School chemistry is often a subject undertaken to fill in the hours of mandatory curriculum. Most of those hours are spent figuring out what can be set alight on a bunsen burner. Emma Walker was never that kind of chemistry student; she was a brighter breed destined for making history in an industry dating back more than 500 years.
"Early on at school I realised that I was good at chemistry and enjoyed studying it," Walker explains.
"Thankfully, this made deciding what I wanted to do at university an easy choice. When I got there, someone handed me a Talisker and that began my love for whisky and my passion for flavour."
After completing her PhD and sampling the fruits of a conventional career as a process chemist, Walker’s mind was set as she ventured down a road much less travelled.
"Holding a passion for flavours and science from an early age, I knew I wanted to do something that could involve flavour with my background in chemistry. In 2008, I applied for a job at the Diageo Brand Technical Centre in Menstrie, Scotland, and I haven’t looked back since."
The spiritual leader
Walker may share the same family name of the company she currently works for, but make no mistake, she is no heir or trust fund recipient to the Johnnie Walker empire. The Master Blender title she holds, the highest rank in whisky craftsmanship, demands a unique set of sensory skills honed through decades of rigorous field work with spirits and relentless attention to detail exceeding the flavour palate of mere mortals.
"The major benefit we have is experience, training and time – we’ve spent time learning how to translate what we smell and taste into words, to be able to communicate with the whisky team and others," she reveals.
"When I joined the team, one of the tests was to nose spirits and food and describe them. This experience and training, and a passion for flavour, is what enables us to create whiskies, understanding how these flavours combine and work together."
Making the calls in the taste department is one thing, but Walker is quick to credit her team in the perpetual creation of new whisky expressions to connect with the growing demand of global consumers.
"The chemistry background is fundamental as it helps me understand how and where flavour is created in the whisky-making process," she explains.
"I work with a team of 12 expert whisky makers. Each brings their own experience, education and personality, making the team a blend. All are flavour experts and have strong technical and scientific backgrounds."
Master blending under pressure
Walker would have fallen in love with whisky at a time where it commonly flew under the radar among serious connoisseurs and quiet collectors. Times have changed though and she’s buoyant about whisky’s mainstream resurgence in the past decade.
"Whisky is in great shape – more and more people are interested in what we do," she says. "We are seeing more women enjoying whisky, building on a strong existing foundation. I believe the range of flavours available in Scotch and the diversity in whisky serves is helping to widen the whisky market."
Even the whisky-making side has seen a significant spike in appeal, with more female operators and engineers joining the plethora of different sites littered across Scotland.
"In our whisky team, we have an even gender balance and there are female master blenders at Buchanan’s and Signature, within Diageo. It’s great to see. Whisky has a very bright future," Walker smiles.
Of course, taking on such a senior role at an iconic whisky house like Johnnie Walker doesn’t come without a bit of pressure.
"It is a privilege but with it comes huge responsibility and we all feel that as a team every day," she admits.
"I’m also conscious of being part of an incredible tradition at Johnnie Walker. Every whisky maker in our team knows the role we play in a brand that has a 200-year history of craftsmanship and blending.
"Our Founder John Walker sought out the finest whiskies from the four corners of Scotland in order to craft something really special for his customers. 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 flavour through blending."
While women in the whisky business are more commonplace now, the story could have been a bit different in the earlier years. Walker says she’s grateful she didn’t have to face any gender ceilings or invisible obstacles on her way to the top.
"I can only speak for Johnnie Walker, and I am lucky to have had a very positive experience with support in every role. We make our whiskies to be enjoyed by everyone and that is at the heart of everything we do – no-one is excluded," she says.
"Additionally, some of the changes that Diageo and Johnnie Walker have implemented in terms of diversity and inclusivity have been incredible. It is great to be part of an organisation that is so proactive."
It’s little surprise then that Walker will one day be paying it forward when it comes to anyone else who has the tenacity to step up to the daunting challenge of whisky blending – irrespective of their gender.
Secret to overcoming self-doubt
Walker may exude the calm demeanour necessary of any high-performing lab coat enthusiast, but she’s still only human.
"Of course there’s been self-doubt!" she concedes. "But I have learned from the best, including my predecessor, Jim Beveridge, and the team that he built over many years.
"The way that Jim enabled and empowered our small team of 12 whisky blenders to work together and to draw out each of their incredible individual talents is something that allows me to look to the team and lean on their incredible skills when those inevitable moments of self-doubt arrive."
And those inevitable challenges that Walker speaks of? They’re naturally monumental given the whisky pedigree of the name itself: to continue the legacy that has been built at Johnnie Walker for more than 200 years through meticulous innovation.
Walking towards the future
It’s no surprise that the process of reaching an authoritative role like Walker’s, which enables one to dictate what a Johnnie Walker whisky tastes like to millions around the world, isn’t governed by conventional rules of corporate ladder climbing.
"There is no set time, no set path," she says. "I feel very lucky that this is where my journey has taken me. To follow in the footsteps of this unbroken lineage of Johnnie Walker master blenders dating back to our Founder John Walker is incredible."
In the interim, Walker will be looking forward to utilising the innovations in today’s science to enable her team to learn more about whisky making and flavour, while using those findings to create even more whiskies to capture the tastebuds of customers.
"I want to make sure we’re continuing the Walker tradition of innovation and looking to the future, so making sure we continue to have a great inventory of maturing Scotch for our future whisky makers is essential," she shares.
"My proudest moment has been getting the opportunity to lead this wonderful team built by Jim. I love going into work every day to work with these guys. They are all so passionate about whisky and about continuing that Johnnie Walker legacy and securing it for the next 200 years."
Who says you can’t mix work and play? Not this Master Blender.
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