The way Dr Emma Walker describes it, her ascent from starting out as a chemist to becoming master blender at whisky giant Diageo has been something of a ‘lucky path’ – but undoubtedly with sizeable amounts of hard work, determination and ambition spurring her on to fill the shoes of outgoing whisky mentor, Dr Jim Beveridge OBE
WORDS: RICHARD GOSLAN
Everyone’s whisky journey starts somewhere. The path to Dr Emma Walker’s appointment as Diageo’s first female master blender may have started out with a student road trip to Lochranza, thanks to a flatmate whose grandparents happened to live on Arran.
“We visited the island just as the distillery at Lochranza was opening,” says Emma. “We did a tour and I think that actually sparked the thought: ‘How do I change my chemistry to promote the whisky side of this?’ It stayed at the back of my mind and kept bubbling away.”
After completing her PhD in Organic Chemistry, Emma was working with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in Montrose, but with one eye on any opportunities with Diageo’s nearby operations. When a position came up as a project scientist, she jumped at the chance to change track.
“I was like: ‘I can be a whisky scientist! That’s amazing!’ I wish I’d known about that sooner, I would’ve done better in my exams!”
Emma’s development within Diageo included carrying out a distance-learning diploma with Heriot-Watt University’s Institute of Brewing and Distilling, as well as immersing herself in “learning as much as I could about flavour, how we make flavour in whisky, in the distilleries, in maturation, understanding all the systems”. A period as training distillery manager at Knockando distillery on Speyside followed, before a role opened up within Diageo’s whisky team, focussing on innovation and single malts.
“It was fun but also quite terrifying,” says Emma. “I’ve been working since then very closely with Jim as a ‘whisky technical specialist’, on strategic projects, quality and also innovations.”
Those innovations include the first two Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare bottlings, the Brora and Port Ellen editions, as well as the Jane Walker edition of Black Label. “It was fascinating going from working on, say, 12-year-old single malt bottlings and some of our other Johnnie Walkers to then working on something that was just a limited-time option,” says Emma.
“You can delve into the wee pockets of stock that we have but we don’t get to use all the time, so that was absolutely amazing.
“I was then asked to work on Jane Walker, which I found really interesting. We wanted to ‘hero’ the flavours of Johnnie Walker Black Label in Jane Walker, in the same way that we explored the flavours of Johnnie Walker Blue Label in the Ghost and Rare series.”
Emma’s handover from Dr Jim Beveridge became official at the start of this year. She takes it as a vote of confidence that the veteran master blender is happy to step back and pass the baton on to Emma and her team.
“Jim has been building the skills and experience of all of us in the whisky team, and a big part of the shoes I have to fill is to build on the work that Jim has done to enhance the experience and knowledge of the team,” says Emma.
“Jim’s also like Janus, he can see into the past and into the future, and that’s something I’m focussed on as much as possible as well – understanding all the complexities of how we were producing whisky in the past, and how we’re making whisky now, and how we want to produce whisky in the future.”
So how does that vision look to Emma as we enter 2022?
“You can see that some people are enjoying sweeter, lighter whiskies, but you also have people that still adore the more traditional, robust flavours, we need to be able to keep those options open,” she says. “I think people very much enjoy talking about flavour, something that you guys [at the SMWS] do well. We also need to look at how people are going to be drinking whisky, and what are the experiences that they’re going to be having.”
In terms of her own enjoyment of a dram, Emma’s come a long way from being a somewhat militant bartender as a student, telling punters off for daring to go for ice or water.
“I was terrible for saying: ‘You can’t have any water in your whisky, you can’t have any ice.’ As I’ve matured I actually like having a dram with a bit of ice in it, I like the way the texture changes and the flavours reveal themselves in different ways.
“But it all depends on who you’re drinking with, and why you’re drinking it. I also love whisky cocktails, a smoky Old Fashioned or a smoky Negroni, where you can embrace flavours and play with them in different ways, that’s really exciting. It’s almost a continuation of the blender’s love.”
However we enjoy our whisky, Emma encourages us to explore the drink’s complexities and depths through experimentation – starting with playing around with how much water to add to your glass.
“I’ve been working since then very closely with Jim as a ‘whisky technical specialist’, on strategic projects, quality and also innovations.”
Emma Walker, on working with Jim Beveridge (pictured)
“As blenders, we nose whisky in a few different ways in the lab, depending on what we’re trying to do at that point in time,” she says. “When we start getting cask samples, we dilute them down to 23% abv, because that can be better for us to say: ‘Right, that one’s ready to use now, that one needs a little bit more time.’ It also means it’s easier for us to nose a wider range without going nose blind.
“But then as you’re getting further through in innovation, you start to go: ‘Right, what’s this going to be like at 40%?’ But you then also re-dilute it as well, to go: ‘Right, how does that taste if it is diluted? What are the mouthfeel and textures?’”
In terms of approaching the Society’s cask strength bottlings, Emma’s advice is the same – play with dilution to find what works best for you.
“Trying a whisky at cask strength is good, but you need to be aware that there might be some aromas, some flavours, that you don’t get because of the actual alcohol strength in there as well,” she says. “Taking it down to 40% abv is a good way of then going: ‘Right, what is this like at traditional bottling strength? How does that change this?’ There’s the nose and taste, but also the texture, which for me is a part that we don’t talk about as much.
“And then taking it down to 23% is a good representation of what strength it would be if you were having a highball or cocktail. It’s just trying it in lots of different ways, changing the structure from it being so hydrophobic to hydrophilic, and that’s part of the joy, having the freedom to be able to explore whisky in different ways.”
Dr Emma Walker’s handover from Dr Jim Beveridge became official at the start of this year