Interview: Johnnie Walker’s Emma Walker On Becoming Walker’s New Master Blender

| December 21, 2021

One of the most coveted roles in the whisky industry is master blender for Diageo’s legendary brand Johnnie Walker. And set to take over the reins of this position at the first of the year will be Dr. Emma Walker.

She joined Diageo 13 years ago and has gained “extensive knowledge and experience of Scotch production and innovation to become a highly respected blender who has worked extensively on Johnnie Walker for the last six years.”

During her career she has worked in different areas of whisky production; gaining experience and understanding of how flavor develops in fermentation, distillation, and maturation. She also spent several years working with soon-to-retire Dr. Jim Beveridge, who held the master blender title at Johnnie Walker for decades.

Of important note as well is that she will be, according to Diageo, “the first female, to take on the coveted role of Master Blender in more than two centuries of the business’s existence, the first being founder John Walker.”

As she prepares to lead her team at Johnnie Walker, Dr. Walker chatted with The Whiskey Wash about her past, present and future in this industry.

Emma Walker

Emma Walker will formally become Johnnie Walker’s new master blender at the beginning of 2022 (image via Diageo)

The Whiskey Wash: What best piece of advice or wisdom do you take away from your time working with Dr. Jim Beveridge at Johnnie Walker?

Emma Walker: “I’ve learned so much from Jim. Throughout our time working together Jim has moved through the roles of teacher, coach, mentor and friend to me!

The way that Jim enabled and empowered our small team of 12 whisky blenders to work as a team and to draw out each of our individual talents is something that I want to emulate.

Everyone in the team brings something different to the table, everyone brings their own unique personalities and experiences to blending. It is this diversity and freedom to express ourselves, that Jim encouraged, that has contributed to the team’s success.

TWW: As you prepare to take the reins of master blender with Johnnie Walker, where do you see the Scotch whisky industry in the present, and five years in the future?

Walker: “We, as a team, want to continue the legacy that has been built for more than 200 years. Our 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. This gives us a far-ranging breadth of whiskies to continue our exploration of flavor through blending.

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Scotch and 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.

TWW: Tell us about the different areas of the industry you’ve worked and how that factors into the master blending world. 

Walker: “In 2008, I applied for a project scientist role 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 flavor 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 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.

TWW: Describe the genesis for Johnnie Walker’s new Ghost and Rare expression and how that came to be.

Walker: “Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare is a series of limited edition whiskies which shine a light on the distinct flavors and character found in Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

Using only a small number of the rarest expressions of whiskies within the Johnnie Walker Blue Label reserves, each limited edition offers a fleeting opportunity to savor the character of whiskies from closed distilleries whose spirit lives on in their dwindling stocks of maturing ‘ghost’ whisky.

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For a long time we’ve been fascinated by how whiskies from a small number of iconic, closed distilleries have a unique, inimitable character that lend something very special to Johnnie Walker Blue Label and this series allows us to continually explore these flavors to craft new experiences in Scotch.”

TWW: What can you say about the team of blenders that you will captain for Johnnie Walker?

Walker: “We have a wonderful team at Johnnie Walker, and that is one of Jim’s great legacies … building such a strong team. Everyone brings something to the blending table. We work together every day and while we may have someone leading on a project, we all get involved with nosing and tasting prototypes and giving an opinion on things. I think that is really healthy and helps us to really push the boundaries of flavor.

They are an amazing team and it is a pleasure to work with these guys every day.”

TWW: The different distilleries that make up the Johnnie Walker world, tell us a little about those and the different quirks and perks that they individually bring to the various products.

Walker: “What we do is understand individual whiskies from different distilleries, 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 flavours or textures. That’s the job.

In bringing together different flavors, 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 flavor 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.”

TWW: Is there a particular Johnnie Walker story, something from the annals of history, that you can point to as pivotal for its success in the first 200 years?

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Walker: “It is interesting to look at the significant role that women have played in the history of Johnnie Walker dating back to 1893, when John Walker & Sons purchased the Cardhu distillery from Elizabeth Cumming.

Cardhu is one of the single malts that comprises Johnnie Walker Black Label and is considered the heartbeat of the blend. Additionally, Elizabeth Walker, the wife of founder John Walker, worked alongside John and their son Alexander in the original Walker grocery shop and was fundamental to supporting the creation of their own blended whisky.

Having worked in Knockando near Cardhu it makes me excited that we will be playing our part in that incredible journey into the next 200 years.”

TWW: What will be the next trends or challenges to face the Scotch whisky industry in the coming years?

Walker: “We’ve always looked to innovate and find new ways of making this wonderful liquid even better and more enjoyable for drinkers – as has the wider Scotch category. 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. So that is what we are looking to do, push the boundaries of what is possible in whisky.

We’ve noticed that in the last few years that innovation in this industry has really evolved, people are experimenting with flavor on a scale that I have never seen before. It’s something that we welcome as whisky makers. At any one time, we’ll be working on hundreds of experiments and exploring a wide range of innovative flavors and influences, distillation conditions, grain used, cask finishes and different types of oak wood – all in the pursuit of exceptional flavor.

Part of the legacy of whisky is that it has always evolved to meet the demand of drinkers, whether through creating new whiskies or through new serves – such as the Johnnie Walker Highball. For us, the first thing in our minds when we look at a new whisky is the pursuit of flavor; how can we create extraordinary new flavors – that’s what drives us. We love seeing bartenders and mixologists playing and experimenting with our whiskies – some of the stuff that they do is really incredible and that in turn fires our imagination.”

Drinks

Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether...