Behind the Brand

Maureen Robinson, Master Blender for Kentucky Owl

Lee Diaz, ReserveBar Staff Writer


With an extensive history of over 45 years of innovation within the scotch whisky industry, Maureen Robinson has set her sights on transforming a new whiskey tradition: Bourbon. Now, having come out of retirement to become Master Blender, she is applying everything she has learned along the way to continue to build the traditions, voice and impact of Kentucky Owl. We sat down with Maureen to discover this work, her unique approach to whiskey and how she sees this next step in her career. 


You could say that it was by accident. I actually started out my career studying pharmacy at Strathclyde University in Glasgow 1975. And in that time, I failed one of my exams in the second year, and decided to take a year out, and then go back. But I never actually went back to university. It was during that time that a job vacancy became available with the Distillers Company LTD, now Diageo, as part of their science department.

So I decided to take that opportunity and just didn't go back to university. I do have an HNC in chemistry, and I spent nine years in the laboratories there. Although last November, I had the honor of being given an Honorary Doctorate of Science at my old University. Can I call myself Dr. Maureen Rollins? That was a very cool honor. 


While I was at the Glenochil Research Station Menstrie labs for 9 years, I discovered that I actually had a good sense of smell and flavor, which I didn't know I had. It was just one of these things that came up through the work. There's a lot of science behind the work, trying to figure out what actually makes whisky tick, trying to break it down into compounds and things like that, but of course it's a very difficult thing to do. Within that time, after eight years, I started a project focused on creating blends with specific flavor, then nosing and tasting and things like that. This became the start of me learning a bit of blending. 

But then what happened was that project sort of finished and I went back to the labs. Soon after, an opportunity came up again to go into the blending side business. And at that time when I applied for the job, I didn’t believe I would get it because I was still quite young, and women didn’t really get into certain areas of the business. But it turns out, I got the job, I think because of my nose – it got me the job. This became 36 years in blending and becoming a Master Blender. And so basically this was 45 years working on Scotch whisky. The range of work across my career included quality assurance with new make and matured spirits, innovation work across the Diageo Scotch portfolio, supporting PR and events, and consumer research.


I actually did retire at the end of June 2022, but that didn't last very long – in fact, it lasted for about six months. I've received quite a few recognitions over the years. I am a Hall of Famer of the Whisky Magazine, as well as a Keeper and a Master of the Quaich. I was first approached by Kentucky Owl through the Keepers of the Quaich – as I believe quite a few were – about a project for a bourbon company. I was immediately intrigued when I saw the remit was to help create a bourbon that was reminiscent of a Scotch but without losing its bourbon credentials. And I thought oh, this could be interesting. So then I was offered the job for this project for Kentucky Owl – the work resulted in the Kentucky Owl Maighstir Edition

As I was nearing the end of that project, I was then approached and asked if I would be interested in becoming a Master Blender for Kentucky Owl because John Rhea who was the Master Blender had decided he was going to retire. And he's another person like me – he was retiring again, because he had actually worked for Four Roses for 40 years before his retirement and then went on to work for Kentucky Owl. With his retirement, I said, yes, that I would be interested, so I took on the role. I think of myself as a Caretaker-Master Blender, because I cannot last another 45 years with Kentucky Owl. And it's been quite exciting, because it's a new venture where I get to apply what I know into a new spirit in bourbon. I was actually quite surprised once I started to discover just how versatile the spirit is beyond those typical oak, woods, vanilla and chocolate notes. It has been really so interesting.


In the past, we did a lot of experimental work in the labs at Diageo. Because for scotch whisky, just like bourbon, you’re not allowed to add anything to it, we were exploring the impact of varying different parts of the process. You can get different flavors by the distillation process or through the cask. Where I worked early on and with people I've worked with, they were really into looking at the casks, and what we can do with different casks to observe what flavors we can get out. A lot of this experimental work done over the years started to build up my language. People used to have different terms, and we would be taught into different areas, learning flavor characterizations and categories. We used to do some work on the distillation, like cut points, or try different types of yeast to produce different resulting flavors. So it was a lot in those nine years that gave me a grounding for when I would become a blender because I had all this background that I could use.

And then when we're into blending, you start looking at the ages, what was produced from the different distilleries, the wood and things like that. Looking at projects from a blender's perspective. I worked on a variety of projects within Diageo amongst all of the brands – I did work for Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s and Grand Old Par, but I did do a lot of work on single malts. And last I did a lot of work on the brand called the Singleton, which is actually three brands: Glendullan, Dufftown and Glen Ord. When I first started in blending, there were like five blend companies combined, and I was a sort of master blender for everything for a while. But then as everything grew, the team grew so that when I retired, there were about 12 of us in the team. And we all had specific areas that we dealt with, but we all collaborated. It was good to start to see younger people coming through. And they loved training and learning off you, and then holding their own. 


After I said that I'd take on the project, and I was then introduced to John Rhea. And he was one of the most experienced from a bourbon perspective, and also had experience in scotch. By the time we had started, he had done a lot of work behind the scenes such as pulling in lots of samples that he thought might have been interesting. He selected rare bourbons that had flavors that were a bit reminiscent of scotch. At that point, he sent selections on to me where I would actually be sitting in my kitchen, tasting each of them and sort of playing around with the whiskies and things like that, coming up with my nosing and tasting. 

This gave me some building blocks and a framework to make up some recipes. So then, I came up with what I thought was something I thought we could put in the bottle. I then shared that with John, so he could replicate it from his end. And we both agreed that we were actually aligned that this was what we wanted to do. That's how Maighstir came about.


I try to bring in lots of samples first to try to get my nose and tasting notes. This gives me that toolkit to draw from when I am given a project or need to produce something for a specific market. Sometimes when you have been given specific guidance by regional marketers, you need to know your whiskey well to be able to develop flavors within that lens. Kentucky Owl is also a family – while specific releases are nuanced, you are still drawing from the core family of flavors to create something unique.   

From my perspective, as I have been working with a lot of bourbon from different casks, part of my own personal palate tunes into the sweetness of the stewed fruits, and they've also got what it was like green floral notes, and things like that coming through. So they're always in the background, but then when you're building onto that, you're actually building other layers on top of it – maybe a bit more grassy, maybe a bit more fresh fruits or esthery. As we develop those bourbon descriptions, it’s those combinations of black currant, that sort of rich fruity and dark fruits, oak, vanilla and chocolate flavors. It all begins with that initial time in research and defining flavors that you identify but then carefully layer on top of it only as if it is trying to make something different. 


It’s a work in progress. I was actually in the states doing a lot of nosing and tasting, and also playing around with some blends as a part of a project that I am working on. I can’t say much about it now, but whereas Maighstir was a collaboration, this will be my own direction at Kentucky Owl. At this time, and through this process, I am just really trying to get a handle of all the different kinds of bourbons that are out there. To get an understanding of the approaches of all of the other brands. There are a lot of other people in Kentucky who were in this industry for years and years, so once again to many I'm the new kid on the block. Part of putting my own stamp on Kentucky Owl is having an intentional focus on learning and valuing the approaches and work that has taken place. Even with over 45 years in whisky, I still feel as if I'm a bit like a duck out of water to a certain extent with the bourbon. But this is an empowering place to be and I'm getting there. 

What I'm hoping to do within Kentucky Owl is approach the bourbon with similar virtues that did with Scotch. You experiment with everything that you’ve got, like mashbills for instance, to build up a type of toolkit, so that when you go for creating something new, there is a foundational language to work from. Because the consumer doesn't stand still; while everyone has their favorites, they're also always looking for something new and different. When I first started in the scotch whisky industry, nobody really drank scotch beyond at the pub and things like that. But then we started to educate the consumer, they started wanting more – they also wanted the story behind it. That’s what I am hoping to do Kentucky Owl – match compelling whiskey with great stories behind it. And Kentucky Owl is full of interesting stories; just look at Confiscated for example, and that the bourbon that was to be confiscated during prohibition was lost in a warehouse that burned down. The rumor is that it wasn’t even in the warehouse but moved up to Chicago just days before to be sold in speakeasies – and the legend behind Confiscated was born. 


It depends, you know. I'm always one of these people that experiments and finds out what you enjoy. And then once you get there, you then experiment with how you want to drink it. To keep it simple, if you want to understand the nuances of bourbon flavors, I would suggest that you go with Kentucky Owl Confiscated. If you are more of a fan of cocktails then I would go with The Wiseman Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey – I prefer a Manhattan. But while I, as a blender, of course can give you recommendations, you should try it your own way and apply your own methods of trying Kentucky Owl.

One habit that I have started to apply to Bourbon that I have taken from drinking scotch is drinking it with ice or just a dash of water. The reason I do that is because to me, it takes you on a flavor journey. While ice may close down the whiskey just a little bit, as it melts, the water starts a reaction that gives you different aromas and flavors. So, as you’re sipping it enjoy whatever you may be doing, you’re getting different notes. 


As you explore more of Kentucky Owl, know that you are celebrating generations of history lost that we are working tirelessly to retell. One of the compelling parts of Kentucky Owl that I love is the historical side – the fact that it disappeared for all these years before Dixon Dedman found all these notes from his great, great grandfather's time, and he decided to resurrect the brand again. I think that's very unique, and we look forward to revealing more of these stories of Kentucky Owl to you with every new release, to be enjoyed from first pop to last sip. 

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