Jim Beveridge on pushing the boundaries of flavour
Dr Jim Beveridge oversees liquid quality and innovation at the world’s largest Scotch whisky brand, Johnnie Walker, which turns 200 this year. He tells The Spirits Business how his desire to experiment with endless flavour combinations is undiminished.
*This feature was originally published in the January 2020 issue of The Spirits Business
The skill of a great whisky blender lies in their ability to combine science and art. Blending requires advanced technical skill and a rigorous understanding of flavour components, as well as a creative mind and the willingness to explore uncharted territories.
Such contrasting but complementary traits are embodied in Dr Jim Beveridge, the aptly‐named long‐standing master blender for the world’s biggest Scotch whisky brand: Johnnie Walker. Not that you would know it from talking to him; Beveridge’s humble and self‐effacing nature is well known in the industry, as is his calm, philosophical outlook and softly‐spoken demeanour.
Of his craft, he says: “The logical route can only take you so far, and I’ll use this as my starting point, but it gets less logical and less rigorous technically, and it becomes more about just following instincts. Sometimes this can lead to dead ends, but at the same time you discover more opportunities.”
Beveridge’s career with Johnnie Walker and its owner, Diageo, spans 40 years. He joined the company as a flavour chemist “at a time when Johnnie Walker was investing a lot in the science and technology of whisky‐making”. According to Beveridge, many of today’s common blending practices were established then. “Looking back, it was a real privilege to be able to do it the way we did it at the time,” he says.
This early experience in the industry allowed Beveridge to learn how flavour can be manipulated through various technical processes – something that continues to intrigue him today. “Whisky has three simple ingredients that produce amazingly diverse flavours, so the chemistry of all of that, the technology, is fascinating, and it still hasn’t been fully cracked yet, that’s for sure.”
This may be the case, but Beveridge’s work has been pivotal to the development of the Scotch whisky industry as a whole, and last autumn, he was awarded an OBE medal at Windsor Castle. “It was pretty amazing. It’s hard to describe, but it was really special,” he recalls with disbelief. “And not just for me but for also for all the people around me. I think this was as much their recognition as mine.”
Beveridge may hold the title of Johnnie Walker master blender, and in many cases is the face of the brand, but he is keen to stress that the responsibility, and the glory, does not rest on his shoulders alone. “I’m working with a very talented team of people, and they are doing great work, so it’s more about what my role is in the team.”
Day to day, Beveridge says his main tasks are to think strategically about the future in terms of “where the challenges may be and where we need to be investing”, and mentoring his team members. “It’s really important that they make their own discoveries – I was given that freedom and was fortunate to be able to do that,” he says. “It’s about giving them a framework, then after that they have to find out for themselves. To be too prescriptive leads to a bit of a dead end.”
There are 12 members in the blending team, whose broad responsibilities can be divided into quality control, consistency and innovation. “We also spend a lot of time making sure that the new distillate and the casks and the stock policies are all in place,” says Beveridge. This is a critical task when you think about the scale of the brand, the number of distilleries it works with, and the vast range of age statements and styles needed for both the core range and new innovations. Stock management for Johnnie Walker must be dizzying to say the least.
“It’s quite a puzzle to be solved,” admits Beveridge. “As you can imagine, different distilleries use different types of wood matured in different ways and for different times. These are the three different dimensions that are inside the stocks, and you have to kind of unravel that puzzle.”
It becomes more complex when recipe changes need to be made – say, if a single malt becomes more successful than predicted and needs to claw back stocks.
“Yes, that happens,” says Beveridge, “so the key thing is to make sure all our stocks are flexible. You need to make sure that you avoid committing individual casks to products until as long down the line as possible, to ensure there’s freedom to accommodate those stock variations. It’s all about stock management, albeit with the golden rule that you mustn’t let it affect the flavour of the product.”
Ultimately, Beveridge explains, one can “cut through” the complexity by “deriving rules” on “flavour building blocks”. He says: “Think of a blend like, say, Johnnie Walker Red Label. What are the major flavour building blocks there? That approach takes us to the distilleries, the warehouses and the casks. Generally speaking, where there are challenges, they will be answered from a flavour point of view.”
When it comes to expanding the Johnnie Walker portfolio and creating new expressions, stock management must be a key consideration: a large‐scale release needs sustainable and readily available stocks, while a small‐scale, limited edition can use rarer parcels. Johnnie Walker has played mostly in the former category over the past couple of years with innovations such as the Game of Thrones‐inspired White Walker, a runaway success across the globe.
LISTEN TO CONSUMERS
According to Beveridge, the “most vibrant innovations” from the brand have all come as a result of market demand. “We listen to what the consumers are asking us to do, so most of our great innovations have come from the market – very few come from us having a lightbulb moment at the bench and saying ‘let’s find someone who will enjoy that’. It doesn’t really work that way.”
Beveridge believes that a consumer‐centric approach would help the wider industry avoid the mistakes of the past, and fend off a second catastrophic whisky loch. “One of the big lessons from the ’80s was to think consumer‐first; think about what expressions they like and make that the target. My sense of the ’70s was that it was a largely production‐led thinking, without real attention to who [was drinking the whiskies] or in what circumstances they would be consumed. But that’s changed radically since then.”
This approach is exemplified by Johnnie Walker’s new Highball campaign, and its innovations relating to Game of Thrones. After the launch of White Walker was the A Song of Fire and A Song of Ice blends, and the Game of Thrones Single Malt Collection.
Among his personal favourite projects, Beveridge cites Johnnie Walker Blue Label and the more recent addition, Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare, containing liquid from closed distilleries. They are joined by Johnnie Walker Double Black, the Blenders’ Batch series and Director’s Blend (which evolved into the Private Collection) in his list of top hits. “You can see there’s a theme here,” he says. “It’s just opportunities to create new expressions and try them out with our consumers to see how they will react. It helps us think about what to do next.”
Age statements aren’t high on Beveridge’s list of priorities when it comes to new product development (“In a way I don’t like age statements because they restrict you,” he says), but, luckily, consumer expectation of an age‐statement blend is perhaps less than an age‐statement single malt. On the perennial question of blends versus single malts, he argues that “the best expressions of whiskies are in blends. There are some amazing single malts, that’s the reality, and the success of single malts is great for the category. The blends play a major role in that, and I almost exclusively prefer blends to single malts, just because of the different expressions and nuances of flavour you can achieve. They are just much more interesting, and I find them easier to understand and enjoy. I think single malts are very bold expressions in quite a narrow sense, whereas blends are much more varied and the layers of flavour are much more complex.”
Both styles of whisky have been afforded greater flexibility under amended regulations that came into force last year, stating that Scotch can be finished in a wider variety of casks. However, Beveridge stresses that the regulation “remains pretty tight”, and, regardless, “the key is not so much about the rules; it’s about what those casks can do in terms of flavour”.
He adds: “The rules are a way of helping us navigate, but they are not the be all and end all. I’d much rather be thinking about what kinds of flavours we can make and how we can achieve that. The barrel‐ageing bits were secondary to that ambition.”
Beveridge is clearly a modern blender, with a focus on pushing the boundaries of flavour innovation, but as Johnnie Walker strides towards its 200th anniversary this year, how important is it to bear in mind the brand’s historical style? How does the past influence the future, and is this a help or a hindrance?
“It’s an interesting question,” Beveridge replies, thoughtfully. “Throughout my career you could argue that the Walker tradition is looking over your shoulder all the time. That’s kind of where we started from – [the whiskies] were all very much in the context of Johnnie Walker and that tradition. It was always based on tradition we inherited – you could argue that today’s practice becomes tomorrow’s tradition.
“Recently we have had the opportunity to experiment and create new styles, albeit with the Walker stamp of quality. I’d like to think that whatever we do, it would be recognised as a Johnnie Walker blend.”
Johnnie Walker has big plans for 2020. A major attraction is set to open in Edinburgh before the end of the year as part of Diageo’s US$150 million investment in Scotch tourism, which will also see the group’s network of Scotch whisky visitor centres renovated and revamped. Beveridge and his team are working on a 40‐year‐old blend, which he says “has been worked on around my 40 years of whisky making”.
As only the sixth master blender in Johnnie Walker’s history, Beveridge says he is “honoured” to be working with the brand during its milestone year, but he brings the conversation back around to his team. “It’s incredibly heartening and quite humbling to be honest when you see them in action and think, ‘wow, that’s pretty amazing’.”
With so much focus on gearing his team up for succession, are there any plans to start slowing down? “It’s an amazing industry and I work with some amazing people, so it’s incredibly difficult to let go when you’re part of that. There are still some amazing challenges and I would love to be a part of [solving] them. One day that will need to change, that’s the reality, but right now I am quite happy where I am. It’s a great place to be.”