Johnnie Walker strides into town
- Donald Reid
- 6 September 2021
Diageo's flagship new whisky-themed visitor attraction opens in Edinburgh
To compete as a top-five Edinburgh visitor attraction it's normally a good idea to be venerably old (see Arthur's Seat, Castle, Holyrood Palace) or a national institution (see the National Museum, National Gallery, Scottish Parliament). The eight-floor Johnnie Walker visitor experience which has opened in a prominent location at the West End of Princes Street in the Scottish capital is neither, but global drinks giant Diageo have spent £185 million with the ambition it can storm the charts.
From certain angles it's an odd combination. The current image of Princes Street is jaded as high-street retail withers, waiting for the hospitality takeover of the street which must surely follow, possibly with this landmark a forerunner. Secondly, Johnnie Walker is no Edinburgh icon (he's from Kilmarnock!) so the bigging-up is predicated on its global status as the world's biggest-selling blended Scotch whisky brand rather than the carefully crafted authenticity which normally accompanies whisky tourism in its home country.
Around the world, Johnnie Walker's famous striding man is an emblem not of tartan and misty glens but cosmopolitan sophistication, which is why the venue is aimed at a broad, and relatively young, international audience. While Diageo are careful to be nothing but respectful to their Cragganmores, Cardhus and Glenkinchies, this is no contrived replica whisky distillery. Tweeds, twitching noses and neat whisky are artfully kept out of sight and mostly out of mind. The more easily accessed emphasis here is that whisky is about flavours that everyone can enjoy, with good times just a few ice-cubes and a top-up of soda away.
Eight floors of a large former department store seems a lot to fill, but Diageo have gathered substance within it. Without booking a slot on the visitor attraction you can wander into the ground floor shop to have your head turned by the natty branded clothing or the personalised bottling station, all the while ignoring its striking similarity to an airport duty-free mall. Of much more appeal, two rooftop bars are also open to the public (booked slots allowing), which as your Instagram feed will readily confirm, is an enviable spot for top-notch glamour, airy Castle views and Edinburgh escapism.
The principal visitor experience is a 90-minute whirl around at least two of the floors safe in the knowledge that the old whisky 'rules' are out the window and that for most of that time you'll have a surprisingly drinkable whisky highball in your hand. From the start, your flavour preferences are probed in an unintimidating way using swipes of a tablet questionnaire (How spicy do you like your curry? Do you like a piña colada?), which then translate to different ingredients for the 'personalised' drinks you'll mix or be served at different stations along the way. Interspersed with these drink stops, your tour group (a sociable eight max in each group) is ushered through a series of rooms offering slick, multi-media presentations using actors, tightly scripted tour guides and lots of immersive sound and light. It's entertaining, light-touch and cleverly designed. The whisky making process, for example, is explained by cartoon figures dancing around models arrayed around the walls of one room, while the art of blending is described by means of impressionistic daubs of colour swirling across a tableau in mesmerising fashion.
The experience costs £25, which given that three drinks are included, and given the involvement of said drinks means you're unlikely to be packing lots more into that particular part of the day, is better value than it might first look, should you be concerned about shelling out for relentless marketing hype. There are upgrades to include a deeper dive into more specialised worlds of casks and the arts of blending whisky, or to attend cocktail school, or even delve into the Johnnie Walker archive, all of which are given respect and space within the eight floors along with an events space which can hold 200. This will surely host more than a few famous occasions in its time – particularly when the evening will, in all probability, end up in the rooftop bar. And on an Instagram feed near you hashtagged Edinburgh.