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Letter from Edinburgh – The Scottish Bar

The Scottish Bar – A  Welcome Return

After 12 years living in SE Asia, I have returned to Scotland and it’s capital city Edinburgh. There were many things I missed while overseas and one of them was the good old fashioned Scottish “Free House”  bar.  When I left it seemed they were in decline but it looks as though they are back with vengeance!

Beer or ale has been produced and consumed in Scotland for thousands of years. As for Whisky, it isn’t known when exactly the art of  distilling arrived but it was certainly being produced for the royalty in the 15th century – whisky is in fact the offspring of beer!  Initially whisky was distilled by the religious men (for medicinal purposes) in their monasteries  but it eventually moved  out to the farmlands where there was a plentiful supply of barley for beer and hence whisky.

My job is marketing and selling Scotch Whisky throughout the world and I love a dram of whisky but I  don’t think a bar is complete unless it has a good range of beers to compliment a  selection of whiskies!

The Traditional Scottish Bar / Free House

A “Free House” is a bar that is not owned and dictated to by a brewery and establishments were “Inns” where travelers could not only have a drink but stay the night  or a “Tavern” in the towns and cities offering food and drink and where many societies and clubs got together. Both these outlets
would have stocked a range of local brews and whiskies.

In England they are famous for their “Public Houses”, both in their cities and countryside. While in Scotland our establishments have been known as Bars” rather than “Public Houses”, mainly due to the fact that it was seen as a place where drinks were offered as a service over a counter. Another big difference is in Scotland there was always a likeness for Spirits (especially whisky) as well as beers and our outlets reflected this.

When I left Scotland in the early 2000’s, many traditional bars had been or were being taken over by the large breweries.  The stock reflected these huge companies portfolios and hence the experience of going to a bar and spending a good evening sampling a range of beers and finishing off with a dram almost disappeared. Although a good few bars stayed loyal “Free Houses”  the majority were going down the generic brewery owned and “themed” route.

So it was a pleasant surprise to arrive back in Scotland and find so many bars now stocking a great range of beers and whiskies. I am really not sure whether it is the fact that hundreds of micro-breweries are cropping up that bars are listing these beers or whether these brewers are opening up due to the demand. But there is  quite  clearly a big market for proper beer and whisky now and that can only be good for the consumer and long may it continue.

Another interesting development was that recently one of the local micro-breweries has invested in a still to allow them to make whisky – back to the traditional  farm yard distillery?

So it looks like we have gone the full circle and I welcome the return of the traditional Scottish bar. In celebration of that I will have the old Scottish drinking mans favourite “a hauf and a hauf”  – a half pint of
beer and a whisky chaser!

Slainte Mhath (Cheers and good health)

Andrew Skene

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