The nose knows

The nose knows

As his book hits the shelves Kate Portman talks to Master blender Richard Paterson.

People | 16 Jan 2009 | Issue 77 | By Kate Portman (nee Ennis)

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Hullow,” says Richard Paterson in his deep dulcet tone. “How are you?” he then enquires with a more lengthy inhalation. For anyone that has attended one of the legendary masterclasses from Whyte & Mackay’s charismatic master blender, you’ll know this is how he likes to greet his whiskies. You’ll also know that he doesn’t stop at the superficial pleasantries but likes a full conversation to get to know the personality of the whisky better.And so it is with people… the morning I arrive to interview him about his new book, Goodness Nose, he inquisitively asks about my life before I can begin to ask him about his own. It leads to such a long and entertaining conversation that I run out of space on my Dictaphone but then I’d expect good stories from a man who has dedicated four decades to the whisky industry.Sitting in Richard’s office, perched on the ninth floor of Whyte & Mackay’s Glasgow headquarters overlooking the city where he has spent most of his life, a glance around provides further clues into the character of the man. Shelves crammed full of books indicate his insatiable thirst for knowledge and passion for history, his favourite Renoir painting on the wall reveals his artistic sensibilities and windowsills peppered with souvenirs reflect his travels and general curiosity with the world.Richard is as immaculately groomed as ever, looking dapper in a dark suit with his signature tie and matching handkerchief placed just so in the breast pocket. “Well, I hope people will at least remember me for making an effort,” he smiles. His sartorial style reflects his traditional, gentlemanly values but also expresses the meticulous attention to detail that has made him so good at what he does.This perfectionist nature, combined with his demanding work schedule – when we speak he has just spent seven consecutive weekends away – and the feat of distilling 40 years into 100 pages meant the book was a long time in the making. It was co-written with Whisky Magazine scribe Gavin Smith during the last four and a half years, during numerous weekends spent at Nethermill house by Fettercairn distillery, doubtlessly fuelled by drams and cigars along the way!Gavin acted as a collaborator rather than a ghost writer, meaning Richard’s inimitable voice clearly comes through upon reading as he recounts colourful anecdotes and candidly conveys his passion for the spirit.Whisky runs in his blood, being the third generation Paterson in the industry – his grandfather founded a Glasgow whisky broking firm and his father continued the business. Richard started his own whisky apprenticeship aged of 17 during the ‘swinging Sixties’, a boom time for whisky with new distilleries such as Tamnavulin being built and production levels soaring.“These were the good times when deals were done over long lunches but back then there was enough business for everyone,” he recalls.The young Richard soon realised the longterm potential of working in whisky and was determined to progress so set about learning all he could. In 1970, he moved to Whyte & Mackay where he has loyally stayed ever since. Considering his long-standing career with the company, he has witnessed a mindboggling nine takeovers and 16 different bosses during his time there. The book takes an in-depth look at Whyte & Mackay’s distilleries of Jura, Dalmore, Fettercairn and Invergordon. It also conveys the massive changes seen in the last four decades across the entire whisky industry, through highs to lows, as modern trade emerged with its painful processes of over-production, distillery closures and rationalisation.Another highlight of the book is its look at the whisky blender’s art – a subject previously shrouded in mystery – by taking the reader inside the sample room.Overflowing with glasses and whisky bottles, this place Richard calls his ‘treasure chest’ is where he relaxes and becomes absorbed.Here he assesses all the component malts and grains in various stages of their development as well as the blends themselves. It shows just how much the company relies on the judgement of this man’s nose.Between 25 and 30 components go into a blend and combining all those flavours and nuances is a complex task, so analogies are useful to explain it. “Whisky is very personal so the whole thing is about getting to know an individual, their personality, how to dress them (in casks) and how they will combine with partners,” Richard explains. “First impressions are important but you also have to consider how that personality will develop with age – some keep their spark while others fade away.” Richard compares his role to that of a dinner party host, where the guests are the individual whiskies that go into his blend, chosen and seated to agree with one another and create harmony. So how would Richard sum up his style of whisky? “I want backbone but also love a whisky to have finesse and warmth towards the end. I like it to open up like a flower. It needs to have personality, body and silky sensual tones towards the end that linger on.” Richard’s method of double marriage is also essential to Whyte & Mackay’s style, where the composite malts and grain are vatted together to meld. A more expensive process, of course, but one Richard insists upon (to the accountants’ dismay) to ensure quality and consistency.As the book explains, there’s never a single recipe that a blender follows slavishly.Distilleries close and whiskies change so a blender always thinks ahead and controls stocks to maintain stylistic consistency. If one component is becoming extinct, it is blended out while substitutes from the same stylistic family are seamlessly blended in.Along with his great blending skills, Richard is also one of whisky’s greatest ambassadors, known for the theatrical showmanship displayed at whisky shows around the world, which invariably involves lively stimulation using buckets of ice, wind turbines and party poppers. “People might say that Richard Paterson is a show-off throwing ice around the place but if I can make a bigger impact and do something people will remember, that’s what I’ll do.” He feels direct contact and interaction with people drinking his whiskies is an invaluable part of job: “It’s a real compliment when people turn up to listen to you and genuinely want to learn and taste the whiskies. My biggest kick is when somebody tasting the whisky stops in their tracks and thinks hmm, this is really good and their eyes light up.” As such an engaging speaker, it’s hard to believe he used to dread doing these talks and still gets a bit nervous. The worst thing is disinterest. “You can sense when people are just there to knock it back. They’re the ones who get ice thrown over them.” After the time and care he’s spent on his craft, he gets annoyed if people down the whisky too quickly and encourages them to slow down and really appreciate it. “Just use your nose and tongue more – it’s what they are there for! The more you investigate whisky, the more it gives you back.” Recognising the importance of spreading knowledge, Richard has embraced the trend towards promoting whisky through magazines and shows. “They have given the image of Scotch whisky worldwide appeal and that’s worth its weight in gold.” He voices his frustration at some companies for not always supporting such endeavours, feeling the whisky industry needs to promote itself and compete against other spirits as there’s no room for complacency.However, this rise in consumer interest is why more he’s is more optimistic about the future of this current boom. “We’re on a crest of a wave just now. In all the years I’ve been in the industry – and I’ve seen many cycles – this is the most fabulous time for whisky.” Collaboration between whisky companies to benefit the industry as a whole is something he has tried to develop during the years. “Whisky has been good to me but I’ve tried to be good to it,” he explains. Very respectful of his fellow peers, he also praises unsung heroes such as coopers and peat cutters. “These are the people at the sharp end but without them, we’d be nothing.” Richard has also recognised the vital contribution that past figures like Andrew Usher and Charles Doig have made. “As the founding father of blending, Usher is one of my big mentors but he was largely forgotten and that’s why I held the Andrew Usher lunch in 2002. That was the first time that blenders across the industry had ever come together in history.“When I started in the 1960s, you were never allowed to talk to anyone out in the industry – it was shut doors.“The saddest thing about writing the book was realising I should have asked my father more although I did get to hear some stories from his good friend George Christie at Speyside distillery.” The man shows little sign of retiring soon and you sense there are still more chapters to be written yet. The book was already expanded mid-project to include Whyte & Mackay’s recent acquisition by Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya. From the dark days of the mid-90s when, according to Richard, the company was “a rudderless ship, adrift in a storm without a captain, with a crew that was confused and tired” and its misguided stint as Kyndal, Whyte & Mackay has turned the corner and now clearly recognises the asset it has in Richard.By developing the Rare and Prestige range of whiskies and re-establishing The Dalmore as the malt jewel in the company’s crown, Richard is now revelling in what he does best. There are bound to be more liquid treats in store, particularly the older whiskies that Richard is passionate about – the rewards of time and patience. “One of biggest thrills is when you nurture whisky for a long time – like a 40 year old – and it comes out beautifully.”RICHARD PATERSON THE FACTS DISTILLED
• Born in Glasgow on 31st January 1949,
along with twin brother Russell.
• His first taste of whisky was at eight
years old on a tour of his father’s bond.
He wasn’t too impressed then but his
father reminded him that whisky paid
for his education.
• His first whisky trip to Campbeltown to
visit Glen Scotia while working at
A Ghillies & Co.
• He joined Whyte and Mackay in 1970
and was the youngest person to
become a blender at the age of 26.
• His proudest moment - winning the
Spirit of Scotland trophy in 1994 for
the blend he created for the
competition,although it was
bittersweet achievement as he wasn’t
able to share the achievement with his
father,who had died earlier that year.
• The low point of his job is when the
whisky is devalued,particularly when
discounted out of the company’s
hands by retailers.
• His favourite tie is the red one with
Swarovski crystals that he bought in
Canada and wore for the book launch.
• He is otherwise known as ‘The Nose’
and previous reports state his
olfactory organ vital to his work was
insured at a cool £1.5million (this is
currently under review) so he takes
lots of vitamins to ensure he never gets
a cold.
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