Johnnie Walker Princes Street, the new flagship home and visitor attraction of the world’s best-selling whisky, opened September 6 in the heart of Edinburgh. The new high-design venue, built inside a former luxury department store, has eight levels and is staffed with 150 people. It’s expected to attract over half a million visitors in its first year, as the centerpiece of Diageo’s $250 million investment in scotch whisky tourism. Whisky Advocate gained a full-access tour ahead of opening day, and here is our report:
Journey of Flavor – 1.5 hours for £25 (around $35)
The main tour brings the story of Johnnie Walker to life, combining audio-visuals, 3D projection, and high definition LEDs, all with a soundtrack of movie theater-quality. Guests use a dedicated side entrance where a host will greet you, check you in for the tour, ascertain your flavor preferences with a quiz to personalize your experience, and hand you a wristband whose color comes into play later on. A performance artist then covers the 200 year history of John Walker & Sons—from its origins in a grocer’s shop in Kilmarnock to its rise to become the most popular whisky in the world. This introduction combines a Broadway-style performance with a Times Square light show as the storyteller boldly strides across parallel moving walkways—a reference to Johnnie Walker’s “Keep Walking” slogan.
Next, you’re ushered into the “Grocer’s Sensorium” to build the perfect Highball. This is a long room lined with jars of aromatic dried fruits, herbs, and spices. The custom Highball stations detect readable tech in the colored base of your glass that corresponds to your wristband, instructing it to dispense one of six different Johnnie Walker blends over ice before being topped with an exclusive soda. Look closely, and you’ll notice how the dispensers’ whisky chambers are angled identically to Johnnie Walker labels. Once you’ve garnished your drink according to your corresponding recipe, selecting rose petals, nutmeg, cassia bark, sun-dried tomato, candied pineapple, or an orange slice, you will have prepared an Instagram-ready cocktail to share with your friends and followers.
You then move on to learn about the flavors from the four corners of Scotland—Johnnie Walker’s concept of regionality focusing on its brand’s homes of Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish, and Glenkinchie distilleries. Visitors are introduced to a simplified six-segment flavor wheel, split into distillate and cask flavors, through an immersive 360o experience orchestrated by the tour guide, or “experience ambassador” who controls the mood lighting, vibrant 3D projections, and voiceovers from the Diageo master blenders.
An animated figure representing a distiller leaps around the wall illustrating how the decisions that are made in a distillery determine how different distillate flavors are created. (It comes teeteringly close to the Mr. DNA moment from “Jurassic Park,” but it succeeds.) Moving on, you’re bathed in a swirling kaleidoscope of rainbow colors as you’re taught how the fruity, spicy, and creamy flavors of the wheel are derived from maturation in oak, and how the blenders combine them to produce the different blends in the Johnnie Walker range. The tempo builds from a soothing soundtrack to a riotous finale, with spotlights picking out individual bottles tucked into a honeycomb of wall recesses, and all reaches a climax around a glittering carousel of colored light. You emerge into the “World of Flavor Tasting,” where you can let your heart rate settle at the bar while you end your tour by enjoying two drinks from a selection of Old Fashioneds, Highballs, and neat pours made from six expressions of the Johnnie Walker range.
Whisky Makers’ Cellar – 1.5 hours for £95 (around $130)
The 12-strong Johnnie Walker whisky maker team has played a significant role in developing the Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience, creating a seasonal blend and recording their insights on blending for the Journey of Flavor audio. But it’s not until you go down into the “Whisky Makers’ Cellar” that you can truly appreciate the team’s skills. This experience takes you underground into the cellar, which is styled after the old Johnnie Walker Bond in Strand Street, Kilmarnock. Here you learn how blenders think about flavor when assembling a blend. This space is also a bonded warehouse where 26 hogsheads of a Johnnie Walker Princes Street blend are maturing, to be bottled in a year’s time.
“This is for people who love whisky and want to come and try something different,” says Diageo master blender Emma Walker. “But it’s also for people who want to build their knowledge and want to try different whiskies that you can’t get elsewhere.” A dozen gold dispensers are located at the back of the cellar, programmed to create 11 different Johnnie Walker blends by delivering precise volumes from each piston. The blend each group tastes is determined by the flavor preferences established at check-in. Each of the master blenders created a unique Johnnie Walker blend from these 12 casks—of varying ages and cask types. On opening day, the 12 casks in the Whisky Makers’ Cellar came from Cameronbridge, Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish, Cragganmore, Glen Elgin, Mannochmore, Mortlach, Pittyvaich, Port Dundas, Royal Lochnagar, and Talisker Distilleries.
This cellar is also home to eight “dramming casks” selected by the master blenders, and guests are invited to sample four of them during the session. The casks include barrels from the four corners of Scotland distilleries (Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish, and Glenkinchie) as well as two contrasting casks from Cameronbridge grain distillery, and two experimental casks from Teaninich and Glen Elgin. Between the Johnnie Walker blends and the dramming casks, this tour offers an almost incalculable number of permutations, making each visit virtually unrepeatable.
Explorers’ Bothy Bar
Aside from the 150 whisky expressions behind the bar, the quality of the cocktails and the food by Chef Moriarty on offer are serious efforts. During the preview, Murray Drysdale, a 2021 World Class Bartender of the Year UK finalist, served up a North Atlantic Drift, a tropical hybrid of a Miami Vice with a Johnnie Walker Highball. Coconut-washed Ketel One vodka and Johnnie Walker Black Label tied together the coconut element with American oak maturation, while a homemade pineapple cordial brought out the fruity notes in the blend. Topped with a Rapscallion Scottish strawberry soda and garnished with a freeze-dried strawberry and salt rim, it delivered a smack on the lips like stepping out of the sea. During the day, Whisky Explorers can pre-book an hour-long whisky tasting sensory session for £35 (around $50), while the bar is open for general admission at night.
1820 Rooftop Bar
At the very top of the building is the 1820 Rooftop Bar, which offers unparalleled views over Edinburgh Castle and the spectacular city skyline. This is a relaxed and spacious location for dining or winding down with a dram or cocktail. Edinburgh is called the Athens of the North, and the outdoor terrace is a prime location to drink in the view.
The neon-lit ground-floor retail shop has everything for the Johnnie Walker fan, from branded apparel and accessories to the opportunity to bottle and label your own Johnnie Walker in the Custom Studio. The first seasonal exclusive is Autumn, a 16 year old blend (£80/$110) with notes of fresh red apples, warming spices, a gentle woodiness, and a lingering finish. The full Johnnie Walker range is available to purchase without taking the tour, but you will also find new releases here, such as this year’s Johnnie Blonde. This is also a dedicated whisky shop within the store that’s stocked to the rafters with Diageo single malts and blends grouped by flavor wheel categories, with prices for all budgets, running up to $21,000.
Private Client Experience
You would be forgiven for missing the discreet invitation in the shop to discuss your requirements for rare and exceptional whiskies with one of the Johnnie Walker Princes Street private client advisors. Hidden upstairs is a space for welcoming these high rollers—the low slung sofa bringing you eye level with a set of Brora Triptych and Talisker 43 year old Xpedition Oak, while the most well-heeled clients can be invited down to the Whisky Vault. This is the deepest level at Johnnie Walker Princes Street, a former bank vault that once held artwork and gold bullion but is now lined with 500 of Diageo’s oldest and most precious samples. Drawn from 37 different distilleries, here you’ll find everything from closed distillery malts and grains like Port Ellen and Port Dundas to experimental whiskies from Roseisle and Diageo’s Leven Pilot Distillery, which have never been seen in public as single malts. None of the squat 250 ml bottles in this secure liquid library are for sale—this is a purely experiential space where private clients will be indulged with never-to-be-repeated tastings to highlight the expertise and craftmanship behind these whiskies.
This is a jubilant celebration of scotch whisky, and we think you’ll love it. For the price of a couple of cocktails at one of Edinburgh’s upscale hotels, the Journey of Flavor tour offers great value for the money, three personalized drinks, and a lot of entertainment. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, groups are limited to a maximum of 16 people, but will be expanded to 24 once restrictions are lifted. There are two identical Journey of Flavor floors to cope with demand—meaning that nearly 100 guests an hour can enjoy tours, leaving every 15 minutes. Non-alcoholic serves are available, and children accompanied by an adult are welcome. The flow around the building is easy and features much historical material, and there are plenty of elevators and ramps to make it accessible for everyone. The concept of casks in a basement cellar draws a parallel with the Jameson Bow Street experience in Dublin, but the tasting experience in the Whisky Makers’ Cellar is highly original. The top floor bars will clearly be the place to be seen in Edinburgh and offer exemplary dining options to match the quality of the libations. The Guinness Gravity Bar in Dublin also offers great vantage points over the city, but the addition of outdoor seating and castle views gives this place the edge.
The Four Corners of Scotland theme is being mirrored by investment in the visitor centers at Cardhu, Caol Ila, and Clynelish, with the nearby tour of Lowlands distillery Glenkinchie already feeling like an extension of the Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience. Potentially, this lifts the bar so high that it may be the sole whisky encounter for some international visitors to Scotland looking to check whisky off their must-see lists.