When it comes to the world of whisky, the consensus — for the most part — is that it’s a man’s world. Yet it’s a vastly different point of view for Dr. Emma Walker, a 39-year-old chemist who not only enjoys a fine glass of Scotch, but is also in charge of keeping the spirit of Johnnie Walker alive.
As a female blender for Johnnie Walker, she easily stands out in the male-dominated industry, although that prejudice is fast becoming history thanks to the company’s continuous efforts in promoting gender equality. This is especially apparent with the fact that nearly half of the brand’s expert blenders are women, a statistic that is unprecedented anywhere else in the industry.
While many struggle to find a vocation that marries both their passion and education, it was a cinch for Walker, who discovered her love for Scotch whisky following a friend’s introduction at University, where she pursued chemistry.
After her PhD, she accepted a job as a graduate process chemist like many of her friends, but moved into the world of Scotch in 2008. It was there that she was able to combine her enjoyment of whisky, her background in chemistry, and her research in flavours science. She hasn’t looked back since.
Now, Walker is in charge of coaxing blends out of more than 10 million mature casks of Scotch. While it gives her an edge, her scientific background and analytical mindset do not contribute as much to her success as her deep passion for the liquid does.
Here, she talks about her role as a female blender for Johnnie Walker, the art of creating an unbiased blend, and her personal favourites throughout her career.
Tell us about your role in the world of whisky production.
I’m based at the Johnnie Walker Blending Rooms here in Scotland as part of the small team of 14 expert whisky makers, led by Master Blender Jim Beveridge.
No two days are the same when working at Johnnie Walker, and that’s one of my favourite things about the role. There’s a lot to keep you on your toes and there will be sensory exploration and product checks every day, no matter what project we’re working on.
I’m lucky enough to have worked across several different areas in whisky production, namely fermentation, distillation and maturation analysis. This has allowed me the chance to develop a well-rounded understanding of flavour and its journey through the whisky-making process. I love the fact that my role allows me to marry my background in science with my passion for flavour.
What intrigues you the most about Scotch whisky and blends?
The breadth of flavour in Scotch really excites me! The fact that a country the size of Scotland can produce such wide-ranging flavours and styles from just three ingredients — water, malted barley and yeast — and oak casks is fascinating.
There’s an element of inheriting the legacies of such a historic category that can be daunting, but I like the challenge in that too. You have to remember the pioneering people that came before you; those who set the standard, like John Walker and many others.
If a new project is my canvas then my paints are some 10 million casks of maturing Scotch – including irreplaceable whiskies from now long-closed ‘ghost’ distilleries – drawn to make our whiskies. That’s the kind of stuff that really gets someone like me excited.
Where do you seek inspiration from when creating a new blend?
When we set out to craft Johnnie Walker whiskies, at the forefront of our thoughts is the question of who will be drinking it. Flavour and the end drinker must be our priority, but we also consider how to maintain the highest quality and the perfect balance that has been the hallmark of our whisky for nearly 200 years.
What’s the process of creating a blend like?
When John Walker started blending whiskies, most single malts were inconsistent. He started blending them together so that his customers got whisky that tasted just as good every time. This practice of pursuing and delivering quality was continued by the Walker family even after John, and we strive to do the same today.
When we start, we sometimes have a very clear picture of what we want to achieve when we begin. Other times, it’s the process of experimentation that opens up new flavour routes. At the heart of all this exploration are balance and quality.
What drives the pursuit of quality is flavour, experimentation and lots of patience from our team. As natural experimenters, we’re always questioning things and ourselves to discover new flavours through our collective expertise and intuition. The creative process around crafting and blending is a thrilling experience, but things take a lot of time in the world of whisky, so that must be coupled with a great deal of patience before seeing the fruits of your labour.
What do you look out for during the process?
In bringing together different flavours, characters and textures, different single malts and grains, blending begins to unlock hidden depths in all of the individual whiskies used. What we do is not just about combining different expressions where every whisky plays its own individual role. It’s about how each of the whiskies can bring out a particular aspect or note in another whisky.
We’re always trying to see the bigger picture — understanding how all of these components will interplay with each other to unearth new flavours or textures.
Are there any particular single malts or distilleries that you especially like working with?
I love working with smoky whisky, and Caol Ila is a personal favourite. I have fond memories of working in the Cardhu group and getting to know the area and many people working in whisky in Speyside. I love Glenkinchie and Clynelish – they are both beautiful malt whiskies set in amazing scenery and the wonderful whisky from Cameronbridge is a credit to all the craftspeople working here in Fife.
It’s the combination of all these distilleries, along with so many other variables, that bring a richness of character and balance famous to the whiskies at Johnnie Walker.
What are some of the whiskies you’ve been involved in?
Since joining in 2008, I’ve been really lucky to be involved with a number of exciting projects, including Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish – which was the first bottle I’ve seen my name on!
More recently, White Walker by Johnnie Walker is a wonderful example of innovation – it was crafted by our expert whisky maker George Harper and the team to be best enjoyed directly from the freezer, and that’s something new for us. In this instance, the craft that goes into White Walker is about creating an amazing whisky which can be enjoyed by all, while introducing non-whisky drinkers to the discovery of Scotch.
The entire industry is known to be male-oriented. Have you faced any difficulties, and how have you overcome these stereotypes?
I often get asked about operating in a male-dominated industry, but this isn’t the case in my personal experience, and appears to be more of an external perception. Our team has an even male-to-female ratio and there are female Master Blenders, including at Bell’s and Buchanan’s.
This is also reflected in distillery management, and I’m seeing more female operators and engineers at different distilleries and sites across Scotland. It’s as diverse as the whisky is!
Do you find it difficult separating your personal bias in flavours from creating a blend that appeals to the masses?
We are creating whiskies for other people to enjoy, not just for ourselves. Using this, along with the expertise and knowledge in the whisky team, we consider how we can create the new whisky. We contemplate which flavours and styles we think will work well together for this project and we begin sourcing cask samples to craft this in the lab.
We’re never working alone in the lab; the whisky-making team will come together to discuss the flavours and aromas we individually find which helps to overcome any personal bias.
How have palates changed over the years, and are there any trends that you’re seeing now?
Whisky is on fire right now – there’s a real surge of interest and that’s great to see. People want great tasting whisky that has passion and expertise behind it.
I see the future of whisky as focused on seeking out new flavours, new experiences and new occasions that bring people together.
The perception of Scotch — who drinks it and how it is drunk — is changing – I’m delighted to not only be playing my part in such a historic craft, but also one that is growing and evolving so quickly. It’s an exciting time.
What’s the most exciting part of your job?
Making whisky is both a science and art, and that’s very interesting to me. The technicalities of malting, distilling, maturing and blending Scotch means that you make decisions at the right moments that are defined by science – chemistry, physics and maths. Yet, there are so many moments where imagination and flair are the ingredients that make this liquid so special. The real skill is bringing these worlds together in harmony.
It’s daunting that the decisions you make are long-term ones and not a small investment.
Out of all the blends that you’ve created so far, do you have a personal favourite?
I’ve been really lucky to work across some fantastic projects in my time so far and two of my favourites have been the Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Ghost and Rare – Brora and Port Ellen Editions.
We’ve worked with some amazing whiskies that have allowed me to combine my knowledge of Johnnie Walker Blue Label with an opportunity to work with irreplaceable whiskies from now long-closed ‘ghost’ distilleries.
If you could only have one blend for the rest of your life, which would it be and why?
At the end of the day, it’s all about who you’re enjoying it with. But if you’re going to put me on the spot, I’ll go with Johnnie Walker Black Label because it’s a classic for all occasions.
It’s also so versatile so I could change things up when I want to — I love it in a highball with ginger ale and ice.
Any advice for anyone — both women and men — who want to get into the Scotch whisky industry?
Come with an open mind and bring all your ideas – the whisky industry is a very welcoming and innovative environment. Whisky has a wide spectrum of flavours and styles, reflecting the wide range of the people who work within the industry. We welcome everyone with open arms – and a dram, of course!