Shanghai’s stone-cold sober whisky tour
Spotting Shanghai as a prime city to regain its footing in Asia, the Johnnie Walker House in Sinan Mansions serves as the brand’s first -- and only -- location outside Scotland.
In addition to hosting private events, the institution runs private jaunts through its residence in the leafy former French Concession -- if only you can keep up.
“Keep Walking” are onerous words on a normal tour, but they reappear throughout the three-level liquor lodgings.
“It’s the company motto,” I’m informed by Anita Huang, Johnnie Walker House’s customer experience representative and my tour guide for the afternoon, as we bustle through the rooms.
The tour begins at the back door on the bottom floor (spoiler alert: the booze only flows on the third floor).
Amid low-lit spot lighting and the sound of running water, the room is adorned in the primary ingredients of whisky, with walls of malt, peat and a dribbling water wall.
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Next I’m led to the bottles -- a display room of the latest and most superior offerings from Johnnie Walker seated on rough-hewn logs and atop display cases, throughout the room.
All purchasable at very reasonable prices, I’m frequently reminded.
On mention of the price tag of a bottle of Johnnie Walker 1910 Commemorative Edition -- bottled in baccarat and crowned with 23-karat gold stopper, created to celebrate Johnnie Walker’s arrival in China -- I nearly black out.
Without the baccarat or gold, you still need an invitation just to purchase a bottle, and it’ll set you back RMB 13,888.
They also offer the exclusive King George V with only 6,000 bottles produced per year -- 2,000 are bestowed to Shanghai’s Johnnie Walker House, and there are less than 200 left for 2011.
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My eyes are peeled off a 21-year-old bottle of XR, “a lady’s drink” says Huang, to a miniature artist’s rendition of a whisky factory. Made of copper, the model shows the process from baked malt to where spirits are casked and aged for a minimum of three years before they can be considered whisky.
Jokes about cramped work conditions are poorly received.
My group escapes me, but I’m ushered into the small copper-lined elevator to catch up.
While the first floor is accessible to any pleb off the street, to get to the second or third floor you need an invitation, or hop on a tour.
I step out onto the wood-tile floor, multi-colored and tilted to 24-degrees reminiscent of the Johnnie Walker label.
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Ahead, a starred backlit wall displays a tasting map of Scotland divided into its whisky regions from Delicate to Smokey, and Light to Rich.
Find your favorite in the “Symphony of Whisky,” says Huang, referring to the map. She points to an unpronounceable, but expensive sounding name.
Next I’m marched through the Appreciation Lounge, a circular room of reclined leather seating, to the 1910 Room.
Both rooms trace the story of Johnnie Walker. Through poster art and photography of iconic moments in the history of Johnnie Walker, visitors learn that he started out originally producing tea in the years before 1860 -- when it was still illegal to make blended whisky in Scotland.
Advertisements show the early days of Johnnie Walker’s first imports into China via Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Next up is the Blending Table. A semi-circular room inset from the Appreciation Lounge and lined with innumerable bottles of single malt scotch -- this is the multi-sensory tease portion of the tour.
Rin, my nose guide, places five drams of whisky in front of me. I’m tasked with identifying (only) the scents of each glass, while the video displayed on the table illuminates us with the hints. Fruity? Smokey? Apples? A lakeside campfire?
On request, the current "Nose" of Johnnie Walker, the aptly named Jim Beveridge, will fly from Scotland to blend a signature mix for visitors right at the table. Buying 300 bottles of your personal elixir will drive you to drink and set you back RMB 2.5 million.
Finally, I’m invited up the elevator to where the magic happens -- booze you can drink -- in the third floor lounge which doubles as a private dinning room.
The same people behind Constellation Bar tend the Johnnie Walker House lounge, and the space is available for dinner parties up to a maximum of 20 people (RMB 2000 per head).
The only catch is you must first apply online and be accepted by the very good people at Moët Henessy Diageo who screen applications for both tours and dinners at www.johnniewalkerhouse.com (the site is only in Chinese).
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There’s been rumor of an exclusive room on the fourth floor, but my tour only makes it as far as the bar.
Editor's note: To join the tour, make your reservation at the Johnnie Walker House reception or call + 86 21 6426 0219. The tour is free of charge and is available in Chinese and English.
Johnnie Walker House
Building 25, Sinan Mansions, 519 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Sinan Lu
+86 21 6426 0219
By reservation only