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Maureen Robinson’s Kentucky Owl project turned into a job

Ex-Diageo master blender Maureen Robinson worked on Maighstir whiskey with Kentucky Owl’s departing master blender John Rhea before taking over the role.

A woman in front of whiskey barrels with a bottle of bourbon
Robinson helped create Maighstir, a limited edition whiskey for Kentucky Owl, before taking over as master blender a few months later

When Maureen Robinson retired from Diageo in 2022 after working for 45 years in Scotch whisky, she was hoping to play more golf. But work had a way of finding her.

Kentucky Owl had previously released two whiskeys in its globe-spanning collaborative series, where they asked master blenders from other countries to create a ‘bourbon’ in their style.

The Stoli-owned brand reached out to Robinson in late 2022 to create an expression that captured her expertise in blended Scotch. The prospect of working with a new spirit piqued Robinson’s interest.

“You get to a plateau when you’re retired,” she said. “You get to the stage sometimes, there’s only so many sheds you can clean out.”

Robinson then worked alongside Rhea to create Maighstir (‘master’ in Gaelic), a whiskey that blends together four-, five-, eight-, and nine-year-old Kentucky straight Bourbons.

Robinson was particularly struck by a sample of wheated Bourbon and the Scotch-like citrus notes it provided. She found the two spirits to be similar in many ways.

“It’s just different aromas and flavours,” she said. “Within the diversity of Scotch, you’ve got different aromas and flavours anyways. So, it’s something similar.”

Maighstir is bottled at 50% ABV and priced at US$150.

‘Limited’ Bourbon knowledge

In between its creation and release, Rhea announced his own retirement, and Kentucky Owl contacted Robinson once more, this time with an offer to take over as master blender, starting in November.

“I was actually quite surprised,” Robinson said. “The opportunity to do it really is appealing just to get something new to understand.”

Prior to working on Maighstir, she said her only knowledge of Bourbon was limited. She recalls tasting Rebel Yell many years ago, when it was a Diageo-owned brand. She quickly realised she would have to get more familiar with the category.

“It’s almost like a new career, something completely different,” Robinson explained. “The background process may be the same, but the products are different. So it’s really just getting to know Bourbon in a more intimate way.”

Robinson will continue living in Scotland, primarily focusing on preexisting labels like Confiscated and The Wiseman series. She plans to visit Kentucky to taste through samples and says that her biggest challenge is understanding the many mashbills used in American whiskey, a variable less common in Scotch.

“I’m on a big learning curve,” she said, noting that she’s eager to start working with new distillate. “Because you need to understand that flavour profile so that you could understand how the cask reacted with it.”

Rhea took over blending duties from Dixon Dedman in 2021, who revived his family’s pre-Prohibition brand in 2014, with Stoli purchasing it in 2017.

Robinson said that she likewise does not expect to stay in the position for too long. “We want to bring somebody in,” she said. “It’s almost like succession planning. So you’ve got in the future somebody coming through [who] you can train and take over.”

For now though, she will lend her blending expertise, though she says only Maighstir will showcase a Scotch influence. She is looking forward to working on the batched released of the brand’s older Bourbons and rye whiskeys, and hopes to innovate once she feels comfortable with the current portfolio. She exchanges emails with Rhea, and knows there’s work ahead of her.

“Maybe the next time when I retire, I’ll get the golf done,” she added.

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