Diageo hosts ‘Women Behind The Blend’ event

The Diageo World Class Cocktail Festival has wrapped with a panel discussion featuring some of the most influential women in the spirits industry.

The ‘Women Behind The Blend’ event was held at Hickson House Distillery in The Rocks and featured a mix of delicious cocktails and food with insights into women leading innovation in the spirits industry.

“Women Behind the Blend” Lunch by Diageo at Hickson Road Distillery, Dawes Point – Thursday 15th September, 2022 Photographer: Belinda Rolland © 2022

Hosted by Shelly Horton, the panel featured Johnnie Walker’s first-ever female Master Blender Emma Walker, Ron Zacapa’s Master Blender Lorena Vasquez and Bundaberg Rum’s Head of Blending & Innovation Sarah Watson.

Walker, who made the trip from Scotland especially for the festival, said women now make up half of all distillery employees. She also discussed how she honours Johnnie Walker’s 200-year legacy while still prioritising innovation.

“Flavour and quality are at the heart of what we do, but we understand that everything changes, so we need to keep looking at how we make scotch whisky, where we want it to be in the future, and what people want in their glasses,” she said.

Vasquez revealed she was the only female among 200 men when she started at the Guatemalan distillery in 1984.

“I never asked myself if that was a position for a man or for a woman,” she said. “At the beginning it was difficult, I’m not going to lie. I think the industry is changing a lot and women are taking a big part of it. I’m working hard to empower women to be bold enough to take those roles and master them.”

Watson agreed the distilling industry was becoming far more accessible for people from diverse backgrounds.

“When I was at uni doing science I never thought I could have a career being a blender, or work in a distillery,” she said.

“I love working in the spirits industry. It really has allowed me to use my technical and scientific brain but also creativity.”

Interestingly, all women share a background in science. Walker has a PhD in chemistry, Vasquez studied food technology and chemistry, while Watson has a science degree.

Watson believes welcoming science into the spirits industry isn’t just important, it’s exciting, and should join gender equality as a major industry focus.

“When I was at uni doing science I never thought I could have a career being a blender, or work in a distillery,” she said.

“There is a real science behind distilling. There’s a real science behind maturation and blending and putting that behind what you do can help you make amazing products,” Sarah added.

The panel also discussed how they honour the legacies of historic brands like Johnnie Walker and Bundaberg Rum, while still looking ahead to what people want in their glass in the future. 

“I’m really excited that we’re getting more and more people to enjoy the whiskies we absolutely love,” said Walker. 

Looking ahead Walker said her team at the distillery is exploring more bold flavours, such certain fruits, and currently running some exciting experiments to dial up the bold flavours Johnnie Walker is known for.

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