Industry News

The Craftswomen of Diageo

Feb. 28, 2020

Creating spirits like whiskey and rum takes skill, patience, and vision. Not many people fit the bill and historically, almost all of them were men.

In recent years, however, there has been an exciting explosion of creativity in the industry, much of it driven by a group of talented and superbly qualified women who have thrown open the distillery doors, bringing fresh energy and insights (as well as greater gender-parity) to the world of spirits.

Our partners at Diageo, well-known for its own devotion to gender parity and inclusion, have been lucky to benefit from many of these such trailblazers. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’d like to introduce you to some of the women making history in our industry today.

dr emma walker

Dr. Emma Walker

The driving force behind Johnnie Walker Red Rye, the company’s first new blend after revamping the brand in 2015, Dr. Walker (no relation to Johnnie) is the first woman to serve as Master Whisky Blender for Johnnie Walker.

She told Lifestyle Asia, “I’m lucky enough to have worked across several different areas in whisky production, namely fermentation, distillation and maturation analysis. This has allowed me the chance to develop a well-rounded understanding of flavor and its journey through the whisky-making process. I love the fact that my role allows me to marry my background in science with my passion for flavor.”

"When we set out to craft Johnnie Walker whiskies, at the forefront of our thoughts is the question of who will be drinking it. Flavor and the end drinker must be our priority, but we also consider how to maintain the highest quality and the perfect balance that has been the hallmark of our whisky for nearly 200 years."

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Eboni Major

Major’s background in food science and technology helped her enter the world of whiskey in 2015, an opportunity she has parlayed into a position as the Blender for Bulleit Bourbon just four years later.

She told The Daily Beast that “Being a blender takes a lot of training and discipline. You also naturally become a perfectionist, as it can take 10 to 20 formulas to get the one that is just right. No matter how many it takes, we don’t stop until the formula is an exact match to our high-quality expectations for Bulleit.”

In an interview with Forbes, she delved further into her role, saying “My favorite part of choosing flavors for Bulleit is the start to finish ownership of the liquid. As a blender, I am on a team that decides mash bills, yeasts, barrels and more. ... This gives me a great sense of pride, knowing that my job is creating consumer satisfaction and ensuring product consistency.”

She added, “The whiskey industry is definitely more inclusive. Typical of anything, change takes time. I have seen the industry diversify in many areas, such as age, gender and race. ... Women are not only key consumers, but we have also taken important roles in the production and decision-making of this industry. I am uniquely positioned to help bridge those gaps. The demographics for whiskey drinkers are changing quickly and I’m proud to be part of the evolution.”

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Joanna Zanin Scandella

The genius behind the award-winning Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is Master Whiskey Blender Joanna Zanin Scandella, herself a longtime pioneer in the industry.

Describing her career in a 2017 interview, she said “It was a long process. It’s been over 30 years and 10 years that I have been blending Crown Royal,” and that “My particular journey started with food and sensory. I’ve always loved sensory science and numbers, and it just was a normal progression.”

She also spoke to McGill University, her alma mater, about the process of creating Northern Harvest Rye, winner of Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible “World Whisky of the Year,” and said that her focus remains invariably on the liquid and how to go about the process of creating it. “It’s a matter of making 1+1=3,” she said, “So the sum can be greater than its parts.”

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Nicole Austin

One of the newest breakout stars in the industry, Nicole Austin has seen a meteoric rise in the last few years to her current role as General Manager and Distiller for George Dickel.

She spoke with The Tennessean about how, as a chemical engineer, she had to force her way into the industry.

“I didn’t have the right last name to work in Kentucky or the right degree for Scotland, so I was like, ‘What am I going to do?” Austin goes on to say, about landing her first job, “… I basically knocked on their door and was like, 'I’m going to work for you now. I’m done asking, I’m telling.”

And once she was in, she explained, “I just had that moment of like … I know how to distill things, what have I been doing with my life? Why didn’t anyone tell me this was a thing? That’s literally what chemical engineers go to school to learn how to do. So that was it.”

maureen robinson

Maureen Robinson

Whiskey Specialist Maureen Robinson has had a career in whiskey which is, itself, aged to perfection.

A longtime voice in the industry, she told The Scotsman, “When I first went into blending it was quite male-dominated and I like to think I helped bring more attention to what women were capable of given the chance. There are now so many females in the industry.”

In addition to breaking ground for other women, Robinson is also energized by special releases. “You get a real sense of excitement working on the special releases. Along with Keith from my team, we look at what we can do going forward and what we have done in the past with these lovely whiskies.”

One release, in particular, still illustrates her perspective on blending, as she told

“I remember someone asking me about Blue Label… no, it was The John Walker, and they were trying to tease out of me how I put it together and… you just do it! You have all these things in your head. That’s how you start on a new blend. First, you work out what you want to do, then you put it on paper, then you bring in the samples and try to make what you had on paper. Then you say: ‘That’s not what I wanted,’ and you just play around with it.”

lorena vasquez

Lorena Vasquez

Nicaraguan-born Lorena Vasquez, Master Blender for Ron Zacapa, has always had an interest in spirits.

As she told Masters of Malt, “Ever since I was a child [in Nicaragua] I liked anything to do with smell and taste, so I’ve always had that interest. Then I went to university and studied chemistry and what I enjoyed the most were the sensory aspects. That’s when I got into food technology, and after that I went to Guatemala. My first job was in a brewery but I didn’t want to taste beer every day, it’s not for me. That’s how I got into the rum world, and in September it will be 35 years that I have been working in rum.”

In addition to her scientific background, Vasquez approaches her role with poetry, explaining, “I always say that life is chemistry and love is chemistry, it’s a chemical reaction. There are chemical reactions in everything. And rum production has a lot to do with chemistry.”

She spoke with Vice about her experiences in a male-dominated industry:
“To be a woman in a business dominated by men was definitely not easy for me. I was a 28-year-old woman working all day long in a rum distillery. They used to look down at me with this puzzled expression—nobody understood my role there. The most difficult part was to break that barrier and to get the credibility for what I did and what I knew. At the end of the day what really matters is who you are as a person and a professional.”

Please join us in celebrating these incredible women, and all the rest who work every day producing the spirits consumers love. To find out more about these brands, and the full Diageo portfolio, please contact your Breakthru Sales Consultant.