Personalization, accessibility and sustainable practices power the 70,000-square-foot visitor experience
It’s fitting that the crown jewel of the single biggest investment in Scotch whisky tourism is located on Princes Street. Indeed, Johnnie Walker’s new permanent brand home in Edinburgh, Scotland is a majestic, eight-story wonder built in the center of the capital that projects a regal quality, beckoning visitors (its position adjacent to the 700-year-old Edinburgh Castle doesn’t hurt, either). But Johnnie Walker Princes Street is anything but pretentious. At the heart of the property is an inclusive, accessible brand experience that actively rejects the perception of Scotch whisky as a high-brow liquor reserved for only the most sophisticated of palates. In other words, leave the leather armchairs and smoking jackets at home—this isn’t your grandfather’s whisky tour.
The 71,500-square-foot flagship is the centerpiece of a £185 million investment—equivalent to more than $200 million—set to transform parent brand Diageo’s visitor experiences at various whisky brand homes across Scotland, including four smaller Johnnie Walker distilleries. The project, which kicked off four years ago, required the manpower of approximately 200-250 people on Princes Street alone, who worked tirelessly amid supply chain delays to complete construction in time for the building’s September launch (BRC Imagination Arts, Burbank, CA, handled). Meeting that deadline is even more impressive when you consider the team also had to work around historical restrictions, as the building is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Fun fact: The building is also a beloved landmark. Couples used to meet up for first dates underneath its historic clock before smartphones entered the scene.)
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The was designed to grow the Scotch whisky category with a new generation of imbibers in mind, and the concept of progression is incorporated throughout the experience. Aiming to connect with younger demos as well as consumers who believe the liquor to be unapproachable, the brand built a high-touch, personalized visitor journey that is as much about celebrating Johnnie Walker’s 200-year history as it is looking ahead to the next 200. And accessibility is the thread that helps weave it all together.
“A lot of consumers believe that whisky is just not a drink for them and that there are certain myths around whisky that mean that it would be inaccessible to the average consumer, that you have to look a certain way or dress a certain way or drink the liquid in a certain environment,” says Alan McGarrie, head of marketing at Johnnie Walker Princes Street, Brand Homes Scotland. “So experiencing whisky in whatever way you like is really the ambition here— that there’s no right or wrong way to drink whisky. And by communicating that message and giving people the option to have a personalized tour experience makes it as accessible as possible.”
TOURS AND TOUCHPOINTS
Princes Street offers a vast range of ways to experience the Johnnie Walker brand, and it has 160 employees (who speak 23 different languages) to make it happen. Among attractions: a 3,400-square foot world-class retail and customization space where visitors can bottle their own Scotch; two rooftop bar and restaurants with stunning vistas of the city skyline; a versatile event space to be used for activations, meetings and more; a curated Makers’ Cellar tasting experience for the whisky diehards; and an eight-story sculpture adorned with media screens that runs through each level of the building.
But the pièce de resistance is a 90-minute multisensory tour called the Journey of Flavor led by an expert guide, and tailored to each attendee. The journey begins with a warm, one-of-a-kind Scottish welcome from the tour guide. Then, since everyone’s palate is different, attendees experience Diageo’s Flavor Print technology, which quizzes them on their likes and dislikes—a level of mass customization never before seen in a permanent brand home. To help participants better understand their tastes, the brand makes stereotypical whisky language more consumer-friendly, swapping off-putting analogies like “smells like smoked tires” for descriptions about the liquor’s creaminess or notes of tropical fruit.
Following the quiz, attendees are categorized into one of six whisky flavor profiles and given a color-coded RFID wristband to match, which informs the rest of their journey. The whole setup paves the way for repeat visits, because by choosing a different profile each time, participants can have an entirely different experience—in fact, there are upwards of 800 flavor combinations available in the brand’s custom dispense systems. After discovering their flavor profiles, attendees are then offered a whisky and soda highball cocktail customized to their preference, which helps debunk the belief that whisky should only be served straight-up in a dram.
The remainder of the tour offers a brand narrative fueled by live actors and a combination of sensory elements and leading-edge technologies—not used for the sake of it, but in the service of storytelling. Like an interactive projection-mapped welcome map illustrating Johnnie Walker’s standing as one of the first-ever truly global brands (its products were available in about 180 countries back when Coke was only available in five). The tour guide asks participants where they hail from, and the map transforms to show what Johnnie Walker advertising looked like when it was first introduced in that location.
Then there’s the “Come Walk With Us” experience that shows where the brand has been and where it’s headed. A live performer, two travelators, moving screens and sets, and intricate lighting effects transform the room to make attendees feel as if they’re physically moving through key moments in John Walker’s life. There’s also a room lined with 150 Johnnie Walker bottles illuminated by myriad LED “pucks”; a dedicated projection room with an animated character that pops out of the wall to offer some personalized whisky education; and even a space that’s filled with sensory bubbles. Underneath the array of technology that live-wires the property are thousands upon thousands of lines of code that make the entire experience feel seamlessly automated.
“It’s about immersing yourself into a storytelling experience where you might want to spend two, three, four, maybe even more hours within the building,” says McGarrie. “We believe that the longer someone is willing to spend time with the brand [at the flagship], the more immersed they’re going to be with the brand in the future.”
Princes Street boasts a gold standing from Green Tourism, Scotland’s national accrediting body for sustainable tourism—a rare feat for a permanent whisky experience. A number of practices earned Johnnie Walker the gold status, from foraging for and using homemade ingredients for its syrups, to using a bespoke, close-looped keg system that dispenses cocktails straight from the cask and removes the need for tens of thousands of glass bottles annually, to rooftop flower boxes that attract local bees, to “pulp bottles” made from sustainably sourced wood pulp. What’s more, Princes Street has a zero-to-landfill policy and prohibits the use of any plastics.
In addition, the on-site Learning for Life Academy provides a space dedicated to Johnnie Walker bartender and hospitality training programs, which, in partnership with The Prince’s Foundation, deliver training and employment opportunities to support the sustainable recovery of hospitality and tourism across Scotland.
“We’re constantly innovating to try and improve on our sustainability credentials,” says McGarrie. “So it’s definitely something that we keep within our focus. Diageo as a whole has a 2030 sustainability target, and one of those targets is to plant one million trees in Scotland by 2025, and we are heavily involved in supporting that as well.”
As McGarrie puts it, visiting Princes Street is “an accessible experience in every sense of the word—and that’s something to be celebrated.” In addition to making whisky more approachable to a wider audience, Johnnie Walker went to great lengths to ensure those who are physically disabled can easily enter and enjoy the property and its offerings. The brand worked with Euan’s Guide, a nonprofit that functions like Yelp by publishing disabled access reviews written by the physically impaired, throughout the construction of the building to ensure everything was set to the highest standard. On-site amenities include everything from elevator access, to low-height tables, to a Changing Places restroom facility on the ground floor that is a first its kind for Edinburgh.
Looking ahead, McGarrie says he hopes that Princes Street will become not only a must-see tourist destination that graces bucket lists across the globe, but also a cultural hub for locals who stop by several times a year.
“It really is a true pilgrimage to come to Scotland to spend time there because certain items are exclusive to Princes Street—bottlings, for example, or maybe the last drop of a particular liquid that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says McGarrie. “When you come to Scotland, you’re coming to the home of whisky. You’re coming to the home of Johnnie Walker. And it’s not just located within that central part of Edinburgh City; it’s about exploring the entire country, the different landscapes, the different flavors and really immersing yourself fully into whisky culture while you’re in Scotland. So that’s what we want to celebrate.”