Master distiller, master blender, malt master… these job titles get bandied about quite liberally in the world of whisky. There is one job where the ‘master’ moniker still feels wholly appropriate, though. Master blender for Diageo is probably the biggest blending job in Scotch whisky. It involves blending all the regular expressions of Johnnie Walker – the best-selling Scotch whisky in the world – as well as creating special editions like Blue Label Ghost and Rare and Masters of Flavour.
It’s a position that’s been in place since Johnnie Walker was founded in the early 19th Century and has seen only seven others since take up the title. But recently, there has been a changing of the guard. After 42 years with Diageo and over 20 years in this prominent position, Dr Jim Beveridge retired from the business at the end of 2021, making way for Dr Emma Walker, the first woman to ever take on the role.
Talking to Beveridge just three weeks before his retirement in the new Johnnie Walker Princes Street store in Edinburgh, he reflected on what’s at the heart of the biggest whisky blending job in the world. And yet, he mostly talked about the team he led: 12 blenders who work across the Diageo portfolio. According to Beveridge, ideas are brought to the table by individuals, but the blend that results is truly a collaborative effort. ‘If a blend was always made by one person, we would simply be making a whisky for ourselves rather than many, many different whiskies for the world’.
If a blend was always made by one person, we would simply be making a whisky for ourselves rather than many, many different whiskies for the world
Good news, then, that his successor, Dr Emma Walker, is of that same team mentality. Walker, who took up the master blender position at the beginning of 2022, had already been with Diageo for 13 years and in many ways, she is very like Beveridge: unassuming and immediately likeable. Above all, it is working as part of a team that she says she enjoys the most.
If it’s all about the team, though, why is the top title of master blender so important? Blends are about consistency, and with his long years of service, this is one of the great things Beveridge was able to accomplish for the company. I recently tasted a Johnnie Walker Black Label from the 1980s and compared it to a current bottle: it was difficult to tell the two apart. It is an incredible skill to be able to take many different whiskies and blend them together to taste the same year on year – particularly for a brand that’s enjoyed by so many, sold to over 180 countries around the world.
Dr Emma Walker doesn’t seem daunted, though, when we meet just two weeks into her new role. During her time with Diageo, Walker has mostly worked with the Scotch team. I first met her nearly eight years ago when she worked at Knockando distillery, before seeing an opening to move back to the Scotch team. She has never looked back, and recent accomplishments include being the lead on the likes of Blue Label Ghost and Rare. She says she is looking forward to working with even more old and rare liquids.
I ask her how, after all the work Beveridge has done, she would be transforming things, and she responds that little would change in the way things are run – consistency is still key, it would seem. However, she has an overarching plan for new whisky.
If apples are supposed to be the main fruit flavour profile, I want people to say, “oh yes, I really do taste apples”
Walker wants to ‘bring out the flavour’. That might sound funny, given that whisky is already a drink that’s all about flavour, but she explains how her plan is about focusing on the particular notes in each dram. ‘If at a tasting or in a store, the guide describes the flavours in a dram, I want them to be very recognisable. If apples are supposed to be the main fruit flavour profile, I want people to say, “oh yes, I really do taste apples”.’
These might seem like simple plans, but she sees them as fundamental in a person’s whisky journey. A dual approach to keeping things consistent when it comes to the old and experimenting when it comes to the new should mean that Dr Emma Walker is a very safe pair of hands to pass the master blender baton on to.