Emma Walker On Becoming The First Female Master Blender In Johnnie Walker’s 200-Year History

Food & Drink

Emma Walker was recently promoted to become the first female master blender in Johnnie Walker’s 200 year history.

Walker sat down to discuss good whisky, chemistry and how she has one of the best jobs in the world. (Answers have been edited to fit space.)

Q: How did you get into whisky blending?

A: “Early on at school, I realized I was good at chemistry and enjoyed studying it. Thankfully, this made deciding what I wanted to do at university an easy choice. When I got there someone handed me a Talker, and that began my love for whisky and my passion for flavor.

“After doing my Ph.D., I accepted a job as a process chemist like many of my friends, but holding a passion for flavors and the science behind them, I knew I wanted to do something that could involve flavor with my background in chemistry. In 2008, I applied for a job at Diageo’s Technical Centre in Menstrie, Scotland, and I haven’t looked back since!”

Q: Working with such an iconic brand, how do you balance between preserving traction and innovation?

A: “We’re all very aware of being part of an ongoing, incredible flavor journey here at Johnnie Walker. Every whisky maker in our team appreciates the role we play in a brand that has a 200 year history. Our founder John Walker sought the finest whiskies from the four corners of Scotland to craft something really special for his customers, and we continue this today by drawing form the largest selection of maturing Scotch stocks in the world. Innovation is part of what we do, what ev have always done, it’s in our DNA. Since the time of our founder, we’ve never wanted to stand still. We’ve always explored new possibilities in whisky, with one ey on the future.”

Q: What is the most important task for you as master blender? And how does one become a master blender? What skills does one need?

A: “I’m based at the Johnnie Walker Blending Rooms in Scotland, as part of a small team of 12 expert whiskey makers. That doesn’t change, and while I will be leading the. Team, it will be very much a team effort as it has been with Jim. One of the things I enjoy is that no two days are the same, and every day involves working with a range of amazing people. At any one time, we’re conducting hundreds of experiments and exploring a wide range of innovative flavors and influences, distillation conditions, grain used, cars finishes and different types of oak wood – all in the pursuit of exceptional flavor.

“I was lucky to have time to develop my understanding of whisky and flavor over my initial years with the whisky team, learning from Jim, Maureen and others as well as with the wider technical team. I then got the opportunity to develop my learning and understanding of whisky in production: fermentation, distillation, maturation, blending and quality analysis, which has enabled me to develop a well-rounded understanding of flavor and its journey through the whisky making process. I love my role as it gives me the opportunity to marry my background in science with my passion for flavor and whisky.”

Q: How do you manage the scientific and the artistic because a fine whisky marries both?

A: For me, a scientific background and analytical mindset are valuable tools for a Scotch whisky blender to have, but a deep passion for flavor underpins everything and is something that’s universal to everyone on our team In bringing together different flavous, characters and textures of different whiskies, blending begins to unlock hidden depths in all of the individual whiskies. What we do is understand individual whiskies, their character and individual impact, and how these whiskies combine, creating additional character with layers of flavor which we can’t achieve from a single whisky.

“The part we play is trying to see the bigger picture, understanding how all of these component parts will interplay with each other and which can be wed to unearth new flavors or textures. For us, great whisky always starts with the how, when and where people will be enjoying it. We apply that lens across all our whiskies, Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare Pittyvaich, White Walker by Johnnie Walker and Johnnie Walker Black Label are all crafted in this way. The occasions are each very different and we want to craft whiskies that provide for all of these moments.”

Q: In becoming the first female master blender for Johnnie Walker, you are a trailblazer. What would be your advice for other women who want to work in whisky?

My advice to people looking to work in whisky are: responsibly try as many whiskies as you can and think about the flavors and how you talk about them; talk to people working in the industry, look at different types of roles available and try to build experience.

“I often get asked about working in a ‘male’ industry, but to be honest, this doesn’t reflect my experience. I have reached the position I’m in through the support I’ve received from amazing people across the industry, and through gaining opportunities to build my experience and capability. Our team at Johnnie Walker has been selected on merit and have grown together, organically reaching an even gender split. There have been many talented female whisky blenders within the team over the years, including Master Blenders for Buchanan’s, J&B Rare and Signature, working alongside our male blenders including Jim. 

“This diversity is reflected in our distillery management and we see female operators, coppersmiths, coopers, engineers across our sites in Scotland. So, I don’t really feel like a trailblazer. I’m one of the team, in an industry as diverse as our whisky.”

Q: Can you speak a little bit about overcoming gender stereotypes in whisky-making?

A: : “I can only speak for Johnnie Walker and myself, and I’m lucky to have had a very positive experience. It’s important that the whisky industry continues to talk about the diverse range of people who work in whisky– if you see someone like yourself doing a job, it’s easier to picture yourself in a similar role. We strongly believe whisky is for everyone and we’re encouraging inclusion and diversity in every sense, in the workplace, in our communities and with our consumers.”

Q: What are some of your immediate goals or challenges as the new master blender?  

A: “To continue the legacy that has been built for more than 200 years – using whiskies created in the past to produce whiskies for our customers now, while creating whiskies to be used in the future. I have one of the best jobs! I get to work with an amazing team, making some of the best whisky in the world, and we get to work with people from across Scotland and around the globe.”

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