When John Walker established a humble grocer’s shop in 1820s’ Kilmarnock, he couldn’t ever have imagined his legacy would be an eight-storey, multisensory whisky Disneyland.
Yet the new Johnnie Walker Princes Street attraction in the centre of Edinburgh is just that – a dazzling homage to what has become the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky, its story told through an immersive blend of light, sound, food, drink and artistic performance.
The development has been a long time coming. In 2018, Johnnie Walker owner Diageo unveiled a £185 million investment plan to upgrade the visitor experiences at several of its distilleries. Each would be linked together by a central Edinburgh attraction so grand in scale and ambition that it would form the jewel in the group’s Scotch whisky crown.
Designed by BRC Imagination Arts, the same agency behind the NASA Kennedy Space Centre and Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, the attraction features state-of-the-art facilities led by some of the most talented bartenders, chefs, tour guides, whisky experts and ambassadors.
Some may argue the colourful development flies in the face of Scotch’s traditional armchair and fireside image, but the attraction deftly retains a reverence for the spirit’s luxury heritage while embracing a modern new approach to Scotch enjoyment. While it may not rival the nearby Scotch Whisky Experience (or Disneyland) for rides, there’s plenty of fun and experiential surprises for whisky lovers of all knowledge levels.
For value you can’t beat the immersive Journey of Flavour tour (£25, 90 minutes), the site’s main offering. Here the brand’s story is told through a lively and at times emotional theatrical performance before guests are invited into a modern interpretation of John Walker’s grocer’s shop for the first of three drinks.
It’s DIY highballs all round, each tailored to visitors’ individual flavour preferences (you take a short quiz at the start of the tour to determine yours). Then begins an animated journey into how flavour is created through the whisky production process. Despite being aimed at beginners, the explanation can be a little too detailed and potentially overwhelming, but there is a chance to ask questions of your guide at the end of the tour over a dram. There’s also an opportunity to tag on a coach tour to nearby Glenkinchie distillery (£48, 150 minutes).
Head down into the Whisky Makers’ Cellar (£95, 90 minutes) where select private casks are hidden away to mature for future Princes Street expressions. Here, connoisseurs can taste through four whiskies straight from the cask, as well as an exclusive blend created by one of the brand’s team of master blenders. As the casks and blends evolve over time this is a unique space whisky lovers will want to return to time and again.
Diageo claims a person can return to Princes Street every day for two years and not have the same experience twice. Certainly, guests will never tire of the remarkable unmatched views of the city from the swanky 1820 rooftop bar and terrace. Open for walk-ins for food, drams and cocktails, this is sure to be a popular addition to Edinburgh’s bar scene. There is also a second bar on-site – the Explorers’ Bothy has more than 150 rare whiskies on offer, and serves locally sourced, traditional Scottish food with a modern twist.
Although you won’t find the same romantic charm as at one of Scotland’s historic distilleries, Johnnie Walker Princes Street is indicative of whisky’s future. Disruptive, modern and immersive, it appeals to the next generation of drinkers – a generation seeking new experiences and flavours – drawing them into a world of whisky, perhaps for the first time.
Along with the Scotch Whisky Experience, Holyrood distillery (which is itself going through a transformation) and the under-construction Port of Leith distillery, Johnnie Walker Princes Street has the potential to transform Edinburgh into Scotch whisky’s new tourism capital.