On the nose: Richard Paterson

Richard “the Nose” Paterson – the Master Blender behind Dalmore – has been crafting fine single malt Scotch for Whyte & Mackay for half a century. But now he’s launching a new project, Wolfcraig – a Highland distillery that has the industry awhirl. We caught up with the larger-than-life character to find out more

“Right, Richard, what do you think of this?” Gus Paterson, a second-generation whisky blender, said to his son, then aged eight, thrusting a glass in front of his nose. The young Richard – destined to become one of the world’s foremost blenders – had just entered a whisky warehouse in Glasgow for the first time. “I still remember the bustle of the city,” Richard tells me, almost 65 years later. “He unlocked these doors, and we walked into his world. It was dark and dingy. The smell – of maderised wine and whisky – it’s something you never forget.” But as for the glass in front of him, he didn’t know what to say – a response that earnt him a slap round the back of the head from his father. “Pay attention. Swirl it around. Say hello. Is it as heavy as your grandmother? Light as your mother? Sweet as a chocolate bar? Dry as the dust on the floor?” Suddenly, the young Richard Paterson got it – he was hooked.

Skip to the current day and the Master Blender – after 50 years at Whyte & Mackay (the company behind the likes of Dalmore, Jura, Fettercairn and Tamnavulin) and 55 in the whisky industry – has just been awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours. “I haven’t quite got my head around it yet,” he says. Talking to me via Zoom, Paterson is a character that refuses to be diminished by a screen. Slickly dressed in a suit and scarlet tie, the showman in him leaps across the WiFi connection, with moments of Mrs-Doubtfire-esque comedy in our conversation, his grandiose moustache dancing beneath one of Scotch whisky’s most famous noses (at one point insured for £1.6 million).

Whisky was the family’s trade, his grandfather having established a blending, bottling and broking business in Glasgow in 1933. Richard, however, was determined to prove himself when he joined the industry in 1966. After a battle with his MD at the time, he persuaded them to fund his Wine and Spirit Education Trust courses. He travelled the world to visit vineyards and get to grips with wine – an exploration of flavour that laid the foundation for his work pioneering and experimenting with wine-cask finishes.

His skill of blending, choosing the perfect barrel and knowing when it is at its best, is unparalleled. When I ask him how he does it, he tells me that it’s key first to know the style of your single malt – to recognise its personality and character, and then be able to see whether a particular cask will enhance its beauty. “You need to make sure you give it the right clothes,” he explains.

Each year he checks in on the casks at Dalmore, tasting hundreds in a day, working through six a minute, nosing each one in an almost trance-like state to, in his words, say hello. It’s only, however, after adding a little hot water and leaving the spirit at room temperature and humidity, allowing each spirit to wake up, that, he says, you get to see what it’s really like. “How are you? Ah, yes, you’ve decided to come away… You’re beautiful.. hmm... You’re a bit of a bitch… and you’re a bit of a bum,” Paterson says, miming his way through an imaginary flight of samples on screen.

While there are many elements in determining the style of a whisky – the barley, yeast, distillation time, shape of the still, cut-off times, reduction, the warehouse and more – for Paterson, “the cask is king”. The barrels that hold a whisky can represent up to 80% of the final style – and when you get it right, it’s like nothing else. He tells me about one of the most memorable spirits he’s tasted, a 62-year-old Dalmore of his own making. “Dave Broom [the famous whisky writer] was with me,” Paterson says. “We wanted to make sure that the particular aged Sherry Oloroso casks were going to give us the right quality. A bit like when you cut a pork pie – with the meat evenly distributed. When we nosed it… all those flavours came together in perfect harmony. It really, truly reflected an aged icon.”

Whiskies of this ilk fetch enormous sums, with a bottle of the aforementioned dram (one of only 12 released by the distillery in 2002) selling for £91,650 at auction a few years ago. Paterson seems somewhat baffled by the prices, but mostly hopes it doesn’t put people off drinking the bottles. “You mustn’t sit and look at it; it’s for sharing. The memories that you get – you never forget that,” he says. “And – with whisky – you can always put the cork back.”

Over five decades at Whyte & Mackay, he established Dalmore as one of the world’s finest and most collectable single malts; but last year announced he’s taking a step back (working 100 days a year, largely dedicated to Dalmore) to focus on a new project, and the reason for our conversation. Wolfcraig is a brand new distillery and, with Paterson joining a team of serious pedigree, it’s one of the most exciting projects the Scotch whisky world has seen.

With demand for fine single malts higher than ever before, there are over 30 new distilleries at some stage of opening – and no shortage of demand for a man with the skill and sheer brand strength of Richard Paterson. So, of the many offers he’s received over the years, why did the master blender decide to take the plunge with Wolfcraig? In short, he explains – he’s never seen a project with the long-term commitment, capital and combined experience. The team includes Dr Alan Rutherford OBE (former Production Director at Diageo, Master of the Quaich and previous President of the Malt Distillers Association of Scotland), Ian Macmillan (a Master Distiller, also a Master of the Quaich and a member of the Worshipful Company of Distillers), Ian Lochhead (former UK Bacardi Operations Director, and another Master of the Quaich) and Michael Lunn – whom Paterson worked under for 17 years at Whyte & Mackay.

For Paterson, it’s a unique opportunity to create a new Highland single malt from scratch, and he’s confident they’ll craft “something special”. The plan is to use a double ball still, with the reflux creating a gutsy, muscular profile, while of course remaining true to the Highland style. Only the finest wood will be used, and Paterson expects to use Sherry casks to add softness to the spirit. Construction of the £15 million distillery is scheduled to start in summer this year, with a restaurant, bar, private tasting room and extensive visitor centre planned. The distillery has the capacity to produce 1.5 million litres, but production will be strictly limited, with the focus firmly on quality over quantity, and no spirit released until it’s absolutely ready. In 25 years, Paterson expects it to be one of the top whiskies in the world. He grins, his excitement about the possibilities uncontainable: “We’re gonna put our money where our mouth is.”

Keep your eyes peeled for our exclusive collaboration with Wolfcraig launching next week, or register to find out more.

In high spirits

BY Sophie Thorpe,

Jan 21st, 2021

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