Talking Blended Excellence with… Emma Walker

Talking Blended Excellence with… Emma Walker

We sat down with Dr Emma Walker, expert whisky maker at Johnnie Walker, to talk about the increasingly popular category of premium blends

News | 27 Oct 2021 | By Christopher Coates

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Emma Walker has a PhD in organic chemistry and is one of Johnnie Walker’s 12-strong, half-female blending team. As one of Diageo’s whisky specialists for Scotland, she oversees some of the single malt and blended Scotch portfolio, with a focus on Johnnie Walker – one of the world’s most popular Scotch whiskies. At the end of this year, she will succeed Jim Beveridge OBE as Johnnie Walker’s master blender, as Beveridge will then enter retirement.

How do you approach the creation of a premium blend?
Every whisky we craft is created to deliver a great taste experience – the whisky team is passionate about delivering this. Each whisky experience should be amazing, and that’s how we approach crafting any new whisky, from a whisky like Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare to Johnnie Walker Black Label.

Each member of our small team, led by Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge, has their own way of working and thinking about the inventory, and brings their own inspiration, experience and passions to the blending table when crafting a new whisky – luxury or otherwise. As blenders, we always work to create a whisky that is greater than the sum of its parts – we want to enhance the flavours of wonderful individual Scotch whiskies by combining them and amplifying the layers of flavour . . .

What is the target demographic for these blends?
We craft our Scotch for anyone who appreciates flavour, from whisky enthusiasts and collectors to people who are newer to the world of whisky. Our whiskies are for people who want to explore and understand more about exceptional whisky. This remains true whether we’re crafting a whisky like Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare Glenury Royal, using some of the rarest whiskies in our reserves, or working with whiskies aged for 18 years for Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years . . .

Are these blends for sipping neat, mixing, or both?
We want people to explore, enjoy and experiment with the amazing depth and breadth of flavour that Scotch whisky has to offer as a category. Some people have a perception that there’s a ‘right way’ to drink whisky – while the familiar and traditional serves can be great, there are no hard and fast rules, and we want people to enjoy and explore the flavours in a way that suits them.

That means that if someone wants to simply enjoy the wonderfully smooth flavours of Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years on the rocks or neat, then that is great; however, if someone feels that the sweet fruit, creamy smoothness and warm spice that define the expression would be amazing with ginger ale, then we are all for that too – that is the versatility of whisky, especially Scotch. People should drink whisky however they enjoy it most (no matter what the price point of the whisky).

During this ‘age of single malt’, do you think die-hard whisky fans are coming back around to the idea of blends as premium and desirable products?
It’s good to see Scotch whisky being enjoyed by people around the world, and recently there’s been a rise in the popularity of single malts, particularly among whisky fans – for us, interest in blended Scotch whisky follows naturally on from this. People now want to know more about what they’re consuming when drinking a great-tasting whisky that’s been created with passion and expertise, and that’s regardless of the type of Scotch.

Our focus has always been on quality and flavour, and we’re immensely proud of the craft that goes into creating each one of our whiskies, from the malting to the glass. Since our founder, John Walker, first opened the doors to a small grocery store in Scotland more than 200 years ago, we’ve been on a journey in the pursuit of excellence – and that hasn’t changed! It’s wonderful to see people appreciating great whisky more than ever, and our job is to make sure that continues for another 200 years.

What makes your blends special or unique?
. . . We believe [Johnnie Walker Blue Label] is exceptional, and has something that’s very hard to get elsewhere. Every drop is crafted using rare, handpicked whiskies from across the four corners of Scotland. We often say that only 1 in 10,000 casks in our unparalleled reserves of over 10 million maturing Scotch whiskies have the depth and character required of Blue Label. There is no other Scotch whisky maker who can call on such incredible reserves of rare whiskies. Indeed, some of the whiskies that give Blue Label its character are very rare expressions from distilleries that closed many years ago – ‘ghost’ distilleries such as Port Ellen, Pittyvaich, Brora and Port Dundas . . . Every batch of Blue Label is carefully nosed and tasted by our team, who check the quality and character of the whisky . . . All of this, we believe, makes Johnnie Walker Blue Label something really exceptional.

What do you think a premium blend can bring to the table that a single malt can’t?
We tend not to think in terms of one whisky type over another . . . We want to offer great-tasting whisky that gives people a real flavour experience and we believe that Johnnie Walker offers a depth and breadth of flavour that no individual whisky can provide . . . That range is created from exploring bold flavours that can be found in individual whiskies, and bringing those together.

What proportion of grain to malt do you usually work to when blending?
We wouldn’t usually talk about exact proportions of whiskies in our blends, and measuring grain to malt whisky is not something that is at the forefront of our minds. We concentrate on flavour and texture, bringing together the selected individual whiskies in the right proportions to achieve the final whisky we want – everything flows from that. If we get that right, then it is a success.

Read Christopher's article on six of the best blended whiskies of 2021 here. We're talking to each of the palates behind these whiskies — read more 'Talking Blended Excellence with...' features as they come out here.
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