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Pints you can bank on

The former national headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Scotland hosts a spectacular pub

If the Protestant clergy and cautious bankers of Scotland's capital ever had any reservations about the roistering during Edinburgh Festival week, they had better swallow those doubts. With the fringe already raised and the official festival starting next weekend, some of the city's finest pints are being sunk in two former banks and a past parsonage.

Guests at the George Hotel, one of the festival's social centres, need only cross the road. The hotel's Corinthian portico faces the even grander example at the Dome (14 George St). Can there be a more spectacular pub, bar or grill-room in the whole of Britain than this, in the former national headquarters of the Commercial Bank of Scotland? With its reliefs of Prudence, Learning, Agriculture, Mechanical Engineering, and Enterprise, this 1840s temple to Scottishness demands to be celebrated with the fermented or distilled product of Borders barley. Seeing and being seen under its 100ft glass dome are Edinburgh's movers-and-shakers, some of whom prefer margaritas or Chilean Chardonnays, but others cleaving to Deuchar's aromatic, dry, almost gin-like, India Pale Ale. This the smartest beer in the resurgent capital, enjoying a chic unmatched by local brews in any other British city.

Deuchar's, a name revived by the local Caledonian Brewery, recalls the days when Edinburgh's beers were so internationally famous as to keep its banks liquid.

Deuchar's, a name revived by the local Caledonian Brewery, recalls the days when Edinburgh's beers were so internationally famous as to keep its banks liquid. Even today, Scottish ale's fame lingers in Belgium, France and Italy and is growing in the United States.

Here is Deuchar's again, in the middle of the same stately thoroughfare, at the former Bank of Scotland, a tower of High Renaissance austerity, built in the 1870s. This bank's porches are Ionic, its interior pillars of Peterhead granite, its lavish cornices unattainably lofty. The establishment is now called The Standing Order (62 George St). Its walls softened with bookshelves, it looks more like a particularly grand public library than a pub, but its stock-in-trade is a dozen cask-conditioned ales. Just the place for a literary gathering. I cosseted a drily malty, leafy, Wild Cat, from Tomintoul, and had a quiet read. Why were the two young women at the next table drinking Irn Bru? Had hangovers, I suppose.

The aloof brow that is George Street has enough banks to turn it into an alcoholic waterfall, at which point it could no longer look down on secondhand Rose Street. In my youth I weekly and hopelessly tried to have a half in every pub along the hidden shame of this alley, but Rose Street got Carnabied. There is still, though, the 1902 Abbotsford Bar (3 Rose St), with its Jacobean interior, the island bar in mahogany and the moulded ceiling recently touched up in pale green and gold. Here I first toasted a posher pal confident enough to arrived capped and gowned from his graduation. In those days, we drank Bass; today the Broughton brewery provides a firm, dry, hoppy, house 70/- ale and guest beers may include Lia Fail ("Stone of Destiny"), a malty, textured, dark ale from the new Inveralmond brewery, in Perth.

Festivals suggest drinking, but culture requires that this be done among the work of great artists and craftsmen. In this, Edinburgh excels. First-time visitors should not miss the 1860s Café Royal (nearby, at 17 West Register St). with Doulton-tiled murals of British inventors in the Circle Bar and stained-glass depictions of sportsmen in the Oyster Bar. Beers at the moment include Caledonian's nutty, lemon-grassy Festival Ale. A few doors away, the 1890s Guildford Arms (1 West Register St) has friezes, screens and a minstrel's gallery, and from the 13 to the 22nd its own festival of folk music. This pub is one of my great favourites, especially for beers from Harviestoun. Last time I called, they had the aptly-named Bitter and Twisted; let's hope stocks last.

Across Princes Street and the North Bridge, the Southsider (3 West Richmond St, near Surgeon's Hall) is a university pub, opened in the 1970s, with a well-kept selection of Maclay's malty-fruity ales. These are from Alloa, a city that was once a brewing rival to Edinburgh, and they can be hard to find in the capital.

The hotel's rooms are named after Scottish inventors, from Alexander Graham Bell to James Watt.

Where South Bridge meets High Street, a Royal Bank, built in magnificently classical style but as recently as the 1920s, was six or seven years ago converted into a bar and small hotel. This has recently been refurbished and re-named Logie Baird's (1-3 South Bridge, corner of Royal Mile). Manager Stewart Foulis is from the Orkneys, and features an unusually full selection of assertive Orcadian beers and whiskies. The hotel's rooms are named after Scottish inventors, from Alexander Graham Bell to James Watt.

In the Old Town, between the castle and the Queen's Hall, the stone vaults of Bannermans (212 Cowgate, between Grassmarket and The Pleasance) are a Fringe favourite, with jazz and blues on Sunday evenings. Look out for the flowery Fraoch Heather Ale during the festival.

South and west, between The Meadows and Tollcross, The Cloisters is a newish pub in the 1870s Gothic former parsonage of St Michael and All Saints (26 Brougham St). In this cosy spot, I greatly enjoyed a new beer, a very clean, dry, summery, refreshing, India Pale Ale called St Leonard's. This was launched in January by Gordon Taylor, a mechanical engineer who worked in the now-defunct Monktonhall colliery, in the Lothians. On becoming jobless, Taylor established a U-Brew Centre (one of those laundromat-looking places where members of the public can make their own beer). He now also uses the equipment to brew for pubs, in quarter-barrel batches.

Not far from The Cloisters, in theatre country, Bennet's Bar (8 Leven St), in 1890s "Jacobethan", is an Edinburgh classic: a narrow, arcade-like, pub, with tiling, mirrors and "Glasgow-style" stained glass advertising long-gone brewers. More than 100 single malts here, and the ubiquitous Caledonian IPA.

Just beyond the West End, the Caledonian Sample Room (58 Angle Park Terrace, toward Slateford Road) showcases the beers of the eponymous brewery. The red-painted tongue-and-groove of the walls reflects the agricultural-industrial style of the nearby Victorian brewery itself. There is a changing selection of five or six beers from Caledonian, along with products from other small breweries. An impressive 20 hand-pumps can be seen in action after big games at Tynecastle or Murrayfield. Who needs a summer festival to sharpen the thirst when all winter you can have 22 or 30 men kicking an inflated bladder?

Published Online: SEPT 8, 1999
Published in Print: AUG 8, 1998
In: The Independent

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