Scotch whisky personality, author, educator, expert, and, most importantly, accomplished master blender. Richard Paterson – the man behind Dalmore, Jura, Fettercairn and more – talks independent bottlers, auction houses, and why the “cask is king”…
He secured the title of master blender at Whyte & Mackay at the age of 26, and earned the nickname, ‘The Nose’, for his exemplary olfactory skills. He’s a key figure in wine cask finishing innovation and is one of the Scotch whisky’s greatest evangelists. It can only be Richard Paterson, one of the industry’s best known luminaries.
In 2017 – his 50th year in the Scotch whisky industry – Paterson was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Wine and Spirit Competition Awards. MoM speaks to the revered whisky showman to discover what it means to be a modern-day master blender…
In terms of production, how much more do we know now than when you first started in the industry?
The Scotch whisky industry, like any other major organisation, will have undergone many changes over the last 51 years. However it is fair to say the basics are still there, even though our analytical technology has increased dramatically. A prime example is my job as master blender – detecting smells and odours is essential. It was thought many years ago there were around 10,000 odours, but recent research has now increased this to a staggering one trillion – so we still have a long way to go to truly identify this huge void.
Do you think we are creating better and more complex malts and blends today?
There are still many complex malts and blends out there but in my opinion – and this is also reflected in my annual spirits judging at the International Wine & Spirit Competition – the quality of wood management today has increased dramatically, and so it is not surprising that the level of [whisky] quality has risen too. The competition is fierce out there, not just from within our own industry, but also from other spirit producers too – gin, bourbon, rum and Cognac are prime examples. The quality of Scotch remains sacrosanct; we cannot be complacent if we want to compete.
Can you tell me about any projects you have in the pipeline?
Like any whisky company we are continually looking at a number of different and very exciting projects. Some we have been developing over the last five years, but it can even extend to 10 years and beyond. What is key – whether it is a single malt, a blended malt or even a blend – is that the cask in question must be totally compatible with the spirit to ensure it provides the final quality we are seeking. It is a long process that will have its ups and downs, but one thing is for sure: it will never be boring.
Can you tell me about any unusual cask types you’re experimenting with at the moment?
We do have a number in the pipeline but at this stage I am afraid I cannot reveal what they are. You must appreciate that we cannot give all our secrets away, but be assured there are some exceptional ones. So watch this space!
Is there any particular cask type you’d like to source that you haven’t yet?
There are many areas around the world that produce great wines – Bordeaux and Burgundy are two good examples. In the Scotch whisky industry we are not allowed to use the Chateau’s name on our label but, suffice to say, there are other producers from France and beyond who are happy to accommodate our request. I have always been a great lover of sherry and Port but there are many other great hidden gems waiting to be discovered and appreciated. Therefore many evaluations will continue. Whatever we decide, there has to be a relevance and a genuine ‘story’ for our brands to excite and entice our discerning consumers.
How many casks do you oversee, and how do you keep on top of them?
Literally thousands! We have a stringent wood policy in place that has to be meticulously maintained. The ‘cask is king’, and by keeping to this philosophy, along with careful selection, we can maintain our quality credentials. This requires continual assessments of the whiskies during their cask maturation and marrying period, which is conducted not just in our sample room but also at the distilleries. It is a huge undertaking but it has to be done. This is one part of my job that I love the most because when you see a parcel of whisky [develop] from its birth to, say, 40 years later, the outcome can be such a revelation. Something you treasure for the rest of your life. It literally can feel like pure liquid gold.
Could you tell me about how you’ve experimented with different barley and yeast strains?
Both areas we have been working on for some years now, a few whisky companies have already made some releases. What we try to avoid is becoming another ‘me too’. Many of these types of whiskies are still in their development stage, the results to date are interesting but, just now, not overwhelming. Further work is required before we could possibly release or to divulge anything.
How do you divide your time between all of Whyte & Mackay’s whisky brands?
To be perfectly honest, each one will be given the same amount of time it requires and fully deserves. My sole aim is to produce only the very best and, on occasion, some of our brands will take longer than others. I love them all, therefore my devotion to them must be the same.
The number of independent bottlers is increasing. Do you think this is a good thing for the whisky industry?
Competition is always good. As I have said on many occasions, the Scotch whisky industry can never be complacent. We must all strive to produce the best. The independent bottlers face the same challenges as us, therefore they too must strive to produce the highest quality [whisky] possible in a consistent manner.
There are a number of new distilleries too. Do you think the traditional Scotch whisky regions are becoming less relevant?
Over the last five years many new distilleries in Scotland have been created and will continue to do so for some time yet. The four distinctive regions – Lowlands, Highlands, Campbeltown and Islay – still remain relevant to the master blender and are an important part of our selection process. Certain distilleries mirror the various ‘styles of the area’ but others do not. What is important is that we recognise the individuality, which could take up to 15 years before it is finally fledged and ready for the market. What many people do not realise is that building and marketing a new distillery does not come cheap. You have to be prepared for the long haul, and have very deep financial pockets to delve into when required. I wish each one of them the very best of luck.
What’s your take on the auction market? Should we drink and enjoy rare whiskies, or do you see them as a clever investment?
Investment? Sorry, I hate that word! This noble spirit is for sharing and enjoying with good friends. Nothing can beat it, especially after a great dinner when you can sit back and put the world to rights while enjoying one of the many whiskies that are readily available out there. No matter what your palate or the state of your pocket is, rest assured there is a whisky waiting for you. So go for it!