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Emma Walker has been promoted to become the first female master blender in Johnnie Walker’s 200-year history​.Gavin Smart/Johnnie Walker

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Two of the spirit world’s most venerable producers have introduced new master blenders in recent months. Emma Walker has been promoted to become the first female master blender in Johnnie Walker’s 200-year history producing Scotch, while Alex Thomas has the lead role at The Old Bushmills Distillery in Ireland.

Both women explain that, if they do their jobs right, loyal consumers won’t know that they are there.

Walker, who is no relation to the Walker family that started the brand in 1867, stresses the importance of working as part of a 12-person team of whisky-makers who create the various products in the Johnnie Walker portfolio. The brand is sold in more than 180 countries around the world. She took over from Jim Beveridge, who retired after a 40-year career that included 20 years as Johnnie Walker’s master blender.

“Jim used to always get asked if his nose was insured and he would say: ‘No, my insurance is the team around me,’” Walker explains. “You’re not going to have just one person drinking the whisky. You need to have different voices and different understandings of the flavours to try to represent all the consumers that you’re making the whisky for.”

Walker’s tenure started Jan. 1. During her 13-year career at Diageo, which controls 100 individual Scotch brands, Walker worked her way from Diageo’s Technical Centre to spending the past six years as a blender, during which time she developed the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare series and Jane Walker by Johnnie Walker.

“It’s an interesting role because you do sort of get to be in the past, present and future,” Walker explains.

There’s the challenge to keep making the whiskies that consumers around the world recognize while working to create spirits that can be used in five-, 12- or 25-years’ time. There’s also a chance to see what new styles of whiskies can be created, she added.

From Thomas’s perspective, her role at Bushmills in Ireland is akin to a caretaker. “It’s a privilege to be able to follow on from those that came before me,” she says. “So many people took their time, when I started back in 2004, to share all that knowledge and passion they have for making Bushmills whisky. Everyone wants to ensure that new people coming in treat the brand well, to continue the legacy that they are leaving behind.”

Thomas follows Helen Mulholland in the position, which oversees selection and management of the casks for Bushmill’s popular single malt as well as the rest of the existing portfolio and all new product development. In her previous role as a blender, Thomas was responsible for bringing the Sexton Single Malt Irish Whiskey to market.

“We have been making whisky here for over 400 years, so we’re doing something right,” Thomas explains, “but there’s also an opportunity to innovate and bring in different things.”

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