the drink’s popularity against the backdrop and upheaval of world events. “The collection created by Claive Vidiz helps to paint a picture of the Scotch whisky industry from the late 19th century right up until the present day, and it includes a vast variety of bottlings from distilleries that have now fallen silent.”
Other indications of the building’s past history can also be seen downstairs within The Scotch Whisky Experience. Where the pupils once sat in rows at their desks, there is now a superb bar and restaurant – Amber.
While the tables are less formally arranged, the food has most definitely improved, with David Neave and his expert team scouring Scotland to source the best produce the country has to offer – all washed down with a superb dram, of course.
No doubt the teachers of the past would have been fascinated to see the transformation of the building, which now houses a fantastic shop with the largest selection of whiskies for sale in the city and experts on hand to help buyers. They might also enjoy the old assembly hall, where the original beams are still on show, but which is now a part of a suite of superb meeting, conference and event rooms, all recently refurbished.
To further reflect the building’s educational roots, visitors can also take their whisky education to the next level, with the more in-depth tours, masterclasses and courses.The popular Morning Masterclass takes advantage of visitors’ fresh senses first thing in the morning with more advance nosing and tasting sessions. Alongside this, The Scotch Whisky Training School is a highly acclaimed, full-day experience, which is suitable for both whisky enthusiasts and an essential training tool for those looking to enter the industry.
With sessions in the origins and development of Scotch whisky, tutored tastings and sensory perception tests, and a quick guide in the art of blending, participants can leave with a Certificate of Expertise in the Sales and Service of Scotch Whisky. For both private and corporate groups, The Scotch Whisky Experience can also create bespoke group packages, bringing an element of education, and fun, to an event.
Popular options include a unique ‘Blend Your Own’ session, where individuals create their own blend and a short tutorial in nosing a few special whiskies which represent the spirit of Scotland. Edinburgh is home to so much history and heritage and The Scotch Whisky Experience is no exception.
So next time you land at Edinburgh Airport, make sure you include a visit to the attraction on your itinerary and enjoy learning and understanding more about one of the world’s most famous drinks.