women in whiskey
Covering both the science of distilling and the history of women in whiskey is less like a boring lesson and more like a great conversation over whiskey.
Launch of Diageo’s Craftswomen Program
In the heart of New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, sits the Highline Hotel, a former theological seminary. Its original property was purchased in 1750 by British Major Thomas Clarke, who christened it “Chelsea” after a district in London, England, and making it one of New York City’s oldest neighborhoods. But it was Clarke’s grandson, author Clement Clark Moore who made a bit of history here when he penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas”.
Walking up to the majestic collegiate gothic style building, one feels like you stepped back in time. So, it was certainly magical and fitting that another historical moment was about to take place: the NYC launch of Diageo’s Craftswomen Program celebrating “pioneering women who make some of the world’s most beloved spirits.”
Celebrating pioneering women who make some of the world’s most beloved spirits.
Brief Background on Diageo
Diageo is a publicly listed company headquartered in London with offices in 80+ countries. Diageo boasts over 200 brands in its portfolio including Johnnie Walker, Lagavulin, The Singleton, Crown Royal, and Bulleit. It is the largest Scotch whisky producer with 38% market share (Source: whiskyinvestdirect.com).
Diageo Craftswomen highlights whisk(e)y women Crown Royal Master Whisky Blender Joanna Scandella (Canadian Whiskey), Buchanan’s Master Blender Maureen Robinson (Scotch Whisky), Cascade Hollow General Manager, and Distiller Nicole Austin (George Dickel Whiskey) amongst other women in spirits. However, this article will focus on Bulleit Blender, Eboni Major and Johnnie Walker Master Blender, Emma Walker, who presented at this event.
Blazing New Trails
Along with two of my “whisk(e)y sisters,” Diageo staff escorted us from the street entrance through the courtyard, up the stairs inside to another set of stairs, spilling into the reception area. We were greeted with hors d’ouevres and welcome cocktails and a “whisk(e)y wall” of Johnnie Walker and Bulleit bottles including their two new whisk(e)ys: Bulleit Blenders’ Select Blend No. 001 and the 2020 Jane Walker.
After sips and socializing, they ushered us into another room for the first educational session.
Johnnie Walker Master Blender Emma Walker
Johnnie Walker Master Blender Emma Walker led our portfolio tasting featuring Cardhu 12, Cardhu Gold Reserve, Clynelish 14 and of course, Jane Walker. Jane Walker 2020 is a limited edition Blended Malt Scotch Whisky aged 10 years celebrating Cardhu, a Single Malt at the heart of Johnnie Walker blends. (You may recall in last month’s article on Women in Whiskey, we included the role played by the Cumming sisters at Cardhu Distillery before it was sold to the Walker family in 1893.)
Emma graduated with a chemistry degree from Sheffield University and worked briefly at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline before joining Diageo in 2008, and was involved in several expressions of Johnnie Walker. However, it was her work on the Blenders' Batch series (focused on showcasing blending innovation) that she was publicly celebrated. In 2016, Emma travelled to New York to introduce Johnnie Walker Red Rye Finish to industry influencers and promote it as an alternative to American whiskey for the Manhattan cocktail.
In 2020, Emma is celebrated again as the lead for the creation of Jane Walker by Johnnie Walker 2020 that features her name on the bottle. This limited edition original blend is aged 10 years with an ABV of 41.9% and official tasting notes from Diageo defines it as “well-rounded and smooth, featuring notes of ripe orchard fruit and white peaches, which develop into hints of baked apple and sweet cream, with a lingering dark chocolate finish.”
As Emma led us through the tasting, she addressed questions from the audience about Johnnie Walker whisky, her role at Diageo and the transformation of the perception of whisk(e)y as a “man’s drink.” She made it clear that while Diageo celebrates all whisk(e)y drinkers, both male and female, the blend’s palate was made to appeal to people who in general who may think all Scotch is one note of heavy peat and that Jane Walker was made to celebrate women in whisk(e)y. Whisk(e)y drinkers seem to all have “that friend” who thinks all Scotch tastes this way; mine was Joey, a gin and tonic fan who admitted to me that he felt “intimidated” by whisk(e)y.
After this informative and delicious tasting, we were then whisked off to another room to be led through a “blending lab” by Eboni Major, blender for Bulleit bourbon. It featured a classroom style seating arrangement that gave us our own tools for a “blending lab” and a large projector screen with a slide entitled “Bulleit Frontier Whiskey: Blending Lab Formation of Flavor”.
They allowed us to settle in (which included a quick bathroom break and replenishment of munch inventory to make certain that we “taste responsibly”), Eboni dove into both her background and an agenda focused on Flavor Formation and Flavor Optimization.
I was fortunate enough to get a one one-on-one phone interview; background information below is an aggregate of both her presentation and that interview.
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EBONI MAJOR, BLENDER, BULLEIT BOURBON
Blenders are involved in the entire distillation process with other team members, from grain and yeast planning all the way to blend formulation.
Eboni Major ended up in her role in a roundabout kind of way. As a young girl, she grew up in a busy household where cooking was a large part of her life. Her passion for flavor and curiosity for how food was produced and created led her to major in Food Science & Technology at the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University and went on to earn a master’s degree in Food Science.
Although her professional background began in Quality Control, Eboni discovered an opportunity for an internship with Diageo and was offered a role on the Bulleit Blending Team. Her work ethic led her to proactively seek out career development opportunities to grow including occasionally coming to the lab on a weekend to ensure that the product being made remained consistent.
She came up with the idea of expanding the product line with a new blend and mentioned this to her boss. To Eboni’s surprise, her boss not only supported the idea but gave her two months to prepare for a formal pitch. Like many high achievers, she admitted to sometimes falling prey to the “Impostor Syndrome” (i.e. feelings of self-doubt) but was quick to cite the supportive culture of the company and specifically her immediate boss and team members.
Eboni’s blend, formally named Bulleit Blender’s Select No. 001, debuted March 2020. It uses three out of 10 whiskeys from their flagship product. Aged for a minimum of nine years with an ABV of 50% and fully matured in new American white oak barrels flamed to a #4 char with the barrel head flamed to a #2 char. Official tasting notes define it as having a “medium-amber appearance; nose of vanilla bean, honey, and dried fruit; rich and fruit-forward with tones of toasted oak taste; smooth, balanced finish with a lingering of sweet cream and fruit wine decadence."
My inner whisk(e)y geek thoroughly enjoyed her detailed slides of the making of their whiskey and facts such as their blending season lasting from March to June. Eboni emphasized how Blenders do not simply wait for the distillates to be given to them to blend, but instead are involved in the entire process with other team members from grain and yeast planning all the way to blend formulation. She spoke of mash bills, used terms like “grumpy yeast” and “phenolic,” and whipped out a maturation graph.
On a typical day, Eboni doesn’t wear anything perfumed, has a nondescript breakfast of a hard-boiled egg, and perhaps an orange peeled for her by a colleague, followed by a nondescript lunch, like a plain salad. She waits to indulge in more “flavorful” meals at dinner time. Her meticulous routine has trained her to know things like during fermentation if she smells juicy fruit or banana bread, all is well.
She's aware that even in 2020, people meeting her are still surprised (in a good way) to find out that she is a blender. Most people still picture an older Caucasian gentleman in her role. She's delighted when people randomly find it on a shelf and, after buying it, learn it was made by a woman.
Eboni then gave us a chance to recreate her blend...although a fellow “whiskey scientist” did point out we only had 20 minutes and were being given cask strength distillates in the test tubes and 20% diluted distillates in the tasting glasses.
In case you’re wondering, I knew ahead of time, my fiddling around with the graduated cylinder, test tubes, and beaker that “Hazel’s Blend” was going to come out a little “hotter” on the palate than Eboni’s, as was the case with the women sitting on either side of me. The blending lab was great because not only did we get to geek out, but we socialized with other people.
Our final herding led us into a great hall with multiple stations for cocktails and neat pours. We were then treated to a spirits industry panel featuring Eboni, Emma, Speedrack co-founder Lynette Marrero, the foodie magazine, Cherry Bombe, editorial director Kerry Diamond, and 2019 U.S. Bartender of the Year, Katie Renshaw and a final round of cocktails.
Cheers all and we hope that you join us for our next installment of Women in Whiskey!