A new wave of flagships sees the traditional watering hole joined by an array of experience-centred designs, but what will this mean for the way bar spaces are considered in the future?

Experience emporium

When the Johnnie Walker Whisky Experience opens its doors on Edinburghs Princes Street later this year, guests will encounter spaces dedicated to personalized bottle engravings, homeware merchandise, live events and dining before reaching the concept’s first bars, situated up on the rooftop. Whilst these final ports of call are far from an afterthought, the preceding journey through a multifaceted representation with scope significantly wider than a bottle and a glass is no doubt intentional. 

‘At Johnnie Walker Princes Street, we want our visitors to begin their immersive storytelling experience from the moment they walk through our doors,’ says Greg Klingman, global retail director of parent company Diageo, in a company statement. ‘Our whisky emporium will be the first and last point of their journey with us, which is why weve taken so much care and attention to the design of the space. This is whisky retail like youve never seen it before.’

Guests can grab a drink at Johnnie Walker Princes Street, but they can also learn about the culture and history of the brand.

Bringing together elements from the brands four Scottish distilleries – Glenkinchie, Cardhu, Caol Ila and Clynelish – as the centrepiece of Diageos £185 million investment in drinks experience centres across its portfolio, the eight-storey project has been envisioned by BRC Imagination Arts, the firm behind destinations for clients from Guinness to NASA, which was responsible for the experience spaces, and brand innovation studio Dalziel & Pow, which masterminded the retail design. Within, guests can grab a drink, but they can also learn about the culture and history of the brand, be immersed in its brewing methods via guided tours, sample the product in relation to cuisine, and catch a gig too – all contained in a carefully curated set of brand values. 

At one of the many bars serving the ever-popular Princes Street, Johnnie Walker would be required to vie for attention amidst a display of competitors, some with just as much history and legacy to offer inquisitive drinkers. Here, they will be the undeniable star of the show.  

Changing of the kegs 

The experience centre as a spatial model has found a comfortable home in the drinks sector, an industry increasingly competing with growing slates of choice and rapidly shifting consumer habits. Brewdog Hotels has emerged across North America and the UK – allowing the craft brewer to surround guests with the corporate-but-make-it-punk ethos it built an empire on, even after last calls – whilst Valentian Vermouths proposed centre for excellence will see an aperitivo bar joined by a retail store, tasting room and experimentation studio. As the bar space at large experiences a period of disruption, could the spread of this alternative be a catalyst for evolution?

According to the 2019 KPMG retail report, 78 per cent of consumers prefer to spend on experiences as opposed to products, whilst 69 per cent said live events facilitate greater connections with both brand and community. For companies selling physical products like bottles of booze, this has brought about a shift in approach: if your customer prefers an experience to a product, then the logical solution is to make the purchasing of your product an experience in itself. We have already seen this strategy instilled in the travel and hotel markets to bring about a reorientation towards branded adventures orbiting wellness, discovery and culture. These kinds of more than just a bar’ projects, then, are the drinks industrys way of getting in on the action. 

The Belle Epoque Society sees Perrier-Jouët open up its UNESCO World Heritage site for visitors to enjoy a glass of bubbles on the terrace and courtyard of the historic 18th-century family mansion.

Even at the highest reaches of the market, this model is being adopted, and the latest member of the club is so far its most glamorous. With the launch of Belle Epoque Society, champagne institution Perrier-Jouët has opened up its historic 18th-century family mansion, a UNESCO World Heritage site, for visitors to enjoy a glass of bubbles on the terrace and courtyard. Surrounded by the largest collection of French Art Nouveau pieces in Europe, an indoor-outdoor bar, a retail boutique and a restaurant by chef Sèbastien Morellon, it might look a far cry from the initiatives mentioned above but submits a comparable offer. 

Last call 

While it is unlikely that these centres will unseat the traditional bar any time soon, the success of the model as a means of branded experience will encourage more brewers into dedicated physical venues. This has been evident in the trend of pop-ups and activated spaces in which legacy spirit houses have become increasingly present. Courvoisiers House of Courvoisier collaboration with Pusha T brought a taste of the Cognac region to Chicago in 2020 via fashion exhibits, tasting sessions and live performances, whilst Heineken marked the simultaneous reopening of bars and barbers in April with the unlikely pairing of a pint and a haircut in pub gardens across London. As the rush back to hospitality gathers pace, and both venue and brand seek to differentiate themselves amidst the wealth of choice, these partnerships will only increase in volume and ambition.  

Heineken marked the simultaneous reopening of bars and barbers in April with the unlikely pairing of a pint and a haircut in pub gardens across London.

Beyond this, experience centres are equally indicative of hospitalitys shift towards a more homogenous future. As Brewdog has already demonstrated, there is space in the market for brewers and distillers with the resources to open their own chains – venues where their product and theirs alone is served, entirely cutting out that pesky middleman providing drinkers with a variety of back-bar choice. As such, the design of these spaces will be an exercise of engaging guests who increasingly demand a plethora of options and ever-personalized affairs with enough variation that they are less likely to notice the lack thereof. Its no coincidence many of the projects mentioned above contain a facility where bottles can be custom engraved. 

There is good reason pubs and bars have remained largely consistent in the physical sense since the 17th century, sticking to the requisite structural elements of counter, tables, chairs and tender, and only ever straying from this model in terms of aesthetics and programming. That is, they remain optimized for guest use. The emergence of the experience centre, then, could be argued to serve the brands better than they do the patrons, and a signal that the explosion of choice brought about by the proliferation of craft, home and independent brewing has forced the market to adapt in an attempt to preserve the status quo. 

As bars and pubs reopen following a period of immense hardship, they will be clamouring for attention with a legion of of competitors new and old, as well as reinvented concepts and headline grabbing gimmicks. Not all will be able to offer the miscellany of an eight-storey emporium, but the most successful designs will be those that take into consideration a balance of experience and choice, and so too remember what these spaces mean to the people who use them.