I’m ashamed to admit that I was surprised the Master Blender for Johnnie Walker worldwide is a woman.
But at a recent event, I met three women who are at the top of their game when it comes to making whiskey and rum.
I mean, it makes sense, because women have more sensitive palates than men. That will get the men rolling their eyes, but it’s true – a Yale study showed women actually have more tastebuds on their tongues.
That aside, it was inspiring to meet women at the top of their game.
Watch the video above.
Emma Walker is Johnnie Walker’s Master Blender. Basically, that means she decides what the whisky tastes like all around the world.
The native Scot has spent a decade honing her craft and rising through the ranks of the very blokey booze business. She is also super fun and incredibly likeable.
Emma has a background in scientific research and has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of whisky production and blending.
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She thinks a STEM background is the perfect way for women to get a foot in the door. Then it’s a matter of backing yourself.
“I think the STEM background helps you to understand the scientific knowledge involved in how you develop flavour, and how you blend those flavours together to create the amazing products we have for people to enjoy at home,” she says.
She leads a small team of 12 whisky specialists based in Menstrie, Scotland. Emma has access to more than 10 million casks of maturing Scotch whisky from distilleries across the four corners of Scotland.
She was mentored by Dr Jim Beveridge, who worked in the whiskey industry for four decades and retired recently as Johnnie Walker’s Master Blender.
“It’s not us against them when it comes to men and women in the industry,” she says.
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“I will be forever grateful that I learned under Jim and that he shared his knowledge. I now share mine. In our team we have a gender balance, we make our whiskies to be enjoyed by everyone, so no-one is excluded.”
She says Johnnie Walker has implemented changes to make the company more diverse and inclusive and the results have been better whiskies for all.
Then I met pocket rocket (seriously, she must under 5′ tall) Lorena Vásquez. She broke into the male-dominated industry early and has been Master Blender of Ron Zacapa for over 35 years.
The feisty Guatemalan says when she started, she was the only woman in the distillery. The men mocked her, but she knew her nose and skill would take her to the top.
“It’s not easy, but you have to be bold and daring,” she says, “and work hard, very hard, every day.”
An absolute trailblazer, Lorena was breaking glass ceilings when they were still made of wood.
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In 2015, People magazine named her one of the 25 Most Influential Women of the year. Back then she was a woman at the top of her field and one of a very small number of female Master Blenders in the world. She still is; just last year she was named in the Top 100 Latina Powerhouse by Hola magazine.
She is passionate about supporting the women who work at every level, including a community of over 700 local Guatemalan women who are weaving their way to independence and empowerment by hand-crafting intricate ‘petate’ bands (woven palm leaves) that adorn Zacapa bottles.
Closer to home, Scottish-born Sarah Watson is Head of Blending and Innovation at Australia’s iconic Bundaberg Rum.
She says women have a lot to bring to the table when it comes to the male dominated alcohol industry.
“I think it’s especially important to have women in the industry because women have something different than anybody else. It’s like making a liquid you have a balance of both,” she says.
“I encourage anyone wanting to come into the distilling industry the opportunity is there, and you should go for it.”
Cheers to that!