Richard Paterson OBE has been involved with the revered Highland single malt The Dalmore for an unbroken span of 55 years. Its longstanding master blender, he started in the whisky business in 1966, aged 17, as an office junior at A Gillies & Co before spending time in Campbeltown learning how to make Scotch. In 1970, he joined the respected blending house Whyte & Mackay, becoming chief blender in 1975, responsible for its famous blend of the same name, as well as a host of other brands – from the Jura distillery, to the Shackleton blend – and single malts such as Fettercairn and The Dalmore. While he remains at Whyte & Mackay, today Paterson is focusing his attention solely on The Dalmore, the company’s flagship single malt – and on the task of grooming his successor.
Known as ‘The Nose’, Paterson is widely acknowledged as the most experienced master blender in the business. In recent years, he has been assembling a new team of blenders to continue his legacy. Surprisingly, the training involves more time in the warehouses than in the blending room.
‘When you work with a variety of single malts, they all have their own personalities,’ he says, ‘but the DNA is always the same for each of them. With The Dalmore, it is a chocolate orange note, with lemon grass and citrus fruit that develops into a spice note after spent time in cask. It’s a matter of making sure there is a harmony between the spirit and the casks. This is where blending starts: not with a load of samples in a room, but with choosing the right casks to hold the whisky for many, many years.’ This is the first thing Paterson teaches his team of whisky-makers, the current generation of which is led by Gregg Glass, whisky-maker across the Whyte & Mackay group and Paterson’s designated successor. The new team will be taught ‘to recognise the personality in the cask and to make sure it never deviates from that’, Paterson says.
‘It’s particularly important with the amount of wood purchases we have lined up to ensure we have a consistent relationship between spirit and oak. This element is more important than ever. When I started 55 years ago, a cask was a cask. That’s not sufficient now. We have to make sure we know exactly where that cask has come from; if it has wine seasoning or whatever; what its past has been and what its future holds…’
When composing a blended Scotch whisky, the master blender’s palette is wide and varied, drawing on thousands of casks from hundreds of distilleries to produce a liquid that is, time and again, the best facsimile possible of what has gone before. Yet when it comes to single malt, the selection of casks is limited to those that contain spirit from just one distillery, so keeping the house style the same – and consistent – is a whole new challenge.
‘I cannot emphasise enough how much experience plays a part in this,’ says Paterson. ‘You could read a book about it, but ultimately it’s all about the experience of nosing and tasting. Even things like where the cask is stored in the warehouse are important, and this is where the skills come in. A lot of people think that you put spirit in a cask and then pour it into a glass. But it really is a matter of fine-tuning, like an orchestra.’
Paterson mentions that he is soon due to take the blending team to the warehouses, where they evaluate thousands of casks. ‘This is where this next generation will be watching and learning,’ he says, ‘to see why we’ve chosen [specific] casks and how they have matured. Knowledge of where the casks have been and why they have matured in a certain way is vital. We can then fine-tune in the blending room. Our first priority is to maintain the DNA of our house style,’ Paterson continues. ‘The second is consistency – that is sacrosanct; we must maintain it at all costs.’ Despite occasional pressure from sales and marketing colleagues to get the whisky on to shelves, he says they make that decision as a team: ‘Sometimes you have to be firm enough to wait a bit longer. If it’s not ready, it won’t be going out the door.’
Paterson also says blending is harder now because ‘people are more knowledgeable about the whisky they are drinking: they know if flavours change, so are more demanding. This,’ he says, ‘is the challenge for the next generation of blenders.’
Richard Paterson has been working with our sister company the IWSC for over 30 years, from heading up our Scotch whisky judging to leading the creation of our 50th anniversary whisky blends (above)
This article forms part of a series from Issue 6 of Club Oenologique magazine, in which three leading cellar masters explain how maintaining a house style is more important than expressing personality. Read the other features here: