Power Individuals: Emma Walker On Being The First Female Master Blender For Johnnie Walker And Whether Blending Whiskies Is An Art Or A Science

“I always joke that I’m a member of our Walker family, but not that Walker family!” says Emma Walker, master blender for Johnnie Walker. As everyone who meets her can attest, she is as bubbly in personality as she is brilliant in the art of blending whiskies for the most popular Scotch whisky brand in the world. She speaks to you earnestly when you first meet, effusively when you’re chatting with her over a glass of Blue Label, and passionately when discussing her job—one in which she influences the flavours and experiences of whisky lovers in more than 180 countries.

Although she has been working in whisky for 15 years, Walker succeeded the great Dr Jim Beveridge as Johnnie Walker’s master blender officially on 1 January 2022. Some of her recent highlights include Blue Label Ghost & Rare Port Dundas and Blue Label Elusive Umami, both of which are familiar iterations of the Blue Label proposition but with added depth and character; uniquely delightful on the palate yet Johnnie Walker through and through. With her doctorate in chemistry, it’s no wonder Walker (and her colleagues in the blending team, she’s quick to note) is able to fuse the art and science of blending whisky. Some might even say it’s magic.

“Having that scientific background, it was almost a little bit of a comfort blanket. It meant that I could speak with confidence on certain things while learning other parts of the role as well,” Walker says. “When you get an innovation brief, it’s the same way like in the lab where you’d have a hypothesis. You figure out how you’re going to test it, you get samples and then you make iterations and changes. So it’s that scientific grounding that helps the artistic and creative side to come into play. Having that helps to balance it all, in the same way we talk about a perfumer or creating something magical, but understanding the process that leads up to that point.”

Walker’s roots in science and academia also means she enjoys doing plenty of research for her work—specifically, perusing the aisles upon aisles of books, on topics regarding blending, stocks and more, in the Diageo archives. The vast facility, spread out over 5,000sqm not too far away from Edinburgh, contains everything from marketing memorabilia and journals to bottles of Old Highland whisky and all those books Walker loves perusing. “As I was developing my career and my understanding of whisky, I was able to see how we create and how we’ve created whiskies—and we’re still doing exactly the same. You still see the same distilleries coming through, but you also see different things like vatting or using different cask styles,” Walker enthuses. “That gives us extra confidence knowing that we are following in that heritage. And we’re also looking (to the archives) to see what we want to do for Scotch whisky going forward. As we get new technology and as we look at sustainability, we’ll still be making whisky in a traditional way but we’ll have different things around it. It helps us to understand more and helps us to continue to build Scotch.”

To anybody else, taking on the role of master blender for Johnnie Walker would seem like a Herculean undertaking. Not only would they have to consistently maintain the same taste profile dating back more than 200 years, they would also have to blend whiskies for the future: predicting customers, trends, cultures and movements, and how a glass of whisky would fit into all that, decades and even centuries from now. Yet, any conversation with Walker would suggest the complete opposite, that she’s effervescently embracing the role and the responsibilities it entails. And she is able to be this confident thanks to her forebears and the knowledge base a short walk away from her office. “It’s being able to look back at what we’ve done in the past; not necessarily what’s been in the bottle but the knowledge and experience that we have across the team, which has been passed on around the team as well,” Walker says. “And that’s what we will always continue to do: use that knowledge and look at the entire portfolio to create something where we can have the most fun and be the most creative and innovative.”

With a master blender like Emma Walker onboard, as well as a worldwide network of colleagues in branding and innovation that she is also hugely appreciate of, it’s safe to say that Johnnie Walker is in good hands. So no matter when or how you’re enjoying a glass of Johnnie Walker’s multiple layers of flavour and rich, smoky taste, Walker assures fans that your beverage of choice will always be what you’re expecting. “We’re building on heritage, what’s come before, and standing on the shoulders of those giants. But at the same time, we’re also looking at what we can do with those raw materials—water, malted barley, grains, yeast—and what we can do to expand that world of flavour or to create different intensities within that world of flavour,” Walker says. “Like the Walkers and the master blenders before us, we’re looking to the future, to innovate and to continually keep walking.”

Johnnie Walker

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