The Big Interview: Dr Emma Walker, master blender at Johnnie Walker
The aptly named whisky expert – although no relation to the firm’s eponymous founder – took over from the also-aptly named Dr Jim Beveridge, who was retiring after more than 40 years at Diageo, parent company of what is billed as the world’s top Scotch whisky brand.
He said when her appointment was announced in October last year: “I know she will do a wonderful job as she possesses the knowledge, expertise, and dedication to make an amazing master blender… I know that her wonderfully infectious personality that made working with her so enjoyable will bring something exciting and different to the team and, indeed, to the wider Scotch industry.”
Dr Walker explains that she joined Diageo’s whisky specialist team as a project scientist in 2008, and after four years moved into whisky production in the blending and distilling operations at Leven, Cameronbridge, and Knockando distilleries.
She then returned to the whisky specialist team in 2014 as a blender, and has worked as the whisky team manager, and whisky team technical specialist before moving into her current role – which she says enables her to marry her passion for flavour with her background in science.
Pre-Diageo she undertook a two-year apprenticeship at Imperial Chemical Industries in Teesside, a Master’s in chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, and a PhD in organic chemistry. "While working as a process chemist, I applied for a project scientist role at the Diageo Technical Centre in Menstrie – and I haven’t looked back since,” she says.
Last year also saw the opening of the Johnnie Walker Princes Street attraction in Edinburgh, which she has said is “a perfect testbed where we can try out new and experimental drinks”.
The launch came just over 200 years since what would become the Johnnie Walker brand started out with a grocer’s shop, moving into blending single malts. Now, more than 14 million cases of the brand are sold annually across more than 180 countries, and it saw double-digit sales growth in Diageo’s latest results. However, it was recently revealed that the latter’s Scottish business had been removed from the Prompt Payment Code after failing to pay its bills on time.
You’re the first woman to take on the role of master blender at Johnnie Walker. How significant is your appointment, how has the job progressed so far, and what do you aim to achieve in the short and longer term?
In terms of significance, I really feel the weight of responsibility that such an incredible role brings, but it’s very exciting. Every whisky-maker in our team knows the role we play in a brand that has a 200-year history of craftsmanship, blending, and flavour. That is where the significance lies.
I often get asked about being a female in a male industry, but I don’t see any issues; we’re simply a group of people working in whisky. Our team at Johnnie Walker has always had a balance of men and women, and there are female master blenders at Diageo brands Bell’s and Buchanan’s too.
We’re seeing more female leaders in distillery-management and female operators, engineers, and apprentices at distilleries and sites across Scotland, so, I don’t really feel like a trailblazer. For me, the industry is as diverse as the whisky!
Our founder John Walker sought the finest whiskies from the four corners of Scotland to craft something special for his customers. Today, we continue drawing from the largest selection of maturing Scotch stocks in the world.
Looking to the future, Scotch has always looked to innovate and find new ways of making this wonderful liquid even better. That’s something that’s important to Scotch as a whole. For us innovation is part of what we do.
Ever since the time of John Walker, we’ve never wanted to stand still. We’ve always explored new possibilities in whisky, and been future-facing, and I am keen for this to continue.
You spoke at the International Women’s Day 2022: Taking Action To Break The Bias event – how did you use this platform, and how is the whisky sector (both on the industry and consumer side) faring regarding gender balance? How can the industry become more diverse more broadly e.g. around race and socio-economic background?
Breaking bias is so important to me and to Diageo and being part of the event on International Women’s Day was great. It gave me the opportunity to share my experience working as a woman as part of Johnnie Walker.
Our team at Johnnie Walker has been selected on merit, 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 male blenders.
More generally, though, I believe the world should be a more open, diverse place so everyone can feel comfortable being themselves.
Your innovations include the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare series and Jane Walker by Johnnie Walker – what did your work entail on these, and what are your plans for further similar releases?
Both of these were limited editions with a special premise. Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare is a series of limited-edition whiskies, which explore the distinct flavours and character found in Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
The whiskies are crafted using irreplaceable “ghost” whiskies from distilleries that have long since closed, alongside other rare whiskies from the Johnnie Walker reserves. Jane Walker by Johnnie Walker was a celebration of pioneering women, and great whisky and flavour, inspired by Johnnie Walker Black Label.
In all new projects, we explore our inventory of more than ten million casks of maturing whiskies from the four corners of Scotland. We will continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what is possible in whisky, so keep an eye out for some really exciting things planned this year and beyond.
To what extent is the Johnnie Walker Princes Street attraction boosting your role, and driving interest in and understanding of whisky?
Scotland is the greatest distilling nation on earth. With Johnnie Walker Princes Street, we have created an experience to represent the innovation, heritage, and skill of the whisky industry as a whole.
It gives us not only a way to immerse people in our story and our world, but also new opportunities to talk to people, from Johnnie Walker and would-be Scotch drinkers to tourists, from interested whisky aficionados to novices, and those who just want great entertainment experiences.
Whisky distilleries are springing up all over Scotland as consumers increasingly seek out independent brands, while the teetotal market is growing – are you concerned about these factors potentially hampering Johnnie Walker’s growth?
The whisky industry is thriving right now and that is something to celebrate! More and more people wanting to know about Scotch can only be a good thing – that is positive for Johnnie Walker.
You supported Johnnie Walker’s efforts announced at the start of March regarding tree-planting for the Platinum Jubilee – what are your views on sustainability, and how the brand and wider whisky industry can support the transition to net zero?
We have been innovators in whisky for more than two centuries. In recent years we’ve also continued to innovate within sustainability, for example introducing a lighter bottle. We know the impact of what we do today will resonate into the future, and we’re actively seeking ways to help restore the landscapes in which we live, in line with Diageo’s ten-year, Society 2030: Spirit of Progress sustainability action plan.
In Scotland, we’ve planted more than 350,000 trees, while three distilleries that can be used in Johnnie Walker – Oban, Royal Lochnagar and Brora – have already achieved net-zero carbon emissions.
Some of the whiskies we lay down today will be enjoyed in 12 or 20 years, or even further ahead, which is why we’re taking bold steps to make sure the future is brighter and more sustainable.
Who do you admire in business, how important are role models/mentors, and what do you wish you could go back and tell yourself when you started your career?
I have learnt so much from my predecessor Dr Jim Beveridge, alongside the whole team. Jim is a legend of the whisky business, and a friend not just a colleague. The way he enabled and empowered our small team of 12 whisky-blenders to draw out our incredible, individual talents is something I want to continue.