A milestone in the world of spirits, Dr. Emma Walker steps foot into the coveted role of Master Blender for Johnnie Walker as the first female ever to hold the title. In the 200-year old history, there has never been a woman in this role, and before her, there were seven other males who claimed the biggest blending job in the world. Now, a new era upon us, it is with great honour and appreciation that we get to know her, appreciate her incredible palate and get excited about what comes next.
Johnnie Walker is the best-selling whisky brand in the world and with Emma Walker’s exceptional talented female leads the way forward to the future. The newly-crowned “Queen of Whisky” takes the reins from Jim Beveridge where she will continue delivering the unrivaled quality that Johnnie Walker is renowned for while bringing in a fresh, new perspective. Master Blender has long been regarded as one of the most coveted positions in the whisky industry for centuries. It is a highly-distinctive position that’s been in place since Diageo brand, Johnnie Walker, was founded more than two hundred years ago when Mr. Walker himself held the title until late last year
Emma joined Diageo nearly 14 years ago and has worked with whisky throughout her tenure. During her career, she has worked in different areas of Scotch production and blending, gaining extensive knowledge, experience, and understanding of how flavour develops in fermentation, distillation, and maturation.
In an industry largely perceived as male-dominated, Emma Walker broke through barriers and is taking over at an exciting time for Johnnie Walker as they continue to push for change and progress. As she embarks on this new journey, her extensive knowledge and experience of whisky production and innovation will showcase her undeniable expertise. She has worked extensively on Johnnie Walker for the last six years and her innovations include the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare series and Jane Walker by Johnnie Walker.
Emma will lead the 12-strong team of expert whisky makers in the pursuit of exceptional flavour, crafting and blending whisky from the four corners of Scotland to create the numerous Johnnie Walker variants which are sold in more than 180 countries around the world.
Looking to learn more about her journey, her career and her inspirations, I interviewed Emma Walker and am excited to share with you her insights. Fingers crossed one day I can meet Emma in person and fan-girl out while sipping Johnnie Walker and asking for a photograph with the legendary Queen of Whisky.
The Inside Scoop with Emma Walker
AA – What was it about whisky that inspired you to design your career around it?
EW – It wasn’t something that I ever imagined as a child; I didn’t really know that this kind of job existed. However, after doing a Ph.D. in Chemistry, I worked as a process chemist. I still held that passion for flavours and the science behind them and knew I wanted to do something that brought these together. In 2008, I applied for a job at Diageo’s Technical Centre in Menstrie, Scotland, and I haven’t looked back since!
AA – Tell us briefly about your career journey and what led you to JW in the first place.
EW – Early on at school I realized that 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 Talisker and that began my love for whisky and my passion for flavour.
After doing a PhD, I accepted a job as a process chemist like many of my friends. But, holding a passion for flavours and science from an early age, I knew I wanted to do something that could involve flavour 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!
I was lucky to have time to develop my understanding of whisky and flavour over my initial years with the whisky team, learning from Jim, Maureen and others in the whisky team and 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 [I have been in whisky production roles in blending and distilling, at Leven, and Cameronbridge and Knockando Distilleries] which has enabled me to develop a well-rounded understanding of flavour and its journey through the whisky making process.
AA – What is your favourite part of crafting an iconic whisky and why?
EW – One of the things I enjoy about working as a whisky blender is that no two days are the same and every day involves working with a range of amazing people and amazing whisky.
What we do is understand individual whiskies from different distilleries across Scotland, their characters and individual impacts – and how these whiskies combine, creating additional character with layers of flavour to explore. In bringing together different flavours, characters and textures of different whiskies from the four corners of Scotland, blending begins to unlock hidden depths in all of the individual whiskies.
The breadth of flavour that can be found in Scotch is incredible – smoke from the western isles and whiskies from a distillery such as Caol Ila, floral notes from Glenkinchie in the Lowlands, beautiful whiskies from any number of Speyside distilleries and honey and spice from the Highlands and the likes of Clynelish. That is my job in a nutshell and I am very lucky.
AA – How much of your work at Johnnie Walker is science and how much is art?
EW – There’s no doubt that a scientific background and analytical mindset are valuable tools for a Scotch whisky blender to have, but a deep passion for flavour underpins everything and is something that’s universal to everyone on our team.
In bringing together different flavours, characters and textures, different whiskies, blending begins to unlock hidden depths in all of the individual whiskies. What we do is not just about combining different expressions, with every whisky playing its own, individual role, it’s about how each of the whiskies can bring out a particular aspect or note in another 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 flavours or textures.
AA – Is there any innovation projects for the future you can share?
EW – We have lots of interesting things coming down the line. Let’s just say, keep an eye out for Johnnie Walker in the next few months. Watch this space!
AA – Where do you find your inspiration for making and innovating at JW?
EW – 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.
AA – What plans do you have for the future of JW?
EW – I want to continue the legacy that has been built for more than 200 years. Johnnie Walker founder John Walker sought out the finest whiskies from the four corners of Scotland to craft something really special for his customers and today we continue this by drawing from the largest selection of maturing Scotch stocks in the world.
Johnnie Walker have always looked to innovate and find new ways of making this wonderful liquid even better and more enjoyable for drinkers. That is something that is important to Scotch as a whole and for us innovation is part of what we do, what we have always done – it’s in our DNA. Since the time of our founder, John Walker, we’ve never wanted to stand still. We’ve always explored new possibilities in whisky, with one eye on the future and now we are looking to craft whiskies for the next 200 years. This is something that fires my imagination and I want to continue.
AA – What trends do you foresee or see coming to the world of whisky?
EW – We have lots of exciting innovations coming out of Johnnie Walker in the coming months. And I am always keen to see what is coming down the line from other Scotch brands and, indeed, from whiskies around the world.
There is so much going on in whisky around the world now … so much quality and innovation, it is great for the category as a whole. It is very exciting for everyone involved in the industry.
AA – What is your favourite JW to drink and when you’re not drinking JW, what’s in your glass?
EW- It really depends on the circumstance – when and where I am drinking it and who I am with. Depending on the context, I chose a whisky to suit that occasion!