Whighams Wine Cellars celebrates 40 years of Bollinger and Tennent’s

Whighams Wine Cellars in Charlotte Square is an Edinburgh institution, an early pioneer of the city’s wine bar scene that has never lost the special je ne sais quoi that still ensnares its regulars.

Situated in the heart of the capital’s high finance district, in a space that was originally the basement kitchen of the family home of Earl Haig, commander of the British Forces in the First World War, Whighams’ roots in Scotland’s historic wine trade go deep – but it is far from a stuffy museum piece, having always shown a willingness to innovate.

At the helm throughout Whighams’ 40 years has been owner/operator Nicholas Henderson, who took some time out from his preparations for the venue’s grand birthday celebration to talk to SLTN about his storied career in vinous hospitality.

Given his current employment, it might seem surprising that Nicholas first came to fine wines via agriculture, on the family farm out to the east of the city at Spittalrigg, Haddington.

But back in 1962, while his father was growing vegetables, his enterprising mother came to the city to open Henderson’s vegetarian restaurant, creating a value-added outlet for Spittalrigg’s produce.

In time, Nicholas took on the running of this family business, and extended it, establishing his first wine bar on Hanover St in the early 1970s. The success of this outlet – and its demand for stock – led Nicholas to take a lingering interest in a particularly fine wine cellar on the corner of Charlotte Square and Hope St, which had long been used by wine merchants called Whigham, Ferguson, Cunningham & Co.

Originally based in both Ayr and Edinburgh, with records dating back to 1766, that company had, as well as importing wines into the UK, acted as a channel for continental wines to be exported to the New World, with its own ship, The Buck, making regular trips to New York.

“There were pirates back in those days, on the look-out for a shipful of French wine,” said Nicholas. “Wild times, I imagine.”

The prosperity of the Edinburgh wine trade can be traced back to the 13th century, and the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, which although mainly a military and diplomatic construct, had a firm social basis founded on the Scots’ love for French wine. 

Under that Alliance, Scottish merchants had the privilege of selecting the first choice of Bordeaux’s finest wines, a tradition that continued for hundreds of years, much to the annoyance of their English competitors, who generally received an inferior product.

Landing on the Wine Quay of Leith, barrels were rolled up the streets to the merchants’ cellars, to be bottled for the enjoyment of Scottish high society.

“They were blending, and then putting their own labels on the bottles,” recalled Nicholas. But after some 700 years of indulgence, the generosity of the French wore thin: “When they got wind of that sort of thing, they introduced appellation d’origine contrôlée and the blending business was done.”

So it came to pass that 40 years ago this month, Nicholas opened that redundant cellar as a wine bar. 

“Technically, the licence was for a ‘public house’, but that fact was delicately presented, as we were mainly selling wine and weren’t aiming for a pub crowd,” he noted. “That said, we have had Tennent’s lager in there since the beginning.”

From the off, the venue was a hit with the lawyers and bankers of the bustling New Town business district, providing them an intimate oasis of peace, quality wines and the best food the facilities could manage.

“Originally, the place was half what it is at the moment, very narrow and compact,” he recalled. “Our kitchen was just a very small set-up behind the bar, tiny really, with just two electric hot rings. We did soup, quiche, salmon, rare roast beef…

“About 20 years ago we moved into the adjoining basement space, which came at a good time. That then gave us around 150 covers, and space to get 270 people in, which has served us well ever since.”

Several of the Whighams Wine Cellar expert team – gathered here to mark the venue’s 40th anniversary – have been on the staff for decades.

While Charlotte Square is still quite the business centre, Whighams caters for a wider spectrum of custom these days: “We get tourists, we have regulars, we even have rugby match days when we’ll switch on the televisions,” explained Nicholas.

20 years ago, when the space expanded, live jazz was added to the offer, and Sunday nights at Whighams are now a solid fixture on the capital’s jazz circuit.

But the selection and acquisition of quality wines is still a priority, and Whighams currently offers around 30 wines by the glass – ‘good examples at affordable prices’ as Nicholas described the selection.

He stressed how proud he was of his ‘knowledgeable’ staff, who are given a big say in which wines are chosen for that list.

But asked what bottle he would never be without, he does not hesitate to single out Bollinger as a house favourite, sitting alongside Tennent’s as a brand that has been with Whighams from the outset.

There are 20 staff working in the Cellars, some of whom are part-time, and some of whom are distinctly long-time. One of these is Douglas Lyall, who runs the kitchen, and has been with the business for 37 years. Another is Lee Jacques who has worked front of house 21 years.

As we spoke to Nicholas, those staff, plus regulars and long-term associates, were gathering for a 40th birthday party with Champagne, canapés and a band.

“It is important to thank the staff and all the customers who have supported us,” he said.

Looking ahead, having weathered the worst of the COVID downturn in trade, Nicholas is upbeat.

“The offices around here are not fully back to work yet. And people haven’t quite got back into their old habits. But we still have our moments,” he said.

With that positive attitude, Nicholas has no intention of putting down his corkscrew anytime soon: “I plan to hang in there and see how the next decade goes at the very least,” he said, before bustling off to chill the Bollinger.