Johnnie Walker: Journey of Flavour Experience (Edinburgh)

I’m half Scottish. My mum’s from Edinburgh. I spent most of my young adult years with a slight whisky obsession. It wasn’t until I left the UK for Asia that I actually discovered Johnnie Walker. “It’s not Scottish, is it?”. Johnnie Walker then became my new obsession connecting my love for both whiskey and travel. I would buy limited edition bottles at airports, I once spent money I didn’t have on Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label, and we’d always have a bottle of red, black, green, gold, platinum… in storage at our favourite Bangkok clubs. Ever heard of Johnnie Walker Swing? It was one of my favourites because I got to play with the bottle (check it out here).

The Largest Scotch Whisky Brand in the World. With over one-fifth of all Scotch whiskies sold worldwide, Johnnie Walker is by far the largest Scotch Whisky brand in the world with over double the runner-up Ballantine’s whisky. Chivas Regal, another Scotch introduced to me in Asia, “Chivas Regal isn’t Scottish, is it?”, comes in at number 5 (20 most popular Scotches here). Yet go into a local Tesco in Scotland and the UK and you’ll not really notice it. Meanwhile, Whyte and McKay and the Famous Grouse etc. don’t rank in the top 20. It wasn’t until around 2018 when Bells, the UK’s highest-selling blended whisky, properly arrived in Thailand (Thanks to Diageo).

Johnnie Walker Princes Street (Edinburgh)

Johnnie Walker Princes Street was created by the same brains as the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin and has a fairly similar setup in its signature tour with an introduction to the brand and history, some drinking in between, finishing with views over Edinburgh Castle from the rooftop bar. However, you do have to book the rooftop separate from the tours, and ideally in advance, to secure a table. We did not and were lucky to snag two stools at the bar last minute.

Surprisingly this experience was chosen by Fanfan who has refused to join me on a Bushmills Whisky Tour (Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast) and the Guinness Storehouse Tour (Dublin, Ireland) because she doesn’t drink either. But Johnnie Walker reminds her of her “childhood” or “university years” she tells me after clarification when the iconic “Walking Man” was central to nights out in Bangkok. While the tour is a mix of “drams and drama” she was more there for the drama, and of course the views of Edinburgh Castle from the 1820 Rooftop Bar. “I thought Johnnie Walker was English?”.

Johnnie Walker Journey of Flavour (90 Minutes)

There are a number of experiences available at Johnnie Walker Princes Street (5 in total found here) but most visitors will be interested in the entry-level tour with the “Johnnie Walker Journey of Flavour” experience. Also known as “The Signature Tour”. It’s a bit like an introduction to the brand itself with less focus on sitting around tables and discussing drams of fancier casks and blends. “Whether you’re a whisky fan or not”. It is also the most affordable experience/tour at £30 per person which includes three cocktails specially made to match your flavour profile.

I do suggest booking in advance as we missed out on the day we planned for when the weather was surprisingly sunny for British standards. Instead, we only got lucky with the last two spaces on the following evening with the 17:20PM slot on a typically drizzly Tuesday. After booking, and before arriving, we are asked to take the Johnnie Walker flavour quiz to discover your personal flavour profile. This is so they can “tailor the tour to your tastebuds” and it may be possible onsite. But it literally takes 2-minutes on your phone through a link on their website. “If You Like Pina Coladas…”


The Johnnie Walker Tour Begins

We were running late for our tour, literally running, and Fanfan with an umbrella, along what felt like the entire length of a busy Princes Street. It’s a fairly long street as well (1.2km) with the Johnnie Walker building at the far West End at the corner of Hope Street (map here). We arrive 2-minutes late through the shopfront (17:22) and watch as the elevator doors close on our tour group and we are left behind in the lobby. They do say to arrive 15-minutes ahead of time.

We did miss a bit of introduction but are quickly brought back in by an attendant in the lobby. “What’s your flavour profiles?” “I’m fresh, she’s fruity”. I get a green bracelet (fresh) and Fanfan gets a pink bracelet (fruity) and we’re just minutes behind the rest. In the elevator, I ask about taking photos and videos as I hoped to video the tour. Only photos are allowed on the tour to preserve the magic of the multimedia performances. But I did manage to sneak some footage of the tour in between (video below).

An Introduction to Johnnie Walker Whisky

The whole research side of things was already out the window before arriving having already been 5 or so drinks down before walking through the doors. So here’s a quick summary from the website.

“Enjoy a highly immersive, 90-minute sensory experience led by our Johnnie Walker experts. Throughout the tour you’ll be served three delicious whisky cocktails tailor-made to your flavour profile, and of course you can opt for a dram or a non-alcoholic mocktail if you’d prefer”.

I remember it started with an introduction to the Global Brand and its connection with “Bringing stories home”. Then there was a Disney-like performance chronicling the humble origins of Johnnie Walker as a grocery shop in Kilmarnock to becoming the Largest Scotch Whisky Brand in the World. Presented by a lone performer striding back and forth on a moving walkway in reference (I’m guessing) to the iconic “Walking Man”.

There is of course occasional interaction through the tour, whether you can get involved, or not, is up to you. Normally I would not. But given I generally go through life knowing the bare minimum about anything, when it comes to boozing I felt like it was my time to shine. “Does anyone know what the floors are made from?” For once I was going to be the swat of the class. “Is it oak? Oak from the casks?” I’m fairly sure everyone knew the answer anyway.

Cocktails at the Grocer’s Sensorium

Following the introduction, we are led to a rather large room with a rather long bar. In the centre of the table are tray boxes with 6 different ingredients, then, behind on the walls, are whisky and soda dispensers. It’s cocktails time! Or highball time, as they are known here. A term I recognise more from Japan as in chūhai (shochu-highballs), and a term I thought originated from the American railroads. I’m not certain its origins but it’s not something you’d often hear in a traditional pub or bar in Scotland.

Remember we filled in the online Johnnie Walker Flavour Quiz? To discover our personal flavour profile and to tailor the tour to our tastebuds. I was fresh while Fanfan was fruity. There were 6 potential outcomes here which then coincide with 6 of Johnnie Walker’s staple whiskys including Red, Black, Green, Double Black, Gold and 18 Years. These then match with 6 unique ingredients/garnishing found at the table including rose petals, orange slices, sun-dried tomato, nutmeg, bay leaf, and candied apple.

Take a highball glass matching the colour of your wristband, add 4 ice cubes, place the glass in the highball station, garnish, and drink. I had Johnnie Green with Rose Petals while Fanfan had Johnnie Black with an orange slice. “But I’d love to try a Smoky Double Black with Sun-Dried Tomato”. You don’t have to follow this precisely, it’s up to you, but you will have 2 more opportunities to experiment later on. The slogan as well of the tour as well is “the only rule for whisky is there are no rules” and to “Drink it the way you like it”. Or something similar.

The 3 Decision Points of Whisky Making

I remember one time in Shibuya Tokyo when I snuck off to the Kirin Ichiban Beer Garden while Fanfan was out shopping. I just wanted a beer for people watching but ended up sitting at a bar in a small enclosed multimedia room with eight Japanese folk, listening to a presentation about ‘worts’. I had no idea what was going on, but apparently, I had to join a mini-tour of Kirin Beer, presented in Japanese, before I could access the beer garden. Anyway, finally I get to find out what a wort is (the sweet infusion of ground malt or other grain before fermentation).

Again, I don’t really remember a whole lot about the “3 decision points” but I think it was the basis of the flavour profile and how differences in distillation etc. will influence it. For example, the use of peat during distillation brings out the smoky notes. Then there’s the aging and different barrels (casks) influencing flavours such as tannins from sherry casks (for wine buffs). Then there is the number of refining/distillation processes where Scotch is typically distilled twice, while Irish whisky would be triple distilled giving a superior smooth flavour and this gives the ‘e’ for excellence in Irish “Whiskeys” (they skipped this bit).

The World of Flavour Tasting (2 Drinks in 25-Minutes)

2 drinks. 25 minutes. Straight drams, old-fashioned and highballs. Again, for local folk, as in Scots, Irish and Brits, old fashioned is a cocktail of sugar, bitters, water, and whiskey. A bit like highballs (10 to 16 ounces) I guess only old fashions are smaller (6 to 8 ounces) and without the fizz. Like a small cocktail. A dram is then a straight or neat whisky served in a nosing glass. Unfortunately you cannot choose the whisky for mixing at this point and all highballs/old fashioned come with the standard Black Label.

So my hopes for a smoky Double Black with Sun-Dried Tomato are now long gone. But I still wanted to try out Johnnie Walker’s smokiest whiskey so ordered the double black. It was a decent dram, reminded me of Famous Grouse Smoky Black, as it didn’t have the peaty flavours I hoped for when it comes to smokiness. Johnnie Walker has a bit of a monopoly on whisky flavours, by far the most plots in the industry and all of Scotland. I guess peated drams don’t really work so well in an old-fashioned or highball. But they did have a “Black Lable Islay Origins” in the on-site store which I now kind of regret not picking up.

Fanfan then shocked me here by ordering a straight dram of the 18 Year Old given it was the last of the selection that we hadn’t tried before. At least we thought it was. Turns out it was actually a rebranding of Johnnie Walker Platinum and I guess it’s been a long time since boozy nights in Bangkok. There was also the limited edition Johnnie Walker Summer blend exclusive to Princes Street for the novelty value (they change quarterly I think). But we finished instead with highballs. Fanfan is fruity again and creamy for me.

10% Off at the Princes Street Store

The tour ends with the 25-minutes in the tasting room and the group is led to the ground floor where they have a 10% discount in-store. Again there is the opportunity to buy the Princes Street limited edition bottles, Spring and Summer, along with countless other bottles. I kind of collected these bottles before “Remember the Explorers Club Collection in Myanmar” but what if I find a bottle I love and can never have again? These days I stick to those more widely available.

The 1820 Rooftop Bar

A visit to the Johnnie Walker Princes would be slightly wasted without a visit to the 1820 Rooftop Bar. Coincidentally located on the roof. We actually thought the tour would end here, but a visit to the rooftop bar must be reserved separately and in advance (online reservation here). Only by a bit of luck was our guide able to get us seats at the bar. A social setting I’m really not fussed for but all the tables were likely long gone. It’s best to book in advance.

I remember when Bells whisky first launched on the shelves of the 7-11s in Thailand and I was early in to buy a bottle. At the same time, I have (had) a rule where I don’t start drinking before 15:00PM. But that doesn’t stop me from sniffing it. So, for a good hour or so, I would sit nosing this whisky while Fanfan’s friends looked on as of I’m a weird one. “I could nose a whisky all day long”.

Anyway, when it comes to sniffing drams, few beat a proper peat-smoked single malt, and having probably drank my body weight in Johnnie Walker through the years, I was going for something new. So there are two lists, one of Johnnie Walker products, as well as a wider list of whiskys from all across Scotland. They also have Guinness on tap, and there are glaring omissions from the list most notably the Beam Suntory labels, so I’m guessing they are all Diageo brands as expected. But there’s still a crazy amount to choose from.

The Diageo Whisky List

“Excuse me, barkeep! Pour me your peatiest of malts, we’re talking twangs of crispy bacon!” He arrives at the bar with 2 bottles, a Caol Isla and a Lagulvin 16. I’m new to the Lagulvin but have no idea how much it costs. So instead of asking, I quickly flick through the list provided to find the Islay section. There it is. £8. I can do that. “That Lagulvin sounds good. I’ll go with the Lagulvin. Half a cube of ice”. Fanfan does the same, only with fruity, and is served a Glen Elgin 12, £7.

I’m all for drinking whisky. I’m not so fussed for discussing it. The whole social side of a bar is completely lost on me. But I digress. “Hey, barkeep. What’s the most expensive bottle behind the bar?” “That would be a Port Ellen, the distillery actually reopened recently”. By weird coincidence I was familiar with the distillery. “Is it the one just left of the harbour. I remember seeing it when out doing the three distillery walk”. “I actually own land nearby. Just across from King Charles. He’s like my neighbour.” (Friends of Laphroaig).

I was talking to myself by now and already had exhausted my entire knowledge of whisky. “You know, every blend of whisky is unique? Like a fingerprint. No two are the same”. So after sharing a last dram, the Spring Princes Street Exclusive, and nibbling on Truffle and Parmesan fries (again 10% off with the tour) we escape to the outside balcony for photos with awesome views over Edinburgh Castle. Before rolling out onto Princes Street again, half cut.

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