Johnnie Walker Princes Street: A new benchmark in Scotch whisky tourism?

Johnnie Walker Princes Street: A new benchmark in Scotch whisky tourism?

Diageo’s Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience has dominated the headlines and won numerous awards since it opened to the public in September 2021. We visit the Edinburgh blended Scotch ‘whisky wonderland’ to see for ourselves how the venue has influenced Scotch tourism

Whisky & Culture | 14 Mar 2023 | Issue 189 | By Kristiane Sherry

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From the very second you step into the fresh air at Edinburgh Airport arrivals, there’s no missing Johnnie Walker Princes Street. Forget banners and balloons – travellers into the city are greeted by an enormous, multi-storey ad for the experience emblazoned on the side of the car park. For scale, part of the “installation” is a photograph of the Edinburgh Castle view from the rooftop 1820 Bar – that alone stretches to 402 square metres. The airport’s CEO, Gordon Dewar, is glad to showcase the “iconic Scottish brand to those passengers as they arrive at the terminal”. It’s sure to whet the appetites of many for a dram.

In many ways, the scale of the ad mirrors the size of the investment. In April 2018, Diageo announced a mammoth £185 million investment into Scotch whisky tourism. The figure is the largest ever ploughed into the sector, and includes upgrades to Diageo’s single malt distillery visitor centres across Scotland. But it’s clear from the sheer scale – eight floors of whisky experiences, bars, retail and some office space – that Princes Street accounts for the bulk of the outlay. But what is it, has it changed the industry, and, for Diageo and for visitors, is it worth it?

First, a disclaimer. I’ve now visited Johnnie Walker Princes Street three times: once in January 2022 to visit the rooftop bar for lunch, and then I was twice hosted by Diageo in September and November. On all three occasions, the setting, service and experience was fantastic. I’m not alone in this assessment – since the space opened in September 2021, 350,000 folks have visited from 110 countries. And without straying too close to the stereotype that women don’t enjoy whisky, more than 50 per cent of them have been women. “56 per cent of all visitors are not regular Scotch drinkers,” notes managing director Barbara Smith, when we catch up after my most recent visit. She adds that 90 per cent of guests say they’d recommend it to a friend or family member. Spoiler alert: I am one of them.

Johnnie Walker Princes Street at night. Credit: Diageo

Situated at the far end of Princes Street, close to the iconic Binns Clock, the location is wondrously central. Accessible on foot from much of the city, it’s easy to add into an itinerary, however brief the visit. There are two ways to enter the building. One is through the retail space (more on that later), while the other takes you into a beautifully furnished waiting area, where visitors gather ahead of experiences, which is where we started our Journey of Flavour tour.

As soon as you’re inside the building, you’re immersed in all things Johnnie Walker. It’s a dazzling, high-spec space akin to a smart hotel lobby. This is where those who prefer a more ‘traditional’ whisky experience have been critical. Some argue it’s a far cry from the often-rural distilleries that produce the liquid for Johnnie Walker. Fireside Chesterfield sofas and tartan-for-the-sake-of-it are out. Instead, there are clean lines, vibrant colour and technology – all referencing Scotch’s rich heritage and inherent luxury, but in a refreshing way.

“We still wanted to engage with connoisseurs and whisky gurus, if you were,” Smith explains. “But we wanted to make sure whisky is accessible. We wanted to bust the myths that it’s only about a certain demographic.” The warm, concierge-style welcome is an effective way to deliver on the strategy. Guests are checked in and ushered across to take a flavour preferences quiz. Depending on the result, you’re assigned a wristband of a certain colour. This is crucial for the all-important cocktails later on.

Inside the Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience. Credit: Diageo

What follows is best described as mesmerising. The 90-minute experience encompasses theatre, storytelling, and even an immersive animated infographic. At every stage of the journey, there’s a surprise and delight element. For Smith, the Johnnie Walker brand story is brought to life effectively because it plays on emotion. “The powerful storytelling comes through as soon as you arrive. I think it’s really impactful.” The tale starts with a 14-year-old Johnnie Walker, who loses his farm home after his father passes away. From here, the tale continues, the family bought a grocery store in Kilmarnock, and Johnnie himself learned to trade – and blend Scotch.

It’s a multimedia performance that charts the brand story to the present day, after which we’re invited to make our own Highballs. It not only puts a drink in your hand, but it gets guests mixing Scotch too – still an area of derision among whisky traditionalists. “I’ve had friends who say they’re not really a whisky drinker and they try the tour and say, ‘oh my goodness, I’ve never tasted whisky like this before,’” Smith continues. “It’s just so different to what they expect.” On our tour, a fellow visitor told me that she didn’t like whisky. By the end, she was happily sipping Highballs with the rest of us. It’s all made simple too – from dispensers that read chips in colour-coded glasses to recommended garnishes. Non-alcoholic serves and driver’s kits are available throughout to make sure all can stay engaged.

Drink in hand, the tour presses on as we discover the Four Corners of Scotland – aka the main component parts of the different Johnnie Walker expressions. Cardhu (Speyside), Glenkinchie (Lowland), Clynelish (Highland) and Caol Ila (Islay) are all called out in detail. There’s a charming yet incredibly informative run-through of how whisky is made – the best I’ve seen across Scotland and beyond. There’s light and sound which genuinely captivates – even more so in the next room, which explores more distilleries and flavour in more detail. Before we’re released into a dedicated bar space for a couple of cocktails (or a dram, if preferred), there’s an escape room-type concept. It definitely feels the least engaging of all the spaces, but it does give the guide an opportunity to drill key messages – that whisky is for everyone, and you can drink it however you like – while giving a short window of space for questions.

The Explorer"s Bothy Bar at Johnnie Walker Princes Street. Credit: Diageo

The cocktails, whether at the end of the tour or up in the 1820 Bar, are a real centrepiece. Head bartender Miran Chauhan casts an innovation-informed, sustainable lens across everything. “The cocktail programme here is loosely based on seasonality,” he outlines when we speak in his team’s training space after the tour. He’s gained a reputation for ingenuity, especially with whisky cocktails. “One of the main things that we do here, coming from a design background, is something called incremental innovation,” he continues. “We look to make loads of little tweaks all the time. Like I’m talking about on a daily basis.” Outputs from this model include the Ultrasonic Bobby Burns, which was aged in an ultrasonic bath (I sampled it and can confirm it is delicious), and the use of a citrus perfume instead of fresh fruit. Guests get the same aroma experience as with a garnish, but with far less waste. “Instead of buying a case of oranges every day, we have a case of oranges that lasts a whole month.”

As well as the 1820 space, he also oversees The Explorer’s Bothy Bar, home to more than 150 different whiskies, including single casks. Every whisky lover will feel at home here. Over the last year and across the whole space, Chauhan has noticed some trends. “In terms of cocktails we have very open-minded clientele,” he says. “The majority of people who drink whisky here are women, that’s really cool.” Interestingly, the demographics skew younger, with many 18- to 24-year-olds coming in. “How many times do you go to a whisky bar as an 18, 19-year-old and you feel competent enough to sit at the bar and go, ‘I’m going to start my whisky journey’? It’s a big step to take.”

Johnnie Walker Princes Street bar manager Miran Chauhan. Credit: AwAye Media

Before we embark on our own whisky journey in the Whisky Maker’s Cellar, I catch Emma Walker, Johnnie Walker’s fittingly named master blender. For Princes Street, she and the rest of the team each crafted bespoke blends for the experience.

“We were thinking about it within the team, how do we use this [Cellar] space to showcase what we do? What’s the day-to-day job of making the whisky, bringing different casks together and creating something that people want to enjoy.” It provided more of a creative outlet for them, too. “What was really exciting was essentially being given free rein, a blank piece of paper, to go make a whisky.”

Each decided on a distinct flavour profile they wanted to create, usually based on a piece of personal history. The result is 11 different blends from 11 blenders that you can taste at the end of the Whisky Maker’s Cellar, depending on the group’s own flavour preferences.

Visitors at Johnnie Walker Princes Street enjoying a drink at the Explorer"s Bothy Bar. Credit: Diageo

For Walker, the whole ethos of offering a flavour-forward cask experience aligns with the rest of the building. Whether it’s selecting and blending whiskies for the innovation or retail teams – or anyone in between – it comes back to that. “What is the flavour point you want to get?” she asks. “What do you want to be the predominant flavour, styles? How do people drink it? It’s always about flavour, it’s just different criteria.”
And down in the cellar for our tasting, there’s a remarkable array of unexpected whiskies to taste, including a Teaninich made with rye and other malted cereals and a Glen Elgin fermented with a yeast strain typically used in sparkling wine production. There are malts and grains too – it’s a considered, genuinely exciting selection for guests to choose from, before the group settles on one of the blender’s blends. Daan, our host, was exceptional, too.

After the experience we emerged into the retail space. From fill-your-own seasonal blends to highly Instagrammable neon lights (‘There’s a Highball in your future’ is a particular favourite), it’s bright, innovative and easy to navigate. A specialist malts corner has other bottlings, including Special Releases, but otherwise it’s a true shrine to the Johnnie Walker brand, complete with all kinds of non-drinkable merch.
“The retail space in general is proving really popular,” Smith details, “not just for people on Princes Street to come in and see what’s going on, but for people who have done the tour who feel emotionally engaged.”

Does she think Johnnie Walker Princes Street has changed whisky tourism in Scotland? “I think the expectations have always been high,” she opens. “But it’s really raised the bar, I would say. People just love that unique experience, and now they are looking to demand more.” And have other whisky producers welcomed it? “It’s positive, it’s about innovation and growth,” she reckons. “They can see the benefit to the category from the work we’re doing, and some are following suit.”

Visitors at Johnnie Walker Princes Street enjoying a drink at the Explorer"s Bothy Bar. Credit: Diageo

She outlines that it’s not just about Johnnie Walker, or indeed about Edinburgh. A key objective is to shine a light on other distilleries too, especially the Four Corners of Scotland – “the people, places, heritage and provenance”. She’s not sure other competitors have the opportunity or ability to do that. “It’s why it’s so magical what we’ve achieved.”

Ultimately, it’s worth the investment. “It’s good because we’re a competitive industry, but we’re also a collaborative industry. And I think competition is good. There’s been lots of different investments from colleagues in Scotch tourism, too.” But Princes Street is a stand-out: “I think our investment is raising the bar at all times.”

Now the challenge is in keeping things fresh – this includes running events, such as the newly developed Drams & Brews whisky and cold-brew coffee pairing. And then there’s cementing the community element. “What we want to do is be part of a cultural hub, but the brand will be at the heart of what we do,” Smith continues. Johnnie Walker Princes Street should be as much of a must-visit for locals as it is for tourists.

The big question: is it worth the visit? Emphatically, yes. The tours are inventive, informative, lively, and of course, fun. And the bar spaces are an essential – for the view of Edinburgh Castle and the hospitality. A note of caution: beware if you are sensitive to light and sound. I’m assured that tours can be tailored based on pre-visit questionnaires, but it’s best to phone ahead. What I can confirm is that Johnnie Walker Princes Street has enough substance for the whisky lover, and a warm welcome for those not sure about the spirit yet. If the team’s brief was to democratise whisky experiences, they have more than exceeded it.
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