The Whisky King
Creating fine whisky is the art of exercising talent and patience. Whyte and Mackay's decade's-old stocks of aged whiskies could not be in finer hands that those of Master Blender Richard Paterson.
By Murdoch McBride
refer to him respectfully by his nickname, "The Nose." By profession, Richard Paterson is a third generation master distiller, crafting whisky in the Scottish Highlands for Glasgow's storied Whyte and Mackay, where he has held his title for more than four decades. Paterson works patiently, stewarding the distillery and its time-honored traditions, orchestrating and balancing the whiskey's flavors, nurturing the tenor of its melody with a singular attention to the delicate notes shared between man's two most intimate senses - taste and smell. A concertmaster, he ensures harmony and balance in a glass, a symphony of flavor intended for an audience of one.
While he innovates and ensures absolute consistency behind the scenes at the 140-year-old distillery, he is also out front - in public - feverishly preaching the virtues of the whisky culture throughout the world. One may not understand all of the nuances of his work, but when a bottle of the distillery's flagship Dalmore is opened and the notes come together, one can appreciate it simply for what it is: Paterson's masterpiece.
Paterson's first defining moment in the world of whisky came when he was just eight-years-old, during a visit to his father's whisky warehouse in Glasgow. Although it wasn't exactly the best memory, it stayed with him forever. "I was fooling around with my twin brother," recalls Paterson in his thick Scottish brogue, noting he was young, and quite frankly, bored at the time. "My Dad literally stuck a whisky glass in front of my face and said, 'If you think it's so funny, fooling around like this, then tell me what you think of this whisky!'
"I said, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' And he slapped me in the back of the head," Paterson recalls.
His dad then challenged him to describe the aromas in the whisky. "'For a start, you've got to hold the glass properly up to your nose, then you've got to smell and you've got to see if it's...as heavy as your grandfather or as light as your mother. Is it like your chocolate bar - sweet and brown - or is it like the dust on the floor - dry?' And from that early beginning, I was able to give some kind of synopsis of a whisky. I wasn't tasting it, I was just smelling it."
His father managed to get him into a job with the Glen Scotia Distillery in 1966. Paterson immediately went on to study wines for 15 years, as well as both whisky and "the rest that goes with it." He spent four and a half years studying formally at the Glen Scotia Distillery, where he embarked on his first adventure into blending and actually distilling whisky.
Once called the world capital of whisky, Campbeltown is located in western Scotland, at the southern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula, 10 miles from the Mull of Kintyre, where Sir Paul McCartney owns a farm. The former home of some 30 distilleries, today only a few remain, including the partially active Glen Scotia. Campbeltown remains central to the history and lore of Scotch, though, and it can be said that the area is to whisky what Liverpool will always be to rock and roll - the birthplace of some of the best.
"Campbeltown really made something of me," says Paterson. "I'll never forget it."
In 1970, Paterson joined Whyte and Mackay and was able to get an assistant's job, thanks to his blending background. Within a few years, he became the master blender at the tender age of 26.
"I was reported to be the youngest master blender at the time," Paterson says, "but that doesn't mean anything. It's what you do and create."
The role of a master blender in the '70s was radically different than it is today, and all of its responsibilities took place inside the company. "It was very much dark and dingy, and you were exploited and you never talked to anyone at any other companies," Paterson explains.
"Today, it's the complete opposite. You're an ambassador and you not only have to blend, but you have to stand up in front of as many as 500-600 - or even up to 1000 - people, and you have to talk about what you're doing, why you're creating it, and working not only in an ambassador's role but also in a blending role. A lot has changed. It's much more exciting. With the whisky festivals opening 15 years ago, Whisky Advocate and Whisky Magazine opening into these cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and then farther afield in Tokyo, South America, and South Africa, people have shown a better awareness. Now, 1.3 million people come to Scotland every year, we have 108 distilleries in production, and we export to over 210 different countries. So there's a renaissance in whisky that's never been seen before and, lo, may continue. And I'm just immensely proud and privileged that I travel around the world, telling people and trying to educate people about what makes whisky unique and why it should be drunk and revered. I like to try and think that I help to make people enjoy it that little bit better."
Paterson's contribution to the world of whisky is highly specialized and uniquely valuable.
As master blender, Paterson led Whyte and Mackay's unprecedented analysis and recreation of Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky - the so-called "Shackleton Whisky" - which was recovered in crates under the Antarctic ice, part of a stored cache buried more than 100 years ago by the Scottish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton and which was recreated from recovered samples and is now in its second release. And in 2011, a particularly rare bottle of whisky by Whyte and Mackay - the 62-year-old Dalmore - was sold for a reported $175,000, making it the single-most expensive bottle of Scotch ever sold at that time. In short, he is entirely responsible for all the distillery's products, whether blended whisky or single malts.
The only thing more valuable than the whiskies, perhaps, are Paterson's own talents and experience: Lloyd's of London, as the story has been widely told, insures his nose for $2.6 million.
"Obviously, that was some time ago when that was done," chuckles Paterson, acknowledging the story's truth but quickly turning the conversation back to whisky itself. "I've been with the company coming out 42 years. I'm responsible for some of the very high-end products like the 1926 Dalmore, which cost $238,000 for one bottle. But whether we're talking about the Dalmore, or any of our other whiskies that are exceptionally expensive, every aspect of the process is critical. Obviously, if we're releasing them, then I have to ensure, quite frankly, that they're the highest standard. This doesn't just go for Dalmore, it goes for all of our other products."
It's the Dalmore, though, that has become the distillery's prime focus, especially for the American market. Paterson considers it the "jewel in the crown" of Whyte and Mackay's portfolio.
"There are a number of, shall we say, enthusiasts from around the world who are purchasing these individual items," says Paterson. "One guy comes from Atlanta and he paid something like $175,000 for a bottle of Dalmore Trinitas. Now, we only produced three bottles of the Trinitas, and that was the Dalmore 64-years-old, which goes back to 1868, 1878, 1926, and 1939. I believe that he and the purchasers will eventually open that bottle at a particular party or particular dinner, although he has purchased it as a true connoisseur of the liquid world."
With so much effort spent on coaxing amazing tastes and aromas through aging and blending, there is no lack of irony in realizing that some of the rarest and costliest of whiskies ever sold have been purchased not for consumption, but as investments or prizes to adorn shelves - never to be opened.
"That is really sad to see, because these whiskies are of unique quality and they should be shared," Paterson says. "That's what whisky's about. They're quite exceptional. They will turn a dinner party into a total and utter banquet fit for a king or a queen. Hopefully, when they do come to open them, they'll open them with the right coffee - Columbian, Nicaraguan, or Java. They'll hold the whisky in their mouth for at least two minutes before they swallow it. They'll wash it down with a beautiful, 72 percent cocoa-factor bit of chocolate and then, hopefully, a Hoya de Monterey Epicure No. 2 or a Partagas No. 2 or 4 cigar, just to smoke it away as well."
How exactly does a master blender describe the flavors of a $175,000 bottle of whisky?
For the very expensive Scotch that may be beyond one's reach, Paterson says the Dalmore is "like the classic Chanel No. 5, presented to Coco Chanel in 1921 by the great perfumer Ernest Beaux. The top notes of Chanel No 5 are Jasmine, May rose and Iris. Most perfumes will have at least 26 other nuances; it's the same for great whiskies. The top notes for Dalmore are ripe oranges, marzipan, and spice.
"You're not only smelling it, you're actually drinking it," says Paterson. "And what you're going to find with that particular style is a heavy body character, typical of a single malt whisky from that region, which is a Highland malt in the true sense, not a Speyside malt. Therefore it's got body, it's got character. It's been matured and finished in specially selected Matusalem Oloroso sherry butts [casks] for the last 10-15 years, which will provide these wonderful evocative Dalmore notes of orange marmalade, spice, and cinnamon followed by rich, bitter chocolate, and coffee. And then you're going to get a lovely licorice feel towards the end. You're going to keep that level of elegance and refinement in your palate for literally minutes and hours to come. So, when you go to bed, before you even brush your teeth and put your head on the pillow, the flavors will come back."
Paterson emphasizes it's all about "sampling," and drinking this "noble spirit" in the right manner.
"This is not a whisky you just put in your mouth and swallow," Paterson cautions. "It's about putting it into your top palate and the middle of your tongue, holding it there, and giving it another 20 or 30 seconds. Then, underneath your tongue - which a lot of people do not do - for another 10-15 seconds. And then, back up on top, hold it there, and then you swallow and then you take a deep breath. The longer you keep it in your mouth, the more you'll extract the flavor. It's like a beautiful dinner: you don't just gulp it down. You hold it in your mouth, you chew, it and you extract its flavors."
This approach, says Paterson, is exactly the same one a connoisseur would use if drinking a rare bottle of Chateau Lafite, such as 1947, 1949, or 1961. In both cases, the flavor is going to go "on and on and on," he explains, "and if you ever get a chance to taste a whisky of that magnitude, then that's what you must do."
Merely observing and nosing a whisky - whether single malt on an aged Whisky - will tell you "96 percent of everything you need to know about it," says Paterson.
"What you look at and see is what you're going to get on the palate, unlike wine, where you can get an imbalance," says Paterson, "With whisky, what you smell is what you're going to get. It's really about the way you revere and respect it and you hold it.
"And really, a whisky of this magnitude should be accompanied by the very best coffee, the finest chocolate and, of course, the finest cigars, because the fusion of all these flavors, which a lot of people have never before experienced in their lives, is something that you've got to approach with true respectability. This is something that costs a lot of money, but it really can transform an evening into a memorable affair that will be with you for the rest of your life."
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SMOKE 2012, Issue 3
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