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In conversation with Johnnie Walker's first female master blender

Photo: pexels

Emma Walker shares the importance of having more women in highly visible roles

By IANSlife

May 25, 2023 (IANSlife) Every year, Norwegian Cruise Line teams up with renowned wineries to create this seasonal program designed for wine enthusiasts and foodies at all skill levels called- Meet the Winemaker series. The cruise provides exclusive opportunities to engage with winemakers and other experts through a variety of enriching seminars and activities, which include intimate wine tastings and wine-paired dinners, interactive culinary demonstrations, and meet-and-greets on board.

Johnnie Walker is one of the most iconic and globally recognised whisky brands. Emma walker is an integral part of the Johnnie Walker team, responsible for creating some of the world’s most distinctive and highly acclaimed blends. With over 20 years of experience in the industry, Emma has a wealth of knowledge and insight to share about the art and science of whisky blending.

Emma Walker, Master Blender for NCL speaks with IANSlife

How did you get into whisky blending? What skills do you need?

Emma Walker: My journey into the world of whisky blending has been very serendipitous! Early on at school I realised that I was good at chemistry and enjoyed studying it. Thankfully, this made deciding what I wanted to do at university an easy choice. When I got there, someone handed me a Talisker and that began my love for whisky and my passion for flavour. In 2008, I applied for a job at Diageo’s Technical Centre in Menstrie, Scotland, and I haven’t looked back since!

As far as skills are concerned, there’s no doubt that a scientific background and analytical mindset are valuable tools for a Scotch whisky blender to have, but a deep passion for flavour underpins everything and is something that’s universal to everyone on our team.

What are the important tasks for you as master blender?

Emma Walker: As a blender no two days are the same, and that’s one of my favourite things about the role. There’s a lot to keep you on your toes and it depends what project we’re working on, but every day includes sensory exploration or product checks. 

 I’ve been lucky to gain experience in several different areas in whisky production - fermentation, distillation and maturation - which has allowed me the chance to develop a well-rounded understanding of flavour and its journey through the whisky making process. I love my role as it gives me the opportunity to marry my background in science with my passion for flavour.

Another important part of the role is communication: with the Whisky Team on current projects, with Marketing and Innovation on what we need to do for the future, and with colleagues in Distilling, Maturation and Planning on what flavours we’re creating today.

What did it mean to you to become the first female master blender for Johnnie Walker?

Emma Walker: Our whisky makers team at Johnnie Walker has always been evenly balanced in terms of gender, and we’ve had female master blenders for J&B Rare, Bell’s and Buchanan’s (within Diageo). So, when I was offered the role of master blender for Johnnie Walker, I was focused on being the next in an unbroken lineage of Blenders and continuing to strive for quality and innovation. As I’ve spent more time in the role, I’ve come to realise the significance of being the first female Johnnie Walker master blender.The more I speak to people, the more I realise the importance of having more women in highly visible roles.

I really feel the weight of responsibility that such an incredible role brings. It is exciting but the whole team is very conscious of the incredible flavour tradition at Johnnie Walker. Every whisky maker in our team values the special role we play in such an amazing brand that has a 200-year history of craftsmanship and blending. That is where the significance lies.

What would be your advice for other women who want to work in whisky?

Emma Walker: My advice to people looking to work in whisky is to (responsibly) try as many whiskies as you can and think about the flavours and how you talk about them. Also, make sure to network with a wide range of people within the industry to understand the different types of roles available and to gain experience.

Now a year into your role, what have been some of your goals or challenges so far, and what do you aim to achieve in the short and longer term?

Emma Walker: With Scotch Whisky, the challenge is that it has been loved and enjoyed by so many people for such a long time; meaning that we have to find new ways of exploring and experimenting with it to surprise people. It’s a great challenge and one that we as a team embrace every day.  

Since the time of our founder, John Walker, we’ve never wanted to stand still. We’ve always explored new possibilities in whisky with one eye on the future and now we are looking to craft whiskies for the next 200 years.

Do you have anything exciting lined up for this year that you can talk to us about?

Emma Walker: We have so many exciting projects lined up for this year, it is a very invigorating time for the Johnnie Walker and for whisky more generally. I can’t really talk about these plans just yet but everyone should watch this space –it is going to be a lot of fun!

What are your favourite destinations for amazing whisky and why?

Emma Walker: It often depends on the people that you’re with… that is usually what makes a great occasion. There is nothing better than sitting in Murrayfield watching Scotland win with a small whisky in hand, surrounded by friends!

Some of my favourite places to enjoy whisky in Edinburgh are:

  • Johnnie Walker Princes Street – of course! The 1820 bar and the Explorer’s Bothy bar are both amazing
  • Nauticus, Bittersweet, Leith Depot and Mother Superior are great bars for enjoying a dram or cocktail in Leith


Do you draw on countries, cultures and flavours from across the world when creating whisky? If so, do you have any memorable examples?

Emma Walker: We’re very lucky to be able to work with amazing colleagues around the world – in Marketing and Innovation and our wonderful Brand Ambassadors, who bring the world of flavour and serves back to our lab! We’re also very lucky to be involved with Diageo World Class and spend time with gifted bartenders from around the world and learn about what different flavours, ingredients and serves are prevailing in their regions.

What excites you most about your Meet-the-Master-Blender sailing on board Norwegian Prima?

Emma Walker: I’m very excited to be able to join the Norwegian Prima, to meet great people and talk about whisky, Johnnie Walker and flavour! It will be a great opportunity to introduce people to the wider world of Johnnie Walker, and to learn more about what the guests enjoy about whisky. And of course, the opportunity to travel on the Norwegian Prima!

Do you expect more whisky fans or novices to join your tastings on board?

Emma Walker: I would hope it will be a mix of both. It’s always great to talk to people who love whisky and who have great knowledge of what we do, but equally it is refreshing and exciting to talk to those who know nothing about the subject but who want to explore things… it is a pleasure to take people like that on a little journey of flavour discovery around Scotland using Johnnie Walker to do so.

Which curated whiskies do you plan to bring along to the Meet-the-Master-Blender sailing?

Emma Walker: We will definitely be bringing Johnnie Walker Black Label and Johnnie Walker Blue Label, and we’re just working on the final list to be shared with our guests at the event!

Do you think that traveling/cruising goes hand-in-hand with whisky?

Emma Walker: For me, the opportunity to relax and enjoy time on an amazing destination like the Norwegian Prima goes hand in hand with whisky – whether as a dram, as a refreshing highball or a luxury cocktail with friends and in amazing surroundings!

What is your recommendation for the best food pairing with whiskey?

Emma Walker: It depends on the occasion and who you are with. If it is a really special occasion with family and close friends then Johnnie Walker Blue Label with some dark chocolate is an incredible combination that really brings out the velvety smoothness of the whisky.

I think Johnnie Walker Black Label can make an amazing array of serves that can match with different meals – from spicy vibrant curries as a refreshing highball, to smoked fish and cheese as a dram.

Are there any dining venues or bars you are particularly excited about trying when you board Norwegian Prima?

Emma Walker: I’m just excited to join the journey on the Norwegian Prima – all of the venues and bars look amazing and I can’t wait to be relaxing with a Johnnie Walker and the magnificent views and people.





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