Is it possible to blend a bourbon that mimics the aromas and flavours of Scotch whisky? Kentucky Owl’s new master blender Maureen Robinson takes up the challenge with the new Maighstir Edition, the brand’s latest international collaboration.
Two heads are better than one, so the saying goes. And it’s an adage that’s served Kentucky Owl well. Founded by Charles Mortimer Dedman in 1879, it produced bourbon up until Prohibition when it was shuttered by the government. Until 2014. Enter Dixon Dedman, a descendant of the founder, who brought the brand back to life.
The Bardstown-based maker has honed a name for itself in recent years for crafting high-proof, often highly aged, blended bourbons and ryes. Just as blended Scotch is made by marrying different parcels together, so too is blended bourbon. Some blends feature liquids from different distilleries, with varying ages, yeast strains and mash bills. Others are a little more straightforward. But either way, the skill of the blender is required to make them sing.
And Kentucky Owl hasn’t kept it all in-house. In March 2022, master blender John Rhea was joined by JJ Corry founder Louise McGuane to craft the St Patrick’s edition. This was quickly followed by a second collaboration in September, when Rhea teamed up with Yusuke Yahisa from the Nagahama Distillery for Kentucky Owl Takumi Edition. Both were a remarkable meeting of minds, blending approaches from Irish and Japanese whisky respectively with bourbon. And now, a year later, we have Maighstir Edition, another masterful collaboration between two distilling nations, the USA and Scotland, hitting the shelves in September 2023.
Step forward Maureen Robinson. The former Diageo master blender recently retired after a 45-year career with the whisky giant. She is the woman to thank for the fan-favourite Flora & Fauna bottlings, many of the critically acclaimed Special Releases, and her work has propelled The Singleton brand of single malts to great heights. A maverick of the Scotch whisky industry, she was made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2012 and inducted into Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame in 2019. If anyone knows good whisky, it’s Robinson.
“I still want to be involved,” she says on retirement. Turns out she’s not stepped far from the tasting glass at all. “I thought this would be an interesting project,” she adds on the collaboration with Rhea. Bourbon was a new area for her. “I have been asked before to try and make a Scotch tastes like a bourbon, but this is the opposite. This is trying to get a bourbon to taste like a Scotch.”
The pair had many conversations over Zoom to really hone the vision for Maighstir Edition. Then Rhea got to work, selecting the samples he thought could best help Maureen in her aim to make an unusual, Scotch-like bourbon expression. Ultimately, they settled on four component parts: three straight bourbons and one wheated bourbon.
“I ended up doing four different blends,” Robinson recalls. And in an interesting twist, she ended up reverting back to the first one she made after a period of reflection. She says it’s something you’re told you should never do — in sensory analysis, second-guessing is often unhelpful. Trusting one’s instincts is core to the whisky-maker’s art.
“Reading John’s notes, he said it took him back to being in a Scottish warehouse,” she says. “I think it really showed that we’d actually achieved what we were wanting to do.”
The Maighstir edition has been crafted using three vattings of straight bourbon, the first was aged from 8–9 years, the second 5–6, and the third 9–10. Then there was a wheated bourbon, also from one distillery, with 4–5 years in oak. All four are distinct, but “really complement each other,” she says. Once she was happy, she sent the recipe over to Rhea who recreated her work in order to nose and taste it for himself.
Robinson took on the challenge by applying the principles of blending Scotch. She used the wheated bourbon as a base and blended around it. “That’s the one to me that was more reminiscent of a Scotch,” she says. “You start to build up the layers and layers of a bourbon into that, but that’s your Scotch base.”
There were a few surprises within the component parts, too. The oldest whiskey, the 9–10-year-old bourbon, was closest to what she thought of as a classic bourbon character, with lots of oaky, hedgerow notes. But in the blend, and diluted to 50% ABV, it really shone. Whiskies can behave in mischievous ways in blends.
Robinson was “playing around” with it, assuming she’d need to reduce the proportion of the 9–10-year-old to dial up the influence of the other, more ‘Scotch like’ components. “It was actually the complete opposite,” she smiles. “It closed down the whiskey, it actually didn’t have much at all of the flavour.” It’s not the first time she’s experienced this when blending whiskies. Common sense dictates that one should avoid too much peat smoke, as it can dominate a blend. But actually, peated spirit can be used as a type of ‘seasoning’ to bind the flavours and aromas of the other components together.
“If you don’t have smoke it’s just nothing, it’s quite bland.” It was a similar experience here with the oaky, antique quality of the 9-10-year-old. “I went back and played around again with the three other component parts to get what I thought was the best match for Scotch.”
And fascinatingly, the samples were given a long marrying period to settle down post-blending. Rhea opted for a re-nose after 24 hours, and another check after 48. This is critical, she detailed, because Maighstir Edition is released at 50% ABV. Whiskey drinkers are very likely to add their own water. “Any off-notes are going to come through at a diluted level,” she explains. The only way to be absolutely certain is with time. “You’re not going to get any surprises.”
How was it working with Rhea? “We have more similarities than differences,” she states . “A bit like me, if he’s creating something new, he does it in his head first.” She clearly made an impression. Since working with Kentucky Owl on the whiskey, she’s been named Kentucky Owl’s new master blender, following from John Rhea’s recent retirement.
And what of the whiskey that lured her out of retirement? Maighstir starts with green floral hedgerow notes, she says, before bourbon traits come through with time. There’s vanilla fudge, blackcurrants, and tangy citrus. “It really is reminiscent of Scotch,” she assesses. “The aroma starts as Scotch and then goes into bourbon, while the flavour starts off bourbon-like then becomes more Scotch-like.” She concludes: “It’s actually quite a flavour journey. You’re going from one thing to another to another.”
Kentucky Owl Maighstir Edition is the epitome of what happens when two creative minds come together. The blended bourbon launches in mid-September, bottled at 50% ABV at natural colour with no-chill filtration.