In what is traditionally considered to be a male-dominated industry, it could be perceived as difficult for women to stand out in the serious business of whisky making. But veteran master blenders like Maureen Robinson are showing that the fairer sex are just as good, if not better, at ageing and blending spirits to create whiskies with exceptional taste profiles.
A seasoned and celebrated professional in the world of Scotch whiskies, Robinson joined Diageo in 1977 as a young scientist handling R&D for the brand’s large portfolio of spirits. This is where she discovered her excellent sense of smell and spent nine years developing her nosing and tasting ability.
After a few years in Quality Assurance, she became a master blender in 1986 where she worked on products from development to launch. Over the years, she has created many legendary blends and single malts, including special releases such as this year’s Prima & Ultima Second Release where she curated eight incredibly rare single malt Scotch whiskies for Diageo’s Rare and Exceptional portfolio.
With a heightened knowledge of single malt vintages, Robinson is the best person to produce this second release, succeeding Jim Beveridge who launched the inaugural Prima & Ultima in 2020. In fact, some of the casks in this special edition have been personally tended by her.
In an exclusive interview with Options, Robinson talks about her passion for blending, curating the Prima & Ultima Second Release, and advancement of women in her field.
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What do you love most about what you do?
I think it has to be the variety and diversity of my job. Not only are we involved in the creation of new and exciting launches but we’re also custodians of the quality of the liquid that goes into Diageo’s Scotch whiskies. We also look to the future and are always exploring new and innovative ways of maturation and building flavour.
Can you take us through what happens during your work day?
My days are full of variety, no one day is the same. When I’m working on a single malt whisky innovation project, I’ll be with the team crafting the spirit and the stories and getting ready to launch the whisky across the globe. I also oversee the quality assurance side of whisky production, ensuring consistency in the production and taste.
With all the distilleries scattered all over Scotland, how much travelling do you do?
Most of my travelling these days is to help launch and promote our new whiskies. I have visited many of our distilleries over the years, and in particular Glen Ord which is the home of The Singleton of Glen Ord, but mostly I’m based at Menstrie, home of the Diageo archives.
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Do you have a favourite distillery and why?
It would be impossible to choose a favourite distillery as I’ve had the privilege of working with so many during my years at Diageo. However, I’ve worked the closest with The Singleton and I’m very proud to have played a part in it becoming the globally recognised whisky it is today.
The eight single malt vintages in Prima & Ultima Second Release include Auchroisk 1974, Lagavulin 1992, Linkwood 1981, The Singleton of Glendullan 1992, Talisker 1979, Brora 1980, Mortlach 1995, and Convalmore 1984
What do you think is the difference between Prima & Ultima first and second releases?
Prima & Ultima is a reflection of our personal stories throughout our lives in the world of whisky. Jim (Beveridge) has worked very closely with the people and communities at each distillery so his stories reflect this, whereas I’ve approached it from the maturation and blending perspective as that’s been my area of focus since day one.
What kind of difficulties did you face selecting only eight vintages?
From the beginning, I knew that it was going to be difficult to select just eight whiskies as I’ve been lucky enough to build such a strong connection with so many. My aim for the second release of Prima & Ultima was to develop a line-up of bottlings that evoke rich personal memories and capture the ongoing and ever-unfolding story of Scotch. My selection came from the heart and as a result I’m very proud of it.
Can you share your thoughts on whisky as a collector’s item or piece of investment?
Whiskies offer a time capsule to a period gone by so it is great that people around the world would like to experience these special malts. Prima & Ultima in particular is an opportunity for whisky enthusiasts to build a liquid library of moments-in-time to never be repeated, rare whiskies captured in liquid form. It allows even hard-fast fans of key distilleries to enjoy their favourite distillery’s character whilst also experiencing something completely new.
How does it feel being a pioneer female master blender?
Women have always been part of the whisky industry but when I became a blender in 1986 women were mainly employed in the bottling halls. There were very few women in managerial positions and there were no female blenders. Today it is a very different story. There are women in all aspects of the business from the boardroom to the apprentices. I think the challenges are the same in any industry but attitudes have changed, women are looking for more diversity and seeking careers in areas that in the past was unusual for a woman. As a whole, businesses are recognising that capability is the key to a successful business not whether you are male or female.
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Anything new you’re working on now?
This month we unveiled The Singleton 39-Year-Old, the second chapter in The Singleton’s epicurean journey. This precious single malt Scotch whisky was matured in a blend of casks, including those which had previously matured port, red wine, Pedro Ximénez & Oloroso, and then finished in French Bordeaux casks. The resulting whisky is rich and succulent, akin to black- berries and muscovado crumble.
I am in a privileged position to be able to use the skills I’ve acquired over my more than forty years at Diageo and apply them to experiment with flavour; something The Singleton gives me the freedom to do. This whisky was inspired by flavour recollections from a personal trip I took to France where I visited family-owned wine estates. Tasting a dram takes me back to that time; a shared epicurean adventure and moment of indulgence.
What do you like drinking at home?
My favourite style from a malt whisky perspective is one where the distillery character shines through and any wood influence is balanced and doesn’t dominate the flavour. I’m partial to a smoky whisky which I know isn’t everyone’s favourite but that’s what makes Scotch so special as there’s such a wide variety of flavour profiles to choose from. From this year’s Prima & Ultima selection the Singleton of Glendullan 1992 is a perfect example of that balance of distillery character and wood and I’d enjoy it with just a dash of water or an ice cube as you can unveil a whole new flavour journey this way.
Limited full sets of the Prima & Ultima Second Release are available at $39,500 through Diageo Rare and Exceptional Singapore Private Client Team at www.DiageoRareAndExceptional.com