Dr. Emma Walker (no relation!) is the first female Master Blender at Johnnie Walker, the world’s best-selling Scotch whisky. She joined parent company Diageo 13 years ago, and was made Master Blender in January 2022. In this role, she leads a team of expert whisky makers who craft and blend whiskies from the four corners of Scotland to make the Johnnie Walker blends. I was delighted to have the chance to talk to her about her path to this role and about how science and art comprise the work of whisky blending.
You have a PhD in Chemistry. How did chemistry and whisky first come together for you?
My journey into whisky was quite serendipitous. Lots of things just seemed to line up, and I’ve been very lucky to be able to take advantage of opportunities as they came up.
First, I got introduced to scotch whisky when I started at university. I came up to Edinburgh and was introduced to whisky by the friends that I made. They loved Lagavulin and Talisker, so that was my starting point, my diving in point.
Then during my time at university, I went to the Isle of Arran. One of my friends has family there. A group of friends went for a long weekend, and by chance it was just when Arran distillery opened, so we went to have a tour around. Seeing the equipment and learning about the operations at the distillery got something going at the back of the mind, “Oh this is like chemistry but on a big scale. Right.” I just hadn’t really thought about that before because it was the first time I’d been to a distillery.
Finally, and again it was very good luck, after I finished my degree, I was looking for a permanent job, and I saw a job going at Diageo for a project scientist. When I turned up for the interview, it turned out it was for a whisky scientist, which blew my mind. I wish I had known that that role existed a lot earlier because I might have gotten better results in school!
So how does chemistry feature in the role of whisky blending?
For me it’s the perfect mix, because when you’re blending, you’re mixing science and artistry. You need to understand where the flavours come from in fermentation, distillation and maturation so that you know how to play with the flavours. Where do they come from in the grains used for fermentation? What happens to the flavours during fermentation? How do they develop more in distillation? How do different casks interact with the flavour? How do they change it and manipulate it as they age the whisky?
We work with more than 28 distilleries, and they’ve all got their own individual characteristics, so understanding the science of flavour really helps in the understanding of why the distilleries work in the way they do.
Chemistry also helps with understanding the historical influence on flavour. What decisions have people made over the generations to create those flavours? How are the stills are designed? How are they run? Do they use slow distillation or fast distillation? Over the past couple of decades we’ve made advances in science to understand what we’ve been doing for all these years and generations, to get to grips with the secret language of whisky.
I love that phrase: The secret language of whisky.
Yes. And, again, luck plays a big part. We think that distillers started with copper stills because people had copper pots and pans in their kitchens, so it was a material that was to hand. When you look at the science of it, copper is the perfect material to make a still out of. It’s a good conductor, and it works really well in that role, but it also interacts with the spirit during distillation. It removes unwanted characteristics.
If you have lots of copper contact, you remove some of the sulphur compounds that you make during fermentation. It also helps to create flavour by forming more fruity esters as you go through the distilling process. That’s one of the things I love about whisky: there have been lots of serendipitous choices, but it turns out that that’s what makes whisky whisky.
You’ve said that a sense of occasion informs your work as you’re blending. Can you tell us how?
If we take a wee step back from that first. When you’re drinking whisky, it’s influenced by who you’re drinking it with, where’re you’re drinking it. So if you’ve got your hip flask and you’ve just walked up a hill and you’re sitting up a hill talking to your friends or family, the whisky might taste slightly different to if you were at the rugby, or if you were enjoying it in the house on a chilly winter’s night. It’s different expectations.
That’s another thing that I love about whisky: your emotions become connected to the flavour of whisky. You do start to remember some of the whiskies you’ve had by the experience, by the event that was happening at the time.
When we create a whisky, we don’t work in isolation. We always joke that if we were left to create whiskies by ourselves, after a few years, you’d end up with a much more narrow viewpoint. A lot of people on our team love big, smoky whiskies. That’s not what all our consumers want to have, though, so we need to make sure we have a consumer in mind when we’re thinking about creating a new whisky.
Our colleagues in marketing work in the markets around the world. They give us a brief of who the customers are. What events do they enjoy? What flavours do they enjoy? Are they people who tend to enjoy gin and tonics, a longer cocktail, or do they enjoy a shorter serve? Having all those insights helps us to formulate an idea of what we want the flavour to be like.
For example, Johnnie Walker Blond is a more accessible whisky. It’s a lighter style, and it’s designed to be drunk as a longer drink. If you think about your high energy occasions, you’re thinking about people in bars, at concerts. Then you create something that’s very noticeable as whisky but works well for those occasions.
Do cultural traditions from different parts of the world play a part when you’re blending?
Obviously, it’s not happening as much recently, but different people on the team travel and bring back insights. We have amazingly talented brand ambassadors that work around the would and they come back to us with information about what are the predominant flavours in different cuisines around the world, what are the celebrations this whisky is used in.
There’s a lovely tradition in some areas of Latin America. When a child is born, there is a tradition to buy a bottle of 18-year-old whisky. When the child turns 18, that bottle is opened for the family to celebrate with together. It’s beautiful seeing the whiskies you make being used in these celebrations.
Finally, what’s your favourite classic cocktail?
That again is one of the things I love about scotch whisky. It’s great by itself. It has a lovely flavour and texture; it has that lovely mouth feel. But it’s an amazing ingredient to have in a cocktail as well. It works so well with lots of different flavours. When we talk about scotch whisky, we talk about that wheel of flavour, the palette of flavours, the flavours you get from the distilling, the flavours you get from maturation.
When we talk to bartenders, it’s interesting because they think about flavours in a similar way. What are the predominant flavours? What are the secondary characteristics? How do you mix things in a way to bring some of the quieter characteristics to the forefront?
I love a highball: Johnnie Walker Black Label with a blood orange soda. It really works with the fruity, sweet flavours you get with Johnnie Walker Black Label, but it’s so refreshing and so simple. It’s lovely to have on a summer day.
Cheers to the tradition and to the future of women blenders!
I also love strong flavours, so I love a whisky Negroni made with a smoky whisky because the smokiness works really well with the vermouth. It balances really well. It’s almost like the smoke takes the part of the botanicals in the gin.
Check out our post on cocktails to celebrate International Women’s Day for this recipe and others!
If you or someone you know is interested in pursuing a career in this field, the LCBO has created The Spirit of Inclusion program to help break barriers and allow diverse women to enter and thrive within the industry. They currently have scholarships and bursaries open to women located in Ontario and you can find more information about the program here.