Ewan Andrew: the venue works on various levels (pic: Terry Murden)
Diageo’s Johnnie Walker Princes Street attraction has given Scotland’s tourism industry a new showpiece, says TERRY MURDEN
There is little doubt that the latest addition to Scotland’s tourism offering has just given the whole sector a huge lift at probably the right time. With the toned-down Edinburgh Festival just ended and lacking its usual fireworks send-off, early visitors to the city’s new Johnnie Walker Princes Street venue are already contemplating a fabulous view of the traditional finale at future events from the rooftop bar on this corner of the West End.
Diageo has spared no expense in developing what the man who has overseen the project described as a “magical” experience. The £85 million venture has transformed a tired department store into a destination space that has given the country, as well as the city, something positive to talk about.
For the city it is just what the west end of Princes Street needed after June’s opening of the £1bn St James Quarter dragged a lot of shops and footfall to the east end. It is important too for Diageo to showcase Scotland’s biggest brand which has been largely made for export, thus it has been better known, or respected, in Brazil than in Bathgate. Diageo makes no secret of the fact that it sees the new venue as part of its intention to make it the most popular brand in Scotland.
The new venue is – appropriately – a blend of the best of visitor experiences from around the world, which has been a labour of love for Ewan Andrew, a company veteran who hails from Ayrshire and grew up in the Borders.
The cinema-style story of Johnnie Walker is a highlight of the tour (pic: Terry Murden)
He is responsible for Diageo’s entire £185m Scotch whisky tourism initiative, though the Princes Street project has been the obvious centrepiece of the strategy. Now it is finished he talks about it with the enthusiasm of a kid opening a gift at Christmas. He says it works on various levels as a tourism venue, a place for locals to enjoy a night out, a working lab for the blenders, a meeting place for anyone, and “somewhere really special to bring our clients to showcase what we offer.”
He credits much of the work at Princes Street to Christian Lachel of the US creative firm BRC Imagination Arts. It was behind attractions such as the Guinness Storehouse and Jameson Distillery Bow St in Dublin, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio and the Museum of Liverpool.
Lachel moved to Scotland and spent two years developing the impressive computer graphics, not least for the Johnnie Walker story, a cinematic display presented by an actress who brings the tour to life.
The technology extends to other rooms where we hear about the making of whisky, though in this case the presenter’s over-long Powerpoint-style delivery struggled at times to be heard over the soundtrack. A shorter recorded presentation offering a little more drama would have been better.
The rooftop lounge has spectacular views and extends to an outdoor terrace
There are a number of opportunities to stop and mix your own drinks, while visitors just looking to pop in to buy a bottle will be faced with a ground floor retail space that would do a supermarket proud. Some may be reminded that this was formerly a branch of Caffe Nero in Frasers department store, and before that Maule’s and then Binns. There is nothing left of the old building’s interior which has been gutted and rebuilt. The clock on the corner has been fully refurbished.
A cellar from the old Kilmarnock warehouse has been recreated where the afficionados can blend their own dram, and the two rooftop bars offer spectacular views across the city. A terrace filled with sofas – which replaces the department stores ventilation equipment – offers a touch of US-style outdoor relaxation and will be popular on clear, warm evenings.
Does it set a new standard as Diageo chief executive Ivan Menezes claims? Probably. Aside from a few niggles over the presentations, the building and the displays are impressive and provide a positive and long-overdue statement about Scotland’s biggest brand. A ticket for the various tours will cost between £25 and £95 so you can’t afford to be disappointed.