If I’m being completely honest, my immediate thoughts on being invited to an “immersive evening” to celebrate 200 years of Johnnie Walker whisky weren’t entirely positive. “Immersive” feels similar to “interactive theatre”. And “interactive theatre” reminds me of a night at a run-down Islington theatre, where Thomas was dragged on stage and asked to “tell a joke…come on any joke…?” – but that’s a different story.
When Done + Dusted, the team behind the Olympic Opening Ceremony, put on a production though, hell, they put on a production. And so, on Wednesday night I found myself hopping about with excitement in the alleyway outside Merchant Taylors’ Hall. As offices emptied, there was a bit of a buzz. Stupidly, I thought it was just curiosity around the amount of mid-week black tie on Cornhill. It wasn’t until I saw a photo of Jude Law the following day–with idiot me stood next to him looking in the wrong direction–that I realised what all the fuss was actually about.
The event took over the entire guild hall, with seven themed rooms designed to educate and titillate. First I grabbed a cocktail at the bar – an ‘East Meets North’ (Johnnie Walker, white port, lapsang souchong, jasmine tea and lemon juice). Then the first stop was The Whisky Weather Room. I slipped a rain mac over my dress, and went to “immerse” myself in the world’s first ever indoor whisky cloud: “an aromatic journey that pays tribute to the wild and unpredictable Scottish weather” – so the Johnnie Walker team explained.
The wood pannelled room had a big lightbox erected inside. Within it, a thick fog of whisky swirled about. “If you spend an hour in there, it has the same effect as drinking a bottle of whisky” we were told before stepping in for a minute, and being swallowed up by the cloud. The cold vapours hit my face – just like a dreich Scottish morning, and the sound of thunderclaps rumbled round the room. Because of the way that the strong aromas dissipated through the vapour, they hit you from every angle – whooshing up my nostrils, clinging to my clothes – the sensation was the closest I imagine I’ll ever get to jumping in a vat of whisky.
Next was ‘The Crystal Chamber': A drawing room set-up where guests were entertained by a musician, who rubbed and tickled Baccarat French crystal glasses to tease the most beautiful and haunting melodies from them. After that was ‘The Blending Parlour': a room themed like a gentleman’s club where guests were guided through tastings to help detect silky and smoky and fruity textures and flavour.
Downstairs, ‘The Gallery’ was themed round Johnnie Walker’s Striding Man logo. The emblem fist appeared as a cartoon in Punch magazine, before being picked up by the whisky brand. The Gallery showed its evolution throughout the ages, and also employed cartoonists to create new evolutions of the monacled, top-hatted man (or woman) striding out in other scenarios.
Then there was the ice room, ‘Into The Blue’, which contained 10,000 year old glacial ice – representative of how Johnnie Walker Blue Label is “best appreciated by preparing your palate with ice cold water.” The ice had been harvested from Greenland’s Sermeq Kujalleq’s glacier, so it all felt pretty flipping decedent. Even more so because guests were invited to don fur coats before winding through the ice cave. All a very surreal feeling, being inside an ice cave in a 500-year old, central London building, looking like an extra from The Chronicles of Narnia.
Back at the bar, doors opened out into the courtyard, which had been transformed into ‘The Whisky Woodland.’ Thick moss, ferns, bark underfoot and oak trees turned the old cloisters into an enchanted forest, with shafts of light penetrating the leafy canopy overhead. Guests were drawn toward blasts of fire flickering through the trees. An on-stage flame-thrower was demonstrating the age-old practice of charring a case.
“Cooperage is still a craft industry that’s alive and well in Scotland” the Johnnie Walker team explained. “Skills handed down from generation to generation have been supplemented by modern equipment, but that hasn’t dented the innate artisanship that creates water-tight casks without the virtue of glue or nails.”
The extravagant evening culminated in the most lavish banquet I’ve ever attended, designed by jellymongers, Bompas & Parr. At the sound of a gong, diners entered The Great Hall which was laid out in the style of a Victorian largesse: candelabras and edible food displays like pyramids of prawns decorating the long banquet tables. For ultimate drama, the food was piped in. It got more and more decadent, climaxing with an ice-tiger being paraded round the hall on a sedan chair.
After the guests had finished eating, the crockery and cloths were whipped off the tables, the lights were dimmed and suddenly we were immersed once again in a performance: Prohibition-era jazz dancers on the tables, confetti, trumpets, Scottish drummers marching down the aisle, a troupe of Striding Men and an exquisite table-top ballet performance.
All this built up to Bompas & Parr tearing down a curtain and unveiling The Flavour Conductor: a multi-sensory organ made by London company Mander Organs –398 pipes, 33 stops, 30 pedals and 10,000 man hours in construction. The bespoke commission was built with the help of Professor Charles Spence – an expert in sensory research. Inspired by the ‘flavour organs’ referenced in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the aim of the organ was to heighten the perception of taste through sound.
“An apple will taste fresher if it sounds crisp when you bite into it” explained composer, Simon Little. “Eating a meal by the ocean on holiday makes the experience more memorable.” And so he set about creating a score that would enhance the whisky-drinking experience. An assault on our senses. As we sipped at the whiskies in front of us, we were immersed in the sound from the booming pipes. Deep, booming chords which would, for example, supposedly enhance the peaty notes of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
The night ended with a screening of a Johnnie Walker short starring Jude Law (see below), and then a thanks by the man himself. As I wandered home it I wondered what I’d learned that evening.
Firstly, I have to confess that I think that this was the first time I’d drunk Johnnie Walker in England (only in India before, where Johnnie Walker–pronounced in wonderfully lilting tones–is something of a cult drink.) I learned that Johnnie Walker Blue Label is a really very special blend, and that having one glass of neat whisky alongside one glass of ice water is a really great way to drink it. I learned that Johnnie Walker glazed short ribs are eye-wateringly tasty, and that putting a saffron-soaked sugar cube coated in gold shimmer dust, and a shot of whisky in a glass of champagne makes a delicious and dramatic cocktail. I learned that if you’re stood near Jude Law in a queue, then make sure that you look in the right direction. Most of all though, I learned that Johnnie Walker know how to throw a damned good party.