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Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The 'Ten Minute Dram With...' Richard Paterson

Continuing with the interview theme which bought you enlightened words from Ardbeg's Mickey Heads and Harlen Wheatley from Buffalo Trace, we bring you another cracker from the legendary and sartorially elegant Mr Richard Paterson, Master Blender for Whyte and Mackay and Dalmore Distilleries. We caught up with Richard in fairly noisy airport lounge for a chat and a dram, before he flew off to the far east, to spread some of his unique wisdom and good cheer.

(Caskstrength)- Describe a regular day in the life of Richard Paterson:

"Well, normally I’d be in the blending rooms for 7.10am checking emails from Japan and the USA – very important markets for us. Then by about 10am most of the blending samples from our distilleries have arrived for me to access their quality and progress- to see how they’re performing before they’re married/after they’re married together and when they’re bottled, it’s very important to see them at all stages of development".

"Once a month, I’ll travel up to Invergordon to assess the new spirit samples- it’s the last time I’ll get to try them until up to 12 years later, depending when they’re blended. We’re also in the process of developing our Rare & Prestige range – 4 expressions have been produced over the last few years- 40 year old Whyte & Mackay, 40 year old Dalmore, 1973 Dalmore and 40 year old Jura. These are being replaced with 1974 Dalmore's and Jura's and I now have to sign around 500 certificates to accompany the bottles, whilst I’m on the plane!"

"It’s really important to keep on producing high quality blends and single malts with consistency so my team and I will try to work ahead of ourselves on the stocks for next year and possibly the year afterwards too. With Whyte and Mackay blends, we have around 35 single malts between 4 and 8 years old - which with the demand from new markets, is difficult to keep stocks of. The good thing is that every week has new challenges to attend to".

With the increasing demand for single casks in general, is it much more difficult now to source what you’re looking for, within the blending processes?

"There is a shortage of both younger and older whiskies – also the factor of very old stocks evaporating in the cask needs to be taken into account. There have been occasions where I have had to marry in much older whiskies into the younger blends to utilise these stocks- there’s a balancing act between keeping our overheads under control and maintaining some of those older stocks".
"The whisky business will always have ups and downs- right now our distilleries are at full production, but no one knows what demand will be like in say, 5-10 years. You always hope you have enough stock. Never in my history of working in the industry have I seen such high demand for scotch whisky, with the new emerging markets in China, Russia and Brazil making a big impression. There are also so many whisky festivals in every country now, which massively helps to promote awareness of the spirit".

We’re seeing that whiskies are becoming a younger past time now – will this influence your approach to blending for the palates of younger drinkers?

"I must admit that I get a bit irate when people talk about ‘older’ people being whisky drinkers and not younger – at the whisky festivals it's mostly 60-70% younger audiences, or ‘more responsible’ drinkers of around 21-35. What we must do is keep reflecting the softness and richness in some of our blends, particularly the older ones, which will give younger palates equal satisfaction and will hopefully bypass the myth that they’re inferior to older, more expensive single malts".
"It’s a process of education, sometimes on how to drink whisky- keeping it in your mouth and using the palate and tongue correctly, not just gulping it down!! I recently had the experience on a tasting, where one of the audience knocked back a 23 year old blend, without giving it time to develop in the mouth, so I slapped him and gave him another sample, to hold in the mouth! After a few more slaps, he realised what he was doing wrong, started to use his palate and tongue properly, whereby his eyes lit up and he suddenly got all the complexities and hidden dimensions within the whisky! It’s like a Jackson Pollock painting, keep looking at his work and you see an inner warmth and soul, which is what younger drinkers must understand; don’t be in a hurry- sip it and savour it".

Having the title of ‘Master Blender’ gives you an enigmatic ‘Alchemists’ image – how much is down to the science of blending great whiskies and how much is down to your instincts and senses?

"Good question- I would say it’s 90% down to instinct and a “feel-good” factor- knowing the whiskies and what their unique characteristics are, using my gut reaction to tell me what to expect. But at that point I have to rely on science to make an analysis for full confirmation of what I’m blending together- working closely with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, or our own labs gives me a full picture of certain parameters for the various legislation and regulations when releasing a blended whisky".

What has been the pinnacle of your blending career so far?

"1994 was a very hard year for me- the company was going through a restructure and my father had sadly passed away, but at the end of the year, as part of a competition for the International Wine and Spirit Awards, I was asked to create a 500th Anniversary Blend – to commemorate the very first blended scotch whisky. I ended up taking the first place trophy that day, which was great, but I remember it being tinged with sadness, wishing I could have shared the whisky with my father, who was also a blender".

The current resurgence of Whyte and Mackay seems down to the great reviews of the 30 year old, Supreme and Old Luxury etc. How much leeway do you get in creating and maintaining these whiskies?

"Fortunately, I have total autonomy in this area and it’s really important to work ahead of the game- it takes a long time to bring together the whiskies within the older blends - at least two years for the balance to be achieved and for them to settle down, but the rewards are all the greater for it. It’s also really important to take your time and to enjoy the older, rare blends in the correct environment too- with the right food, coffee, dark chocolate or perhaps a cigar- the perfect combinations of all these things can create a multiple orgasm!!"

Has there ever been a rival blend you wish you’d discovered?

"Not really, but I’ve always kept my eye on what others are doing- for instance William Grant and Diageo both have very skilled blending experts such as David Stewart and Maureen Robinson who have produced what I call ‘Golden Nuggets’- really great styles. I don’t get jealous of these creations, it’s more of an admiration of how they use some of the great casks from the various distilleries they own and their well-stocked inventories. Some of the older Ardbeg’s and Glenmorangie’s are also exceptional. It's really down to how you utilise the wood you have – there are some casks which I have in our stocks that will never be re-created by other companies and vice versa".

Have you ever tasted a particular cask and wanted to retire with it?

"When you do find them, you do tend to hold them back for special things, like for instance, with the 500th Anniversary blend. I had some real classics from Longmorn, Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas, Tamdhu, The Glenrothes, Ardbeg and Bruichladdich, which were pure nectar! Also a 30 year-old Scapa too- it’s important not to leave them too long, they will reach a peak and you must use them at the right time. Casks can have good times and bad times, depending on where you store them in the warehouse, the racking and how you’ve looked after them".

What are your thoughts on finishing whiskies in experimental casks?

"I don’t really like the word ‘finishing’- it tends to mean more of a ‘stimulation’, rather than acting to enhance the whisky to make it better. There are no guarantees that you’ll get what you’re looking for, by transferring it into another cask. Over the years, we’ve had some sherry casks which after a year or so we thought we’d have to dump, but it took about 3-4 years for them to come out of the bad patch and after that, they really shone, so it just goes to show you’ve got to be prepared to wait- and at 500 pounds a cask it can be an expensive mistake.
Limousin Oak or Cabernet Sauvignon wine casks can be great, but you have to make sure you nose them every single week, as there can be some undesirable notes appearing, which will hang around and resurface when you’re marrying them and will ruin the harmony of a blend".

Finally, the '64,000' dram question…. Your all time favourite whisky?

"I’d have to say the 52 year old Dalmore is still the epitome of great whisky, but my heart would have to come back to the Whyte and Mackay 40 year old blend, which is a classic aged blend (also containing old Dalmore) but it’s a combination of many old malts that I’ve really truly liked, some going back to 25th December 1964. It’s blended from both grain and malt, but has a 70% malt content, in recognition of a man called John McIlraith who served the company for 70 years! For a man to give that much dedication deserves a whisky of similar dedication".

And on that poignant note, the 'final call for flight D235 to Dubai' arrives over the tannoy and we leave Richard to his several hours of certificate signing. His new book 'Goodness Nose' has just come out, which gives a huge insight into an illustrious career and contains lots of blending secrets, humorous tales and an overriding sense of passion, with which Richard approaches great whisky.

You can buy it here: