Food & Drink

Interview With Master Blender Chris Clark

We got to explore Diageo's latest creation: the Johnnie Walker Black Label Sherry Edition.

BY Jayme Teoh Jiah Mae | Jun 29, 2018 | Feature

All images courtesy of Johnnie Walker/ Diageo

Master Blender Chris Clark has been involved in Scotch whisky since he left school 37 years ago to take up the role of lab technician at what is now Diageo. Having been in the game for a while now, Chris has earned his stripes and is held in the highest regard by the other members of the blending team. From the time he was involved in the industry, his love for his job developed, his palate matured, and his appreciation for Scotch grew. One of his favourite parts of the job is being given the freedom to experiment and innovate to ensure that the Johnnie Walker blend he’s working on is made to precision. And that is exactly what he has done with the new blend: the Johnnie Walker Black Label Sherry Edition. We got the chance to ask him a couple questions about the new blend, as well as the process of blending and his inspiration.

ESQUIRE: What makes the Sherry Edition unique as compared to past blends?

CHRIS CLARK: Johnnie Walker Black Label Sherry Edition offers a distinctive, rich and fruity flavour, which makes it a drink that is very approachable. While it is the same exceptional Black Label quality, consumers are able to explore the intriguing twist on the classic, which presents a taste of complex fruit with fresh orchard fruitiness, sweet vanilla and measured smoke which is able to tantalize the palate with every sip.

ESQ: How do you recommend people drink this particular blend? (glass, temperature, mixed, any food pairings)

CC: To appreciate the subtleness of the fruit flavours, I would recommend enjoying this blend with an equal measure of cold spring water. On the other hand, to get the full effect of the smoky whiskies which bring a robust fullness to the blend, I might try it with ginger ale and ice. I prefer slightly spicy snack foods when having a glass of whisky. Sherry Edition would be perfect with chorizo or wasabi nuts. If that’s not your style then certainly green olives would be a fantastic alternative. I think the saltiness of the olives contrasting with the sweetness of the whisky is amazing.

ESQ: What is your approach to blending?

CC: When I’m blending under the Walker banner, I think it is extremely important to keep in mind the origins and traditions of the brand. That means always including spirits from the distilleries which are part of the Walker history such as Cardhu and Clynelish. I have a special interest in grain distillation and so I’m always eager to explore the flavours and nuances brought to the blend through the use of that style of whisky.

ESQ: Why revisit a classic blend like Black Label and create something new within it, versus coming up with a different expression altogether?

CC: It’s all about exploring different avenues within a blending theme and offering adorers of Johnnie Walker whiskies the opportunity to experience a variation on their favourite dram. It’s comparable to the plays of Shakespeare. You can’t really improve on them but there are many interpretations of those plays which offer the audience new aspects on the story being told.

ESQ: Tell us a little bit about the process of new product development? What are the challenges that you often face?

CC: The process begins by understanding the concept of what is required from the liquid. Who is it for? On what occasion will they enjoy it? Where will they enjoy it? What might they add to it? Once those questions are answered fully, the selection of whiskies can begin and prototypes are prepared. One challenge can often be is not to be bound by convention. I have been with the company now for thirty seven years. That has given me a great deal of knowledge and experience. Sometimes, to break out of that knowledge bubble to create something innovative can be difficult.

ESQ: Where do you get your inspiration from when coming up with new and innovative blends, including the most recent Sherry Edition?

CC: My inspiration comes from knowing that our distillers have produced a superb array of flavours and styles which have been matured in carefully selected oak casks. We hold over eight million casks in our warehouses which gives me the confidence that no matter what is asked for, I can deliver the required product.

ESQ: Was the Sherry Edition made specifically to cater to the tastes of an Asian market?

CC: I have to admit that I pretty much blend to please myself. I just trust in my abilities to know a great blended whisky when I taste it and that my own preferences will not be very different from anyone else who enjoys fine whiskies. Asians clearly enjoy Johnnie Walker Black Label so I’m really confident that they will love the Sherry Edition too.

ESQ: What can we expect for the future of Black Label?

CC: I can only answer that by saying I’m confident that Johnnie Walker Black Label will continue to maintain its place as the world’s finest Scotch Whisky, in my opinion of course. I work as part of a talented twelve-person blending team whose sole goal is the creation and quality maintenance of Scotland’s greatest whiskies and because of them, I know that Black Label is in good hands. As for any future expressions of the blend. Let’s not spoil the surprise!