The whisky industry is marketed with its history, but Macon St Hilaire finds its technicolour ‘archive tour’ is haunted by ghosts of the communities it left behind.
The Johnnie Walker Experience opened in Edinburgh in 2021, to a media fanfare and a flurry of Instagram influencers posting picturesque views from the rooftop bar. I knew immediately that it was not for me. But as a researcher in the history of whisky, curiosity got the better of me, and when the day came for my tour, I was determined to give it a chance.
The multi-level destination for international tourists and whisky fans is housed in the former House of Fraser’s department store after a nearly £200 million renovation that took four and a half years. Johnnie Walker, originally John Walker & Sons of Kilmarnock, has been a part of a multi-national enterprise since the 1920s. A hostile takeover by Guinness in the 1980s, and then the merger of Guinness and Grand Metropolitan in 1997 to create Diageo, led the Netherlands-based multi-national drinks business to own the iconic brand. I usually give Diageo brands a wide berth, which is difficult to navigate when they own a third of the distilleries in Scotland.
The challenge of protesting with my purse highlights the impact globalisation has had on one of Scotland’s most notable products and exports. Scotch whisky was exported as soon as it was industrialised and, with the development of national blended whisky brands like Johnnie Walker, it has played a significant part in generating tax revenues, employment in rural areas, and tourism. Yet in time, corporatisation and bottom lines have driven firms to consolidate production, making distribution streamlined and cost-efficient. In Kilmarnock, that spelt disaster. Living in Ayrshire, it is difficult to not know someone who was impacted by the 2012 closure of Johnnie Walker operations in Kilmarnock, with the loss of some 700 jobs. Deindustrialisation is not new to Ayrshire, and the ghosts of manufacturing jobs can be seen the length of Scotland, but when an industry reinforces its history in its marketing, it becomes even more haunted by the communities left in its wake. It was these impressions that informed my tour experience.
In hindsight, this was maybe not the best way to prepare for an unbiased tour, but before I set off for Edinburgh, I took myself on a self-guided scavenger hunt of Johnnie Walker history. While I could dedicate an entire review to this search for evidence of Johnnie Walker in Kilmarnock, I will limit it to my overall impression. It feels oppressively absent. When Diageo pulled out of the town, they made several promises to the community, donating the land the bottling plant was on to Ayrshire College, and donating £2 million to help encourage industry and innovation with the HALO Enterprise and innovation centre. Another parting gift was a pledge to preserve the grave of the brand’s namesake John Walker: The grave and an information plaque are impossible to read because both are fenced in, surrounded by a cemetery where every gravestone has been pushed over. The church is now private flats. If Diageo did the absolute letter of what they said they would do, they did nothing more.
I arrived a little early for my tour and entered the palatial gift shop. I am partial to a gift shop, so I was trying to keep an open mind. The merchandising is impeccable, but it felt a bit of a kick in the chest when the first thing I saw was a display of baseball hats, t-shirts, and water bottles with big bold letters “KEEP WALKING”. I could not help thinking about the irony of bottles of Scotch whisky walking out of Scotland, and Johnnie Walker walking out of Kilmarnock. I also felt like this targeted hip slogan was aggressively telling me to keep walking: this place is not for you. I kept walking, and found posters by a local artist of “Kilmarnock” depicting a colourful imagined farmland landscape with the added disclaimer for the visitor: “This is an artist impression and not what Kilmarnock actually looks like”. In the bank vault-like corner of the shop dedicated to storing varieties of whisky, I had an enjoyable discussion with a welcoming employee about the whiskies we have been enjoying and distilleries we have visited. We shared our love for whisky.
I selected the “Archive tour”, a visit to a bespoke archive room hosted by the company’s brand archivist. I was eager to see this as it is unlikely that I will ever see the company’s real archive. I heard a gentle history of the origins of the firm, and a few historic objects helped tell the story. It was intimate and, while not exactly a true archive tour, it seemed like a special experience for those who care about the brand. Now I was feeling good about things.
Maybe, I thought to myself, I was being too hard on Diageo. This experience did not prepare me for what was going to happen next. We were ushered into the next room for a performance of the history we had just heard. We sat on a single row of seats along a wall facing a multi-media screen with other moving screens, a two-row conveyor belt stage, and a narrating performer. This was the first Scottish person I had encountered working there so far – they had cultivated that distinct ‘for tourists’ accent, you know what I mean? I do not know how to prepare you for what happened next. It felt like I was facing a firing squad, sat trapped in this seat as a literal song and dance about the origins of Johnnie Walker flashed before me. It can best be described as a technicolour Brigadoon. The spinning globe moving across the stage has really stuck with me. Was there music? I am not sure, but the pretty lights wanted me to buy whisky. I think I am still a little bit in shock from it.
We were ushered to another room. This one was fragrant, with a long table with seats for far larger numbers than my tour group. The archive tour package comes with a highball. At the entrance to the tour, we were given a colourful wrist band based on the results of a flavour quiz. Now, we were asked to select the glass with the corresponding wristband and, through the magic of computer chips, we got a bespoke highball that we were invited to garnish at the table. Personally, I am a fan of highballs. Johnnie Walker was one of the few brands in the 1970s that catered for the public taste for cocktails, when single malt advertisers were telling consumers how to drink whisky properly (maybe ice, certainly no soda). As we drank, we were told that the room was a recreation of the original John Walker and Sons grocery, where Johnnie himself created bespoke whisky for his customers. That may be a bit of a simplification of how nineteenth century Scotch whisky was blended and sold, but we are on company time and do not have time for authenticity. We are selling whisky here.
If you are curious, the original grocer building in Kilmarnock has long since been bulldozed, as part of a redevelopment in the 1970s. The links to Kilmarnock were reinforced throughout the experience, but frankly, for the visitor unfamiliar with the geography, you could have substituted any appropriately Scottish-sounding placename and they would not know better. Whatever its origins, the whole package is very successful in creating a memorable destination for international visitors who are willing to exchange their money for whisky. It is certainly a destination I am not likely ever to forget.
Macon St. Hilaire is a post-graduate researcher in Economic and Social History writing on the history of Scotch whisky advertisements and globalisation.