Bar? Exhibition? Show? Johnnie Walker Princes Street is all of the above and more

The new Johnnie Walker experience in Edinburgh is a sensory sensation for Scotch lovers

Scotland and whisky go hand in hand, no matter the day of the week nor the occasion. Those who still equate whisky solely with bearded old men sitting in a high-backed leather chairs, nursing a tumbler of the golden elixir with a cigar, are stuck in the past. And nothing quite exemplifies the universal appeal of the spirit than the newly opened Johnnie Walker building on Princes Street, Edinburgh.

Following a four-year remodelling project, drinks brand Diageo has created an eight-floor celebration of all things Scotch, housed in the former Binns building in the centre of the Scottish capital. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes, the spectacular establishment now includes state of the art facilities including a retail outlet, whisky cellar and two rooftop bars.

Not only is the building impressive from the outside, but this historic exterior opens up into an array of modern tech designed by BRC Imagination Arts – the same agency behind the NASA Kennedy Space Centre – and was funded with £185 million pound investment by Diageo, to promote whisky tourism in Scotland.

Visitors are welcomed into a spacious shop floor where they can browse a huge range of rare and exclusive whiskies, fill their own bottles or choose to have something personalised. Furthermore, the staff really know their stuff and are happy to offer advice, and you can even try a dram before you buy. But for my money the main attractions are the interactive tours, which take place throughout the rest of the building. 

The creative team at Johnnie Walker have condensed the brand’s colourful history (which spans just over 200 years) into 90 minutes of interactive fun. Every detail has been considered for visitor’s enjoyment – from the guaranteed small groups which start with interactive iPad quiz on arrival (to determine which blend will tickle your tastebuds on your journey and come with corresponding wrist band), to plentiful rest rooms, wheelchair accessibility and the momentum of the tour.

The story begins when guests are invited into a darkened room containing a long stage  surrounded by digital screens. Once we are seated, an obscured storyteller emerges to explain the history of the Walker family via original family photographs on the large screens behind her. With impeccable choreography and mood music, she sashays through the accompanying animation, inspired by the brand’s heritage slogan “keep on walking” to relay the history from the opening of the first store in 1820 through to the modern-day combination of flavours and why it has such a global appeal. This mesmerising physical theatre was definitely a highlight and a great indication of what was to come. 

This introduction sets the scene and what follows is a carefully curated, experiential journey, which allows visitors to really understand the subtleties of the brand. With surround sound, touch technology, video graphics and mood lighting you may feel like you’re on the set of a music video as you are transported to the next experiential room, which in this case could be described as a space age lab. Visitors take their place at custom Highball stations which cleverly match your whisky blend to your arrival wristband via a chip in the complementary glass. My tastebuds dictated ‘tropical’, so I added some dried pineapple to complete my highball; a combination I had never tried before, but will most certainly try again.

The next sense sensation was a beginners guide to the JW Six-Segment Flavor Wheel. This 360-degree experience consisted of a charismatic cartoon narrator, who leapt around Scotland via the wall installation, and explained which flavors were particular to each blend. Following this, an experience ambassador takes you to a room in which the walls are bathed in a kaleidoscope of colours to represent the fruity, spicy, and creamy flavors that make up the Johnnie Walker range. The music and graphics are outstanding and like a fireworks display, it builds from a crescendo to spectacular finale resulting in an explosion of coloured lights, bringing the bottles right up to date.

You emerge into the Tasting Room, which is a modern take on the family’s original grocery store, and by this point you are probably ready for another cocktail (or two) which are included in your entrance fee. Cocktail staff are on hand to serve a selection of Old Fashioneds, Highballs and neat pours with a choice of six blends, while the mood lighting allows you to take incredible photos lit from below.  

If your legs were feeling wobbly after the cocktails, you can have a sit down at the final stop, which is the large and very impressive 1820 rooftop bar and terrace. With DJs, and unrivalled views of Edinburgh's skyline, it is open for walk-ins and food, and will no doubt become a landmark for celebrating special occasions. Johnnie Walker has also ensured that it provides a green space in the centre of the city, and it’s terrace planters provide herbs for garnishes and infusions whilst a sedum roof covering and bird boxes encourage biodiversity. 

For a more intimate experience, The Explorers’ Bothy is on the floor below; still offering outstanding views, this cosy nook offers refined dining and has more than 150 rare whiskies on offer- which is perfect for business meetings or romance. Whether you’re a traditional whisky fan, or are looking for a new cocktail adventure, Johnnie Walker Princes Street dispels any myths, and invites you to celebrate the golden liquor in any way you like.

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