When Johnnie Walker needed a boost, Diageo turned to a chemist
Dr. Emma Walker was born 121 years after Johnnie Walker died. Her job is to bring his spirit back to life.
The 37-year-old chemist fiddles with thousands of test tubes, pipettes and tinted nosing glasses to come up with new incarnations of a whisky first introduced in 1820 by the Scotsman it’s named after and is the world’s best-selling Scotch brand.
Johnnie Walker accounts for about one in every 10 bottles of Scotch consumed across the world, but it’s grown tired of late. Sales have been declining the past three years because of competition from bourbon and rye, which are easier to mix into Manhattans and other trendy cocktails. The success of Emma Walker -- she’s no relation to Johnnie as far as she knows -- could be crucial to Diageo Plc, which relies on its Scotch business for a third of its profit and is examining how to revitalize sales.
“It might be that some people see Scotch and Johnnie Walker as something their dad drank,” she says, driving her small red Seat Ibiza the 40 miles home to Edinburgh from Diageo’s technical center at the foot of Scotland’s Ochil Hills after a day’s mixing and sniffing. “But if we can get people reinvigorated, looking at Scotch again, looking at Johnnie Walker again, that would be brilliant.”
Best-known for its bottles of Red Label and Black Label, Johnnie Walker has lost market share every year since 2013. Sales fell 9 percent last year as demand for the upmarket 12-year-old Black Label in Asia was hit by weakening currencies there.
A new blend developed by Emma Walker called Red Rye is the company’s first since revamping Johnnie Walker in September 2015 with an advertising campaign fronted by British actor Jude Law. On the shelves since then, it’s designed to close the gap with other whiskies that have become more popular. Diageo reported a better-than-predicted profit for the year ended June 30, but it was driven by demand for American whiskey, tequila and vodka in the U.S.
“The one thing the Scotch industry hasn’t really found, unlike Irish and bourbon or rye, is its place in the growing market for cocktails based on whiskey,” says Tom Russo, a founding partner at hedge fund Gardner Russo & Gardner. “If there’s an activity designed to make a Red Label variant present in an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, that would make some sense.”
Russo manages a stake in Diageo worth about 210 million pounds ($258 million) after the stock price rose as the pound sank following the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union. His favorite Johnnie Walker is the “beautiful” Black Label, though he prefers bourbon in his cocktails and single malt Scotch after dinner. Diageo shares declined 0.4 percent to 2,221 pence at 1:52 p.m. in London.
Red Rye is the first installment of the Johnnie Walker Blenders Batch series. At Diageo’s blending room in the technical center in the village of Menstrie, the “whiskeyscientist” is busy working on other concoctions with samples of single malts. Red Rye went through hundreds of iterations before its release in the U.S.
Emma Walker said she’d paid little attention to cocktails until she started speaking to bartenders. She now considers the effects of ice, mixers and agitation.
“Just having that idea at the forefront of your mind when you’re looking at the age of whiskies, the strength of whiskies, which distillery you’re going to use, the level of fatty acids in the whisky, how they’ll react at certain temperatures, it awakens a different part of your mind, that more chemistry-focused part of your mind,” she says.
Growing up in Scotland and northeast England, her interest in Scotch and science developed from a young age. She says her father’s nickname in the Royal Navy was “whisky” and she remembers visiting a chemical plant with her school class and being fascinated by how many pipes there were.
After completing her doctorate in sulfur oxidation at Sheffield University’s organic chemistry department, she did a stint at drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline Plc developing steroids before joining Diageo in 2008 as a scientist in its whiskey Specialist Team.
She now is among the top contenders to get the job as the company’s first female Master Blender after Diageo last year formed a committee of executives to review and drive sales of Scotch. Current Master Blender Jim Beveridge, 64, who has spent almost four decades at the company, is mentoring Walker.
“Sometimes the best in the business start as a blank canvas and if you look at Emma’s career, she joined the team from a scientific pharmaceutical background, then she left this team for a while to go into production,” Beveridge says in the Johnnie Walker archive room, a bright, echoing chamber where 5,000 bottles of old and new blends cover the walls from floor to ceiling. “It’s not technically what she does, but it’s how she does it.”
Parking up on arrival in Edinburgh from Menstrie, Walker heads to The Bon Vivant, one of her favorite cocktail bars. Her partner, Dave, will drive her home after.
The bottle of Red Rye she’s brought with her is met with initial skepticism from the tattooed and bearded mixologists whose candlelit shelves are stocked with small-batch mezcals and craft gins. She explains that the blending team in Menstrie is playing around with liquids at different phases of aging, looking into different raw materials such as roasted malt. Johnnie Walker wants to drive innovation, she says.
“Gingerbread, Christmas cake and a little spice, this is definitely one of the nicer ones I’ve tried,” bartender Will Cox says before Walker asks him to mix an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. “It’s about time you guys branched out a bit.” Bloomberg