Tipples

From researcher to master blender

Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge trained as a chemist in university.
Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge trained as a chemist in university.PHOTO: DIAGEO

Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge, 64, can tell with just one whiff, swirl and sip, what region of Scotland and which specific distillery the whisky he is tasting comes from.

But ask him which whisky he enjoys most and he names Johnnie Walker's most affordable mass market one, Johnnie Walker Red Label, which is a blend of about 35 grain and malt whiskies.

He says: "It depends on the occasion, but I like Red Label. I love the flavours and I like to drink it long, with ice."

The Glasgow native was in Singapore as part of the launch of the John Walker & Sons Signature Blend experience for high net- worth clients of the brand. The service is already available in other Asian cities including Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul.

The experience involves Dr Beveridge creating a bespoke and personalised whisky blend for the client, drawing from the rarest of casks in the Johnnie Walker reserves.

The invitation-only service is priced from $260,000 for 50 bottles and the creation process spans a period of six to eight months.

He is one of only six master blenders since John Walker himself blended his first Scotch whisky more than 190 years ago in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and has worked there for almost 37 years. It was his first job out of university, where he had trained as a chemist.

"I was lucky enough to spend time in our distilleries just doing lots of research into flavour and how it's being produced and that's where I developed all my knowledge and understanding of whisky," he says.

After almost 15 years in research, he describes his move to the hallowed role of master blender in 2001 as rather unceremonious and a natural evolution of his existing skill set. "I took my lab coat off and went to the blending table," he quips.

As master blender, he heads a team of 12 blenders from Scotland and England, whom he describes as "essential" to the work of Johnnie Walker.

Within the team they divide up three tasks. First, they work on maintaining the quality of existing Johnnie Walker blends in the market, such as the Johnnie Walker Red, Black and Blue labels.

"We've a responsibility to make sure those blends are consistent," he says.

Second, the team works on innovating and creating new blends, which he says is "an increasingly important part of our work".

Third, with whiskies taking a long time to mature - Johnnie Walker Black Label, for instance, takes 12 years - the team has to make sure that the whiskies being made today will be of the same standard in 12 years' time. Its high-end whiskies sit in casks for 18 years or longer.

"We stand in the past, present and future, all within the team," he adds.

He says Johnnie Walker is unfazed, despite foretellings of a global whisky shortage.

Mr Grame Harlow, managing director of South-east Asia for Diageo, which owns Johnnie Walker, says: "Despite the continued volatility we face in this global category, our Scotch portfolio, which represents 25 per cent of Diageo net sales, is back in growth with net sales up 1 per cent."

He adds that anticipating the long-term growth potential of Scotch whisky and the investment in expanding the Scotch whisky production business in Scotland began in 2007.

He explains that such long-term investments are planned in phases "to give us the ability to adjust to fluctuations in demand and ensure the right balance between supply and demand".

But Dr Beveridge's concerns are not with the financials. They are centred on the spirit he has built his entire career on and it allows him to travel the world.

"There is a kind of universal language that whisky speaks," he says. "They are a great way to break down any barrier between cultures and languages."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 13, 2016, with the headline 'From researcher to master blender'. Print Edition | Subscribe