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Johnnie Walker Princes Street: Here's what to expect from the new visitor experience

After four years of construction, Diageo’s Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience will open to the public. Rosalind Erskine went along to find out what to expect.

Published: September 2, 2021
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The word iconic is bandied about a lot these days, but I think it's pretty well deserved when talking about Edinburgh's former House of Fraser building.

If nothing else, the now restored Binns clock will have been a feature of the lives of many Edinburgh natives over the years.

It's the musical chiming of this clock that greeted us, one of the first lot of guests, to the brand new Johnnie Walker experience, which will open its doors to the public on 6 September.

The building has been completely transformed, thanks to a £185M investment by Johnnie Walker's owners Diageo.

This is the final stop on what they hope is a tourist trail of the 'four corners' of Johnnie Walker - Cardhu in Speyside, Caol Ila in Islay, Clynelish in the Highlands and Glenkinchie in East Lothian.

On arrival guests may recognise what was the perfume and makeup section of Frasers, which is now the reception of the Johnnie Walker experience, complete with coffee station.

The tour starts with a short iPad quiz on taste likes and dislikes to ascertain visitors’ flavour profile.

A wristband is then assigned and this is used to create drinks, cocktails and even food pairings. Mine and a few of my fellow tour companions were feeling tropical on this overcast September morning.

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The tour then weaves its way around the building, over eight floors, and all notions or memories of the former department store are left at the door. Expect bright spacious corridors, interactive screens, slatted wood panels and modern furniture with plenty of marble and brushed gold accents.

In the former bank vault visitors will find an interactive blending station, complete with casks of maturing whisky. Here you can blend your own drams to try, with an abundance of options meaning that no visit will be the same.

Upstairs, the story of John Walker is told by an excellent performer who, with the help of video screens, a conveyor belt, top hat, tails and walking stick, creatively showcases how Johnnie Walker grew from a Kilmarnock grocery store to a global brand.

Our tour guide, Les, who applied for the job as he was bored in his retirement, talked us through the four corners of Johnnie Walker, in an interactive space that is also used to explain the whisky making process.

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Interspersed in the tour are chances to sample the whiskies, firstly in a highball - made automatically at a serving station (think fancy water cooler which contains whisky and soda) that reduces the amount of glass bottles that the experience will go through.

Guests will also stop in at a bar to enjoy another two drinks - an old fashioned, highball or dram - each tailored to individual flavour profiles.

Finally there’s the pièce de résistance, the 1820 rooftop bar with its unparalleled views of the castle and outlook across Edinburgh.

The team is keen to stress that this space is for everyone, and you don’t need to be on a tour to pop up for a drink. It’s sure to be a popular spot during Hogmanay and the end of Festival fireworks.

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It’s refreshing to see an old building transformed in this way, and as tourists return to the capital, the Johnnie Walker experience will no doubt be on the must-see list.

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.

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