Emma Walker is an expert whisky maker at Johnnie Walker – one of a small team of 12 craftsmen and women in Scotland tasked with the pursuit of blending excellence. After nearly 11 years at Johnnie Walker, we talk to Emma about a career in chemistry, changing whisky consumption and what it’s like to be a female whisky maker in the modern industry.
Inspiration and tips
BEHIND THE BARREL: AN INTERVIEW WITH EMMA WALKER
THE JOURNEY TO JOHNNIE WALKER
So… are you related?
It’s a sheer coincidence my surname is Walker! Although, my father’s nickname in the Scottish Navy was ‘Whisky’ and there’s a few other coincidences I find a little spooky. Was it my destiny? Maybe so.
What was your path to working in whisky?
I’ve always loved art and science but, pretty early on in school, I realized my real passion was in chemistry. It was utterly absorbing, and I really loved studying it. So, luckily, deciding on what to do at university was quite easy and then I was delighted when I had the chance to go on to study for a PhD.
How did you end up in blending?
After finishing up university, I took a job as a graduate process chemist but entertained a growing interest in the drinks industry because of my passion for flavour, and the science of flavours, since childhood. I went for a job at Diageo’s Technical Centre in Menstrie in 2010 and I haven’t looked back since.
What drew you to Johnnie Walker?
When I first worked at Menstrie I was amazed at the number of great brands in the Diageo family. It inspired me, and I thought: this could be a really great place to work with the potential for me to do something exciting. It turned out to be a great decision, as I now get to draw from some 10 million casks of maturing Scotch to craft Johnnie Walker whiskies. That’s the kind of stuff that gets someone like me excited!
If you hadn’t ended up in whisky what do you think you’d be doing?
I’d probably still be in pharmaceuticals. A lot of my friends are still in similar roles and I don’t think I’d have strayed too far from chemistry.
THE SPIRIT OF SCIENCE
How did you go from chemistry to whisky?
There’s actually a lot in common between the two in terms the approach to work. A scientific background is an essential part of my understanding of whisky production and integral to my role in the blending team. Although there’s a few key differences - I wasn’t encouraged to taste and nose or test things in my previous role as a process chemist!
What’s your day-to-day like?
No two days are the same, and that’s a big perk of the job. It depends on what exactly we’re working on, but it’ll always involve nosing whisky samples, and there’ll be some form of sensory checks or exploration on most days. I’ve worked across different areas of whisky production; developing my understanding of how flavour develops in fermentation, distillation and maturation, so I’m lucky I’ve had a chance to get a deeper look at each part of the process.
What’s the biggest learning from working with Master Blender Jim Beveridge?
Working with Jim has been fantastic; I’ve gained a deeper understanding of flavours and how to work with them during the production process. Developing that deeper understanding and appreciation of where flavours originate from, how they develop and how you can marry them together really informs our whisky making process.
And most unexpected?
Working with Jim, and the wider blending team, the biggest surprise is how much you continue to learn from each other. You’re joining an amazing collection of people with great experience in the industry, which can be quite daunting, but everyone is just as hungry to learn from new members of the team and that’s amazing as you really feel like you’re contributing from day one.
Is there a lot of pressure working on Johnnie Walker and the history it carries?
To a certain extent. But, honestly, I count myself lucky and find it a little serendipitous that I’ve found my way to a job and industry that I really love. Johnnie Walker has an unbroken line of Master Blenders stretching back almost 200 years, so there’s a lot of heritage and experience to draw from. This, combined with a thirst for learning and absorbing new production techniques and innovations, means we’re always growing and evolving.
What’s your favourite thing about working at Johnnie Walker?
Working with such a small team that rely on and learn from each other is a large part of why I enjoy working here so much. Creating great Scotch is a real team effort, and we work closely with colleagues in distilling, process development and maturation to understand the flavours in whisky and to increase the flavour palette available for blending as a team. I really enjoy innovation and the process of working to craft new spirits with flavour(s) as the central focus.
And what is the process for developing new whisky?
When we’re working on innovation projects, the onus is on flavour and, increasingly, occasion is being considered more. One of the key parameters when we look at or test new spirits is to consider the moments they’ll be enjoyed. So, we look at isolated flavours but also, increasingly, test more with mixers and cocktails, too. I love the versatility of whisky and the depth of flavours involved as there’s so much nuance to explore what makes a spirit more adaptable to different occasions and changing palates.
WOMEN IN THE WHISKY
How have you found being a female in a male-dominated industry?
I often get asked about operating in a male-dominated industry, but to be honest, in my experience this hasn’t been the case. Our team at Diageo has an even male to female ratio and we have female Master Blenders at Bell’s and Buchanan’s. This ratio is also reflected in distillery management, and I’m seeing more female operators and engineers at different distilleries and sites across Scotland.
Looking forward, where do you see the future of whisky?
I see the future of whisky as being about searching out new flavours, new moments and new occasions that bring people together. So, I hope the future will be about the great flavours, the great taste and the great quality that our whiskies stand for, qualities that bring people together all over the world.
The perception of Scotch and who drinks it is changing – gone are the days when it was seen as an old man’s drink. I’m delighted to be a part of such a historic craft but also one that is growing and evolving so quickly. It’s an exciting time to be in whisky.
What album are you currently listening to?
Cocoa Sugar from Young Fathers – they’re an amazing group from Edinburgh.
Favourite spot to enjoy a nip of Johnnie?
At the end of the day, it’s all about who you’re enjoying it with. But, if you’re putting me on the spot I’ll go with my favourite bar, The Last Word Saloon in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge. It’s a great little relaxed bar with a solid selection of whisky and excellent cocktails – definitely worth a visit if you’re in town!
Want to get access to exclusive content including Johnnie Walker news and updates? Sign up to Diageo Bar Academy today for unlimited access to it all.
Send us your serves
Send us a photo and recipe for your new or favourite serves