A Passion for Whisky: Richard Paterson

I’m sitting before my computer. It’s after dinner (an unremarkable repast this evening) sipping a slender wine glass full of Gonazalez Byass Apostoles “Palo Cortado Muy Viejo” sherry. It’s 30 years old and it’s delicious. How I came to be sipping it, is also how I came to be sitting before my computer this evening, writing. It was during lunch last Friday, in the hours before WhiskyFest San Francisco, that Richard Patterson brought it up in conversation. Richard is the famous Master Blender for The Dalmore scotch whisky and it’s no coincidence that he mentioned it. The used barrels from this particular solera, along with those from the Matusalem, Del Duque and Amaroso lines, are given a second life when they are shipped to Alnes, in Scotland, refilled with new make whiskey and let to rest again.

The lunch, to which I had been invited at the last minute, was a rather intimate affair. There were four of us total: Virginia Miller, from the Bay Guardian, Dawn Lambert, Marketing Director for Whyte & Mackay in The Americas, myself, and, of course, Richard. We met at Wayfare Tavern and after a little bit of a wait, settled down to a lovely table upstairs over looking Sacramento Street. Dawn got right to work, unboxing bottles of The Dalmore and getting us set up with glasses.

I had encountered Richard for the first time a few months back in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail under rather different circumstances. I happened in on a seminar he was giving on The Dalmore. The seminar was already in progress. He was standing at the front of the room, offering some choice words about people who put ice (of all things) in their whisky! Shortly thereafter, Richard grabbed a handful of of the stuff from a nearby bucket and threw it across the room to further make his point. I had no idea who this madman in the jacket, tie, and kilt was, but he had my undivided attention. And it wasn’t all show: amidst the peppery language and gesturing Richard was imparting serious knowledge about the history of The Dalmore and how best to appraise it. Here was a man with passion for his profession.

The reason for that passion is readily apparent to anyone who reads through Richard’s recently published semi-biography “Goodness Nose.” He comes by it quite honestly. He grew up in Glasgow where both his grandfather and father had spent their lives in the warehousing and blending end of the whisky trade. Richard had his first encounter with “the business” when he was but eight years old and his father asked (nay, demanded) that he sip and describe what was given to him. Though it would be a few more years before Richard tucked in and formally joined the trade, by 26 he was named Master Blender for Whyte & Mackay Distillers, a position he’s held ever since. He was probably the youngest person to have attained that distinction. Looking over the long list of achievements and honors conferred since then you can see the wisdom of that appointment.

It occurs to me now that one of the questions I did not ask Richard is when did he first discover his penchant for public speaking and his talent as a performer. There are a many great whisky (and whiskey) experts in the world but not all of these people are equally great at presenting that knowledge in an entertaining and lively manner.

While Richard occasionally lapsed into what might be called his “routine” (he brought his giant plastic bugs out when talking about the impact of phylloxera on the wine trade), the intimate setting gave Virginia and myself the opportunity to drill deeper on topics as they came up in conversation. For example, we learned a lot more about the aforementioned soleras from which the sherry cooperage comes and that Beam in the US along with Heaven Hill, supply them with used bourbon barrels. (The split is about 50/50 between the two wood sources.) I got to ask about the warehouses at The Dalmore and learned how they are constructed and organized (new make starts life at the bottom where its most damp). I learned that Alexander Matheson, the founder of the distiller, established it after having made his fortune in the opium trade in China. (Talk about trading on vices!)

Advice on how to nose and taste a whisky…

Richard likes to be known as “The Nose” — the primary tool of anyone in his trade. Unsurprisingly then one of the lessons he likes to impart on his guests is how to properly smell and taste a spirit. That involves a number of steps, not least of which is using the right kind of glass [*], holding it by the stem or base, and sticking your nose in and out of it, using both and then alternate nostrils (our sense of smell is not symmetric), until you get the full olfactory “sense” of what’s you’re about to taste. This should be followed by taking two tastes: the first of which may be quick (“Hello!”) and the second of which should be long, with the spirit held in the mouth and moved around in it, including under the tongue. Richard encourages folks to hold this second taste for as long as two minutes, a feat that none of us could manage. He claims there are flavors that only come out after prolonged contact.

You’ll not be too surprised to learn that Richard’s lesson on nosing and tasting comes with sound effects, supplied by Richard himself. As he holds the taste of whisky in his mouth, he makes a series of “umm-umm-umm” sounds and turns his head to and fro, all to punctuate the fact that he’s moving the spirt all around.

I should mention at this point that during the course of lunch (which lasted nearly three hours) we tasted through the entire line of The Dalmore from the 12 year old “entry level” bottling to the King Alexander III, with its six wood finishes. As an ultimate treat, Richard poured a taste of the very rare and expensive Sirius bottling. This is a blend of whisky from 1865, 1926, and 1939. It’s almost hard to describe what a whisky this old tastes like. At the moment I cannot even put words to it.

We also sampled some of ‘new make’ (unaged and undiluted) whisky, a bottle of which Richard pulled out from his (bottomless) satchel to illustrate some point or another. Virginia and I of course wanted to try it. It was pretty amazing, exhibiting lemon, cream, grass and cereal notes. It was very different from the corn and rye based ‘white dogs’ I’ve sampled from american distilleries. Richard says that he and the other blenders regularly sample the new make whisky since the distillers are often making small adjustments to it. A surprising (to me) assertion was that these samples would change after resting in glass for about month and need to be tried again to fully asses them.

[*] – That would be a copita [ko-pita], a small tapered sherry glass. The taper helps focus the aromas of what ever is in it. Alas, we did not have this critical tool and so made due with what was on hand at the bar: small rocks glasses. Note to self: next time I have lunch with Richard Paterson bring a box of copitas. ;->

Advice for the craft distiller…

I was particularly interested in Richard’s take on the new craft/artisanal distilling movement here in the US. There’s been a lot of discussion about this topic recently with the number of products on the market greatly increasing. I asked him what advice he’d give to the craft distiller from his position as a Master Blender? His answer was unequivocal: go out into the world and find wood (by which he meant barrels) which is unique and distinctive. That makes sense given that 60% or more of the flavor in a wood-aged spirit comes from the barrel in which it’s held. For many distillers here in the US that could mean eschewing the coveted label of bourbon or rye (because of barreling requirements) though it might also mean producing a truly original product. Richard also stressed the importance of age. He mentioned 10 years, which would be a long time in the barrel here in the US but his point is well taken. There are a lot of 2 year old whiskeys now on the market. We don’t need more of these.

Eventually it came time for Richard to depart and take a break before he’d be “on” again in front of the crowds at WhiskyFest. Of course, not before desert including some King Alexander III malt and a bit of chocolate. I was by then certainly ready for a breather before an evening that promised to be full of yet more whisky. I felt plenty warmed up however. My senses were primed and my brain was alive with thoughts on what it takes to make a whisky great. Among other things, I knew it depends on the talents and passions of people like Richard.

Coda

A few photos I wanted to add but which didn’t easily fit into the piece.

First, toward the end of lunch Richard performed a whisky parlor trick for us, floating a goodly amount of The Dalmore over water. Here’s a photo of that:

Second, I wanted to include a shot of the sherry I purchased a couple of days later. I had to go on a bit of a quest for them but was rewarded by discovering a store called The Spanish Table in Berkeley. It has the most comprehensive selection of sherry, port, Madeira, and Bual I have seen anywhere. Their selection of table wines also appears quite extensive. The Spanish Table is located at 1814 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley CA. The phone # is 510.548.1383.

3 Responses to “A Passion for Whisky: Richard Paterson”

  1. Richard sounds like a fantastic and fascinating guy. That drop also sound delicious and has me craving some sherry, haven’t had some for quite a while. I did bring the new year in though by having a few scotches, very nice indeed. Have a great 2011!

  2. Great post! If you’re available, we would love to have you out to at 7 p.m. at the Terra Gallery on Sunday, Jan. 16 as a VIP guest for the night and to participate in an exclusive “pre-tasting” to sample some of the competition’s featured drinks, chat with the competing bartenders and meet our West Coast brand ambassador – Borys Saciuk. Then of course, we’d love to have you stick around to watch the local bartenders and mixologists showcase their skills and battle their peers for a chance to join the cocktail caravan bound for New Zealand. Let me know :) pmingue@golinharris.com

  3. What a guy and how lucky were you to have a three hour lunch and try the Alexander III Dalmore. It’s like Richard says to is the worst thing in the world to have ice with a single malt water at room temperature and also mineral water is best from the area the whisky comes from.

    Great post thanks, Stu

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