This fall, Diageo announced “Joy Will Take You Further,” the biggest marketing reboot for its Johnnie Walker blended Scotch whisky brand in 15 years. The company launched the campaign at The Explorers Club, a world-renowned professional society dedicated to field research and exploration. As part of the launch, the organization inducted Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge into its ranks for his contributions to the field of analytical chemistry. Following the event, Beveridge spoke with Market Watch about the brand, the blending process and his plans for the newly released Johnnie Walker Select Casks range, which will feature annual limited-edition bottlings of whiskies with unique finishes.
MW: What’s your approach to blending?
Beveridge: With 8 million casks from many different distilleries, the blending process is very complex. It has to be simplified, and it’s flavor-driven. That’s where the science comes in. We have a flavor language with six key styles—Fresh, Spicy, Smoky, Fruity, Woody and Malty. That’s our approach to blending. If you open any cask, it doesn’t fit purely into any one of these flavor boxes. Each cask has its own unique flavor. But you have to simplify to actually make this work as a process. All these different malts—including Glen Ord, Talisker, Glendullan, Linkwood, Glenkinchie and Knockando—are used in Johnnie Walker blends. In the days of the single malt revolution, it’s sometimes lost that blends contain a variety of amazing malts.
MW: Does the sourcing for the core blends vary from year to year?
Beveridge: The flavor profile stays the same, but the actual distilleries we use change. Right now, we’re making whiskies for Johnnie Walker Black Label that we’ll sell in 12 years. Whatever we do now won’t be quite right. We have stocks that don’t quite match what we’ve done before, so we have to change distilleries and move around the stocks to make the blends. The key element, of course, is that the flavor must stay the same.
MW: What influence do you have over the barrel programs at the distilleries?
Beveridge: We generally work with the distilleries to produce the distillate, and they make the choices about what casks the whiskies will fill.
MW: Do you use any whisky from closed distilleries in Johnnie Walker?
Beveridge: When I first started working for the business, we had 45 malt distilleries. Then it went down to 32, then down to 27, and now we’re back up to 29. Some of the whiskies from the closed distilleries are used in blends. Port Ellen is used in the King George V blend. We use Brora and some of the others in low volume in specialized blends. We wouldn’t want to use them in Johnnie Walker Red or Black—we’d suck the whiskies up, and they’d disappear. We have a responsibility to make sure that, when we do use whiskies from closed distilleries, we use them appropriately. They’re priceless.
MW: From a technical standpoint, what innovations are you working on?
Beveridge: We’re always thinking about the future. Blended Scotch whisky is made from very simple ingredients: water, yeast and a cereal, which commonly now is either malted barley or wheat. But you’ve got a choice of cereals. We’re looking at what we could do with different kinds of rice like black rice and sake rice. We’re actively thinking about the flavors that might come from other grains. We’re also looking at other sources for oak from different regions of the world. The big obvious location is Eastern Europe. There are vast resources there, so it’ll be interesting to see what possibilities arise.
MW: Are there any plans to bring Johnnie Walker Green Label back to the U.S. market on a permanent basis?
Beveridge: Johnnie Walker Green Label was sent to Taiwan and restricted for the rest of the world in 2011, but it’s been rereleased into the United States recently. I’m not sure whether we’ll continue with it. That’s up for debate right now. But there’s a lot of interest in Green Label, which is a blended malt.
MW: The brand recently launched Johnnie Walker Rye Cask Finish ($45 a 750-ml. bottle), the first offering in the Select Casks series. What’s the thinking behind that release?
Beveridge: Johnnie Walker has a tradition of listening to our consumers. There’s definitely a feeling out there that the rye cask style of whisky is something we should be considering. The inspiration was to see if we could make a Scotch whisky that had flavors similar to rye whiskies. The ideas come from the market, basically. Rye Cask is very unique in the Johnnie Walker portfolio. When we developed the blend, we shared it with the Johnnie Walker global brand director Guy Escolme. He nosed and tasted it and said, “You know, this isn’t Johnnie Walker. It’s so different.” We decided to try it because it’s meant to be different. And we’ve gotten quite a lot of favorable comments. I think it’s a nice flavor. It’s 10 years old, and it’s 46-percent alcohol-by-volume. Because it’s quite a delicate flavor, we needed a higher alcohol content to give it more character—especially since it’s being developed for cocktails.
MW: What’s next for the Select Cask series?
Beveridge: I’d like to see how we do with this one first, and then get a feel for what we should do next. It’s just been launched in the United States. There’s huge interest in the world of whisk(e)y, and Scotch is part of a much bigger revolution for whiskies worldwide. Let’s see where the flavors are that people like and see if we can make Scotch whiskies that meet that need.