Whether you’re a whisky lover or a complete novice, Johnnie Walker’s extravagant Princes Street experience needs to be on top of your list if you’re visiting Edinburgh, Scotland or even just the UK in general.
Whisky is one of Scotland and the UK’s most important and well-known exports. It’s not just delicious, though: Scotch whisky, with its endlessly complex character and terroir, is a microcosm of Scotland itself. Scotch is truly Scotland in a bottle.
Johnnie Walker – the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky and the most famous blended whisky on the planet – is particularly representative of Scotland. Most bottles of the stuff contain over 30 different individual malt and grain whiskies from distilleries all over Scotland. In that sense, it’s particularly Scottish; almost a liquid ambassador for the country.
Yet people still have a lot of misconceptions about Scotland, whisky and blended whiskies. That’s perhaps not a surprise: the world of whisky has always been a rather exclusive one; a world of insider knowledge, rituals and rules that the average punter might baulk at.
That’s why last year, Johnnie Walker unveiled a lavish new visitor’s centre in the heart of Edinburgh, specifically designed to educate people on the complexities of whisky – and we had the chance to check it out for ourselves.
It’s called Johnnie Walker Princes Street (named after and situated on the Scottish capital’s main shopping street): housed in the old House of Fraser department store, and represents the largest single investment in Scotch whisky tourism. An eight-floor visitor experience, it dominates Princes Street – it’s absolutely prime.
On the ground floor, you get directed to take a questionnaire to figure out what sort of whisky you’re into – how do you feel about apple pie, do you love citrus, that sort of thing. (Here’s a similar one you can try online yourself.)
They then present you with a colour-coded wristband that reflects one of the six major flavour characteristics Johnnie Walker and parent company Diageo categorise their whiskies by. Of course, you can try and game the system if you like – more on that later…
Now your journey begins. The roughly 90-minute tour is a crash course in whisky, which takes you through the entire whisky-making process as well as the history of Johnnie Walker.
Australian bartending legend and Johnnie Walker’s global ambassador Tim Philips-Johansson tells me the locals call the tour “Malt Disney”, and that’s a pretty apt description of the experience.
At the start of the tour, you’re treated to a very Disney-esque multimedia performance explaining the history of Johnnie Walker, complete with dynamic stage dressing, conveyor belts and musical swells. It’s a bit camp, but it’s also a bit of fun.
You then get ushered through a series of rooms that detail the whisky-making process, as well as shed some light on how Johnnie Walker blends their famous whiskies, shining a particular light on the four ‘cornerstones’ of Johnnie Walker: Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish and Glenkinchie. It’s these four distilleries from the four corners of Scotland which give Johnnie Walker its smooth, complex flavour.
Midway through the tour, you’re taken to a cocktail room where special taps dispense unique cocktails into colour-coded glasses that correspond to your wristband. You’re given the chance to experiment with adding additional botanicals to your cocktail to emphasise those different flavour profiles. It’s all very hands-on.
The trip takes you to yet another bar, where you have another chance to try another few cocktails that suit your tasting profile – or, if you like, try something different, or just have a dram from Johnnie Walker’s expansive range (sadly, they won’t give you a dram of Blue Label. Trust me, I asked.)
The trip concludes on the top floor of the building, where there are another two bars: the 1820 Rooftop Bar, which might be the coolest place to have drinks and a meal in Edinburgh; and the Explorer’s Bothy, a bar for seasoned whisky lovers that’s home to the most sought-after whiskies from across Scotland, with over 150 special bottles and one of a kind cask editions served up for aficionados.
The thing that really struck me about the tour, as well as Johnnie Walker Princes Street more broadly, is how much it really celebrates Scotland. As alluded to previously, learning about Johnnie Walker’s history is to appreciate much of what makes Scotland so special: its rugged, pure natural landscape; the enterprising, canny and hospitable nature of its people; as well as the sort of magic that is Scotch whisky.
The production values are insane, too. Diageo spared no expense here – they’re serious about their mission to get more people drinking whisky. Even the wooden floorboards are cut at 20° angles to mimic Johnnie Walker’s iconic slanted label. It’s pretty mental.
Of course, Diageo didn’t create Princes Street as a charity exercise. They’ve carefully constructed the entire thing so that you’re totally indoctrinated into buying Johnnie Walker and other whiskies.
They make you tasty cocktails that are easy to make and replicate at home; give you the language to describe what sort of whisky you like (or might like) to drink and give you the confidence to talk about the history and process of making whisky. It turns novices into pros, or at the very least, will make them feel like pros.
I think that aspect – confidence – is kind of crucial, and is really the thesis of the experience. Whisky’s always been perceived as exclusive; impenetrable. An ‘if you know, you know’ kind of thing. On the one hand, Johnnie Walker wants to break down those whisky myths, rules and rituals to get more people to drink Scotch, but then at the same time, whisky dilettantes or sceptics who go on the tour now feel as if they’ve been initiated into the exclusive world of whisky aficionados. It’s very clever.
It’s also exceptional value for money. The standard tour costs just £28 (~AU$50), which is really pretty reasonable. Hell, you get served at least three drinks during the tour, so you’ve made your money back on the drinks alone – but then you’re also getting an exceptionally fun way to spend an hour or two, plus you learn a lot about Scotch.
Another plus: anyone who goes on the tour gets 10% off at the gift shop on the ground floor. Considering there are some seriously expensive and rare Scotches from the entire Diageo family for sale down there that you can’t get anywhere else, that’s very helpful. (I for one certainly took advantage of the discount…)
All in all, Johnnie Walker Princes Street is an epicurean masterpiece. I’m a real whisky lover and I got a real kick out of it, but it’s even worth a visit if you don’t like whisky or have never tried a drop in your life. You’ll be converted by the end – and you might learn a thing or two, as well. It’s a must-visit if you’re ever in Edinburgh… Or worthy of a detour if you’re not.
My only complaint is that writing this piece has made me desperate for a dram.
Find out more and book a tour at Johnnie Walker’s website here.