It’s February and whisky love is in the air!
We’re getting ready to celebrate International Scotch Day* (February 8th) and this month we introduce you to Emma Walker, Johnnie Walker’s first female Master Blender in its 200-year history. For the record, she stated that while she is part of a Walker family, as far as she is aware, not THAT Walker family; though she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of very distant connections.
If you’ve been reading Whiskey Network from our start in 2020 (and thank you for your support, if you have!), you might recall that we were lucky enough to attend a Diageo Craftswomen event in New York where Emma led a portfolio tasting of Cardhu 12, Cardhu Gold Reserve, Clynelish 14 and Jane Walker.
(Geek fact: International Scotch Day was introduced several years ago by Diageo to help promote the Scotch Whisky category with February being chosen in honor of the birthday of Alexander Walker. Alexander was the son of ‘Johnnie’ Walker, blender and credited with their famous square bottle and slant label.)
Since she was younger, Emma loved science, especially chemistry and ended up majoring in chemistry and earning her PhD. When she was at University, most chemistry majors ended up in pharmaceuticals or gas and oil. Emma herself ended up working at GlaxoSmithKline but was keeping an eye out for “something different”.
In 2008 a position opened up at Diageo. Emma applied and was interviewed by Scotch whisky icons Maureen Robinson and Dr. Jim Beveridge, who was their Master Blender at the time. (Amongst his numerous accolades, Dr. Beveridge, has been credited with Johnnie Walker Blue.) Dr. Beveridge retired in 2021 after four decades and passed the mantle to Emma.
As the first female Master Blender dedicated to the Johnnie Walker portfolio, Emma was excited to return to her not only her own Universities, but others as well to talk to science students about a career path they might not have known was available to them.
One of the things that Emma remembered from her interview was that when she applied, it was for a Project Scientist but it had not specified that it would be in beverages. She was awestruck at meeting female Master Blenders Maureen Robinson and Caroline Martin (who both worked on several products between them including The Singleton Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Roe & Co. Irish Whiskey) and loved the vibe.
It was then that she decided that even if she didn’t get this particular job, she would keep on trying because she wanted to work for Diageo.
Today Emma continues to lead a team of 12 responsible for the Johnnie Walker portfolio. When asked about something she wants people to know about her job and the Johnnie Walker line, she pointed out that by its very nature as a blended Scotch whisky of both Single malt and grain whiskies, her team works directly with over 30+ distilleries and their teams as 11 million casks mature.
Johnnie Walker Whisky
While everyone may be familiar with the name Johnnie Walker, here are a few facts about the history of the brand itself
- John Walker was a farmer’s son who set up a grocery shop in Kilmarnock, Scotland
- Unlike other grocers who simply sold single malt Scotches that had inconsistent flavor, he decided to blend and sell whisky that offered a consistent flavor and quality
- The iconic Johnnie Walker logo was based off of the original Striding Man created by illustrator Tom Brown, who agreed to customize a version for the Walkers
- The whiskies stand out due to their slanted label and square bottles, which also proved to be useful in shipping on boats as the shape allows for more bottles to be packed and less breakage occurs (thanks to Alexander, John’s son who took over the business when he passed)
- Speaking of shipping, it is most likely both the ease of shipping and the partnerships with ship captains made by Alexander that has helped their whisky to be available in over 120 countries by 1920. Today Johnnie Walker is enjoyed in over 180 countries, over 90% of total countries [based on definition by the United Nations].
Although they do have a core range with familiar names such as Black, Double Black, and Blue, their portfolio often features specialty whiskies that may not be as well known.
For this article, we’re highlighting two recent ones, Johnnie Walker Blonde, an innovation which is now part of their core range joining Black, Green, Gold, etc. and their latest edition to the limited bottle design collection, the 2023 Lunar New Year Johnnie Walker Blue.
Johnnie Walker Blonde
Introduced in 2021 to a select group of cities around the world, Johnnie Walker Blonde is
a more accessible style of Scotch focused introducing drinker to Scotch whisky that is also ideal for mixing. Its makeup includes “bright Scotch from Cameronbrige and fruity whiskies from Cardhu matured in American oak to add sweet toffee and caramel notes”. Its official tasting notes list its smell as bright berries and toffee with a taste sweet vanilla & apple, drizzled with caramel and a light finish.
Pro-tip: Emma recommends pairing this with panna cotta, crème brulée, or ice cream.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label Lunar New Year 2023
In case you might not be familiar with the Blue, here’s a quick overview
- Debuted in 1992 from Emma’s predecessor, Dr. Beveridge
- It is a nod to their inaugural whisky named “Old Highland” in 1967
- Diageo famously states that only “1 in 10,000 casks meets their standards to produce the Blue Label”
- Official tasting notes are
Smell: Waves of spice give way to vanilla and honey
Taste: Caramel and hazelnuts course through dark chocolate
Finish: Luxuriously long, warming, smoky finish
Their 2023 Lunar New Year celebrating the Year of the Rabbit is a collaboration with Shanghai based designer, Angel Chen, who graduated from the prestigious Central Saint Martin College of Art in London. This modern interpretation of the rabbit showcases Angel’s skills which she describes as a “defiant energy….[of the] vibrant spirit of the rabbit… symbolizing how we need to keep moving forward, spreading goodness throughout the year to come.”
Whisky for Everyone
Emma is excited about how the culture of the world whiskey market has evolved to be innovative not only in products but also in perception of a “typical drinker” to embrace people of all genders, cultures, and backgrounds.
This includes their ‘First Strides’ initiative to celebrate and enable people and organizations taking bold steps and pushing boundaries to move culture forward and create positive change. through dedicated programming for to empowered trailblazing women in both private and public sectors across four key impact pillars: Empowerment, Funding, Mentorship and Visibility. Partner organizations include IFundWomen, a funding marketplace for women-owned businesses, and She Should Run, the only nonpartisan organization focused on cultivating the potential of women who may have never considered elected leadership, but should.
For news on upcoming releases, Emma recommends following their Global Ambassador, Tim Philips-Johannson on Instagram (@timdphilips) as well as their official Instagram and Twitter channels for your country, keeping an eye out for all upcoming events including Women’s Month celebrations and annual favorites such as their Tartan Week Celebration in New York City.
For the more adventurous, visit their $208m USD Princess Street immersive experience in Edinburgh that spans eight floors, features two rooftop bar and amazing views of Edinburgh Castle.
We thank Emma for taking the time out to chat with us and look forward to the release of new expressions!