Can you give a brief outline of your career journey to where you are today?
I have always loved science and understanding how things work but early in my school life I realised chemistry was my passion – it enthralled me, and I loved studying it. So, it was an easy decision at university –then I was delighted when I got the opportunity to study for a PhD.
When I finished uni I took a job as a graduate chemist. However, I had always been intrigued by the idea of working in the drinks industry because I’ve been interested inflavour and the science of flavour since my childhood. I saw a job at Diageo’s Technical Centre in Menstrie in 2010 and I have been working with whisky ever since – I haven’t looked back.
During my first few years [at Diageo] I worked with the whisky specialist team, developing my sensory skills and learning a lot about flavour, whisky production and maturation alongside some of the most knowledgeable people in the world – most notably Jim Beveridge.
I think people are not aware of just how much science there is behind making some of the finest whiskies in the world, which is why love what I do. I get to indulge my lifelong love of science but also combine that scientific knowledge with the art of making great flavours and great whiskies.
What drew you to Diageo/Johnnie Walker?
It’s sheer coincidence that my surname is Walker!It did mean that my father’s Navy nickname was ‘Whisky’–so this could have been a ‘sign’ of things to come!
I was intrigued by the idea of being a project scientist, that seemed to suit me, it combined my passion for flavour and my chemistry background – as I have said. I was amazed by the number of well-known, awesome brands within Diageo’s portfolio, brands such as Johnnie Walker. I thought – ‘how’s it possible to have so many great brands in one company?’ That made me think this could be a really great place to be with lots of potential for me to do something exciting. It turned out to be a great decision, because I now get to work with an unparalleled reserve of whisky to craft Johnnie Walker whiskies – some 10 million maturing casks!
What do you make of the recent commentary around increased female distillers and blenders being in, and crucially recognised within the industry?
I’m often asked what it’s like to be a woman working in the male-dominated whisky industry, but my experience is that this isn’t the case. Our team at Diageo has a nearly even male/female ratio, and we have female Master Blenders, including for Bell’s and Buchanan’s. This ratio is reflected in Diageo distillery management, and I’m seeing more female operators at different distilleries and sites across Scotland.
The perception of the industry and who chooses to drink whisky is changing – and that is really exciting to seeand be part of.
What has been your biggest learning since you started working with Jim Beveridge?
My biggest learning since joining Diageo, is the more I learn about whisky, the more I want to learn. For me, it’s the perfect balance between science and art.
It has been great working alongside someone with such an encyclopedic knowledge of flavour and whisky, every day I learn more from him. What I find interesting about working with Jim, who has more than 30 years in the industry, is that he’s always thinking laterally and trying to learn more from whoever and wherever he can. For me that is the biggest lesson and I want to maintain that thirst for knowledge throughout my career – it’s an inspiration every day.
And most unexpected?
The way Jim thinks of flavour in colour was a surprising and useful revelation to me – like an artist building up a beautiful picture. I try to bring some of that into my own work. I try to learn from all of the team, for example, the way Caroline (Martin – Master Blender) uses aromas to build up a picture of a whisky is equally fascinating. She is a qualified aromatherapist and that’s a really interesting way of working and experimenting with different flavours.
Are there any twists or new thinking you’ve brought to the production of the iconic brands and products you’re now involved in?
I’m extremely proud to have been involved in the creation of Johnnie Walker Blue Label – Ghost and Rare series with Jim and Maureen Robinson. It’s an amazing series of whiskies, bringing together Scotch from three closed distilleries and rare expressions from five operating distilleries across Scotland. We get to explore the exceptional, individual flavours and work to create exceptional whiskies that showcase the influence of these eight distilleries – all of which can be in Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
I’m also very proud of Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Red Rye Finish. It’s the first bottle that has my signature on the label, which made my parents very proud!
Finally, where do you see innovation and the future of whisky going?
I see the future of whisky as being about searching out new flavours, new moments and new occasions that bring people together. So, I hope the future will be about the great flavours, the great taste and the great quality that our whiskies stand for, qualities that bring people together all over the world.
It’s fascinating to see there vived interest in highballs and how Johnnie Walker can lead this – people experimenting with how and when they enjoy their favourite whisky. Johnnie Walker has been enjoyed in a long drink almost as long as we’ve been around. We love to hear how people are drinking our whiskies and use this knowledge from outside the blending room to understand more about the whisky we are crafting.
For us, mixing our whiskies with soda at the blending table to see the way the flavours are opened up is a really interesting way of getting a feel for how people will experience our Scotch – to see how consumers will drink it. We consciously think about our Scotch from the bar back andwe are always looking to explore new possibilities in whisky. For me, that’s the path to something exciting and new. That’s what our founder John Walker started doing almost 200 years ago – it proved popular then and I am confident that it will continue to do so.