MENSTRIE, SCOTLAND: “I love being in the lab with a row of whisky glasses in front me. I ‘nose’ each glass,” exclaims Johnnie Walker’s master blender Dr. Emma Walker. For the uninitiated, ‘nosing’ is the colloquial term for blindly smelling a glass of swilled whisky and describing its different flavours and aromas. For Johnnie Walker’s whisky specialists – a team who reside in the small hillfoot village of Menstrie in central Scotland – each glass is tinted blue to disguise the whisky’s colour and texture and so as to not influence the experts’ tasting notes.
“It might be smoky, fruity or have a sweet wood-like scent,” Walker continues. “Sometimes, a sniff of whisky will transport me back to childhood days at the beach or an apple pie cooking in my gran’s kitchen. There are certain whiskies that I just know, when I nose them, that they are destined for Blue Label – it is an instinctive and very sensory thing. I can just feel it.”
Although no relation to the brand’s eponymous founder, Walker – who holds a Master’s in chemistry from the University of Edinburgh and a phD in organic chemistry – joined Diageo’s whisky specialist team in 2008. For the next 14 years she would hone her renowned encyclopaedic knowledge of fermentation, distillation, maturation and blending. Her current role – a mantle she scored when the legendary (and also aptly-named) Dr. Jim Beveridge retired after more than 40 years – enables Walker to marry her passion for flavour with her background in science. It also makes her the first female to hold this title in the brand’s 202-year history.
“I learnt so much from Jim,” says Walker. “I learnt so much about whisky – but also about life. I really treasured our time working together.”
Interestingly, well before Walker even joined the brand, stocks were being laid for the Blue Label bottles we all drink today. While it has never worn an age statement, it was the era where Beveridge and his team were working on the flavour profiles of whisky lovers today. A period of time in the early 90s where the Dream Team went to the Olympics, Sampras won Wimbledon over and over again, and a frustrated Mike Tyson bit the ear off opponent Evander Holyfield in a bid to regain the heavyweight championship belt.
Enter, Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Considered so indulgent, the velvety and vibrant Scotch whisky boasted layers of fruit, spice and long, lingering smokiness.
But back then, fine whisky had a connotation for sitting behind glass in spirit cabinets, or still in crystal decanters: eternally waiting; never opened; a symbol of bygone luxury. It was Blue Label who actively set out to change that.
“Whisky is meant to be enjoyed,” baulks Walker when we talk about whisky’s pastime. “Johnnie Walker Blue Label is an icon of contemporary luxury – handcrafted in small batches, using skills and techniques reserved only for whiskies of the highest quality, to guarantee exceptional depth of flavour. I think that allows it to be enjoyed as a luxury experience but also something just begging to be shared and experienced together with friends.
“Why would anyone leave those amazing flavours locked up?”
It’s a poignant question. And if the past two-and-a-half years have taught us anything, it’s that moments of indulgence shouldn’t be so few and far between.
Blue Label’s Origin Story
“I don’t know if you know, but it rains a lot here,” laughs Walker of Scotland and its perfect conditions for whisky-making: a cool climate, an abundance of amazing barley and lots – and lots – of water. Working in Menstrie, Walker has access to more than ten million casks of maturing Scotch whisky from distilleries across the four corners of Scotland. Since its inception in 1992, every drop of Johnnie Walker Blue Label has been crafted using some of the rarest handpicked whiskies from these distilleries, including irreplaceable casks from long-closed ‘ghost’ distilleries, each bringing unique flavours and a distinctive character.
“We carefully select single malts from Speyside (such as Cardhu and Benrinnes for their rich and fruity sweetness and light spice notes), Highland malts (such as Clynelish) for honey sweetness, citrus fruits and light smoke, Lowland grain whiskies (including those from the now silent Port Dundas) to open up and balance the flavours, while Caol Ila and the ‘ghost’ whisky of Port Ellen bring a lingering smokiness,” Walker explains.
“Only 1 in 10,000 casks in our unparalleled reserves of over 10 million maturing Scotch whiskies has the richness and character required to craft Johnnie Walker Blue Label,” she continues.
It’s remarkable – but what defining trait will a cask have to give it that one-in-ten-thousand Blue Label merit?
“We choose the whiskies used to craft Johnnie Walker Blue Label because of their unique depth of flavour,” says Walker. “Mature, aged whiskies are selected for their smoothness and deep flavours – rich fruits, smoke and refined vanilla sweetness. When they are perfectly balanced with younger, more vibrant whiskies, they open up, bringing layers of effervescent flavour to this remarkable Scotch.”
The Time Travellers
Walker and her team are laying down stocks now for whisky drinkers in years to come. The challenges are two-fold: Predicting flavour styles for the future, and striking that delicate balance between protecting the heritage of the brand and remaining innovative.
“As a blending team we have an interesting role to play – sort of like time travellers, through the past, present and future,” explains Walker. “At present, we’re using the whiskies laid down yesterday by ourselves and our predecessors, to create innovative whiskies, while ensuring we’re also making the right volumes and flavours for the whisky makers of tomorrow. We’re also incredibly fortunate to not only preserve the past, but instead to have the opportunity to imagine, experiment, trial and create the whiskies that future generations will experience and love.
“As a blending team we think about ourselves as a step-in time for Johnnie Walker’s blending history. With one eye on the future, we are now looking to craft whiskies for the next 200 years,” she adds.
Whisky For The Now
While seasoned whisky drinkers might be reading this, there’s a good chance some of you may be new to the complexities of the whisky world. For the latter, listen up.
“Try as many whiskies as you can (responsibly) and think about the flavours and how you talk about them,” she suggests. “Talk to people working in the industry and enjoy the tremendous breadth of flavour that Scotch and whisky/ey more generally has to offer.” [Editor’s note: the spelling difference refers to where the whisky was produced. If it was made in Scotland, it is spelled “whisky” and if it’s made literally anywhere else, it’s spelled “whiskey”.]
When you do land your next bottle of Blue Label, and you’d like to drop Walker’s name into conversation at your next gathering, here’s how the master blender best enjoys her drop:
“Personally, I enjoy Johnnie Walker Blue Label on the rocks,” she says, noting the use of a jigger. “This initially closes flavours and changes the texture before the different flavours are revealed as the spirit warms and dilutes. In a neat serve, I savour and explore the layers of flavour that have developed from the distillery and the cask.”
Yes, while bygone luxury may have meant decorating a shelf with whisky’s finest seal, the last couple of years have cemented the importance of savouring the good moments. The time for cracking open the good stuff is now. And if you don’t ‘nose’ the glass first, who even are you?
Please always drink Johnnie Walker responsibly.