It’s been just over a year since Johnnie Walker Princes Street opened, a bells and whistles visitor attraction that was the culmination of Diageo’s £185M investment in the brand and its four corners - Glenkinchie, Clynelish, Cardhu, and Caol Ila which have all been revamped.
Whisky fan or not, it’s hard to not be wowed by the complete transformation of the former House of Fraser building, which now houses a bright and shiny shop, events space and two bars - including the 1820 rooftop bar that has beautiful views of the castle and is named for the year that the company was founded.
The tours take visitors on an immersive journey through the 200-year old history behind the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky, as well as offering a range of food and drink in the Bothy bar and 1820 Bar.
It was on a crisp sunny winter’s day that we headed along to see how, a year on, the food fairs in the 1820 Bar.
My colleague Gaby described this bar and restaurant as ‘a bit like an Eighties vision of the future, with neon strip-lights, as well as low slung seating and Deee-Lite’s Groove is in the Heart playing in the background,’ and not much has changed, though the soundtrack has moved on to the nineties.
The menu, however, is now grouped into nibbles, small plates, larger plates, platters and desserts rather than focusing on the four corners of Johnnie Walker.
The drinks menu features a wide range of cocktails, including a full page dedicated to highballs, as well as wines, beers and spirits.
To whet the appetite we tried a delicately flavoured (and coloured) blueberry and green peppercorn highball, which was fragrant and sweet as a non alcoholic version (£9).
The addition of Johnnie Walker Black Label for the alcoholic version, adds depth and a wisp of smoke (£11).
For something more traditional, you’ll not go wrong with the signature Princes Street Highball, which has Johnnie Walker Black Label, Verjus and Fino Sherry (£10.50).
For starters we tried the veggie salt baked celeriac (£9). I’ve often had this sweet, nutty root veg roasted but it’s been a bit soggy.
Not so here, where thin slivers were wrapped, much like thin pieces of ham may be, and presented alongside thin slices of crisp green apple, radish and hazelnuts, all drizzled with a tart and salty miso dressing.
The combination of flavours, with their varying sweetness, and textures made this a refreshing salad ideal for the season.
For the main course, I chose the pan fried pollock (£22.50), as it’s not something you often see on menus.
The chunk of fish sat afloat in a sea of seaweed beurre blanc sauce, which was dotted with leeks. On top of the fish were some spikes of bright green samphire.
Both this, the leeks and addition of seaweed meant that the classic sauce wasn’t too rich, as well as complementing the meaty fish, which was cooked to white yet almost translucent softness.
Finally, there was just enough space for dessert, which had to be the whisky baba (£9).
The baba - a muffin-type sponge cake - was soaked in what looked a bit like new make spirit. There wasn’t a huge amount, but it packed a punch of fruity flavour - and alcohol.
A small scoop of clotted cream on the side gave some cool comfort.
After all that food, if you’re looking for a digestif and the chance to kick back and enjoy a darkening Princes Street, I’d recommend the maple and nutmeg - a seasonal take on an old fashioned.
On opening this flagship destination, Barbara Smith, Managing Director of Diageo’s Scotland Brand Homes, said: “We have built an incredibly talented and diverse team who will bring the Johnnie Walker story to life, creating a world-class experience for our guests.
"Johnnie Walker Princes Street will offer something unlike any other visitor experience in Scotland. It will be a venue for everyone, whether that’s visitors to Scotland or local people in Edinburgh, Scotch whisky lovers or those savouring Scotch whisky for the first time.”
Although billed as a whisky experience, the bars certainly offer residents and visitors to the capital a stylish spot to meet for a drink or some food, away from the tours.
From the service to the finishing touches (I wasn’t the only one commenting on the lovely glasses, cutlery and cuts of ice in the cocktails), it’s clear to see that while whisky is at the heart of this venue, it doesn’t overshadow the food.