Monday, March 7, 2016

When you get to walk for a moment in the shadow of the giants...

There is something to be said about being my age and loving it (I turn 50 this year) and it's the fact that I'm old enough to remember and appreciate many of the great personalities that have moulded and affected many an enthusiast's whisky journey over the last 30 years. Some I never had the chance to meet such as the prolific and highly acclaimed journalist Michael Jackson who passed away in 2007. Others such as Serge Valentin, whose skills and wit I highly admire, are on the list of people I very much look forward to one day meeting. 

Each of the whisky greats that I have met so far have created a lasting impression on me but I wonder if they ever consider how much they influence hundreds if not thousands of individuals? Do they think about what legacy they leave behind them? Well, this next man does...
Richard Paterson - Master blender Whyte & Mackay
If you know anything about whisky, you should know who "The Nose" is. For over 50 years he's been behind the scenes or on stage in front of hundreds of fans. He is not only legendary with regards to the whiskies he creates for Whyte & Mackay (Jura, Fettercairn, Dalmore) he is the epitome of being a gentleman, scholar and fantastic entertainer so it was with the utmost respect and pride that I accepted an opportunity to interview him last week as he toured eastern Canada and appeared at the Celebrate Whisky Festival in Halifax Nova Scotia on March 5, 2016. 

I wanted the interview to be somewhat serious but also convey a warm Canadian "Hello" and "How are you" so I decided to show up with a bottle of whisky. He opened the door dressed to the nines and greeted me with a warm handshake and smile. Mr. Paterson immediately put me at ease by telling me he had done some homework and read a bit about me (he even knew my husband's name was Graham and asked where he was). I looked over to the sitting area to see many whisky bottles, some glasses and water. I put my coat on a chair, took out my notebook, a pen, my phone and the bottle of whisky I had brought. Quizzically he looked at what I was doing and I got the impression from the raised eyebrows and sly smile that nobody had ever brought whisky to an interview with him before. 

Immortalized in a manga (Japanese Cartoon Book) 

We sat down, chatted for a few minutes and I asked if I could pour us each a dram of the Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel. He quickly nosed/described the dram as clearly having the Crown Royal house style but with a more flavourful profile. Mr. Paterson also asked a few questions about the bottle so I talked a little about Davin de Kergommeaux (mentor/friend of mine) which led to us talking about Davin's book: Canadian Whisky, The portable expert. I mentioned the book was a great walk through our Canadian Distilling history. He didn't own a copy but proceeded to stun me with his impressive knowledge of my country's history, shameful to say I think he knows some of it better than 90% of most Canadians. 

This little bit really impressed Lindsay & me:

I could have listened to him for the rest of the day, but knew we were getting pressed for time so I asked if I could start the interview and.... we began. What better way to get going than some quick fire questions.

1. What is your favourite whisky word?

2. What is your least favourite whisky word?

3. What still excites you about the whisky industry?

4. What makes you worry about the future state of the whisky category?

5. What sound or noise do you love the most about whisky?
The gurgling

6. If you could have attempted any other profession what would you have chosen?

My follow up on that (for Lory Hemy) -> Are there any particular fragrances you currently enjoy?
I love Dior, but also the Estée Lauder range of perfumes. Chanel 1921 is important but there are a lot of new perfumes. Paco Rabanne is another. They change a lot.

7. Most favourite whisky place in the world?
Japan (said with such reverence and passion)

8. What achievement are you proudest of?
Oh... Difficult one. Actually, probably the very first award I won which was The Spirit of Scotland trophy in 1994. 

On that note I'd like to expand that by sharing a few excerpts from Mr. Paterson's book, Goodness Nose: The passionate revelations of a Scotch Whisky Master Blender.

"My father had actually been given just two years to live at the time of the operation but he survived for the best part of the decade. He had always been there to encourage me, offering advice and taking a keen interest in my career. Like any son I wanted him to be proud of me, particularly as I was following in his footsteps. One of my biggest regrets was that he was not alive to see me receive 'the Spirit of Scotland Award' at London's Guildhall in October of 1994, as he had passed away earlier that year. 

This prestigious award had been organized by the International Wine and Spirit Competition to celebrate the first reference to Scotch whisky 500 years previously in 1494. All of the major whisky companies had been invited to submit an aged blended whisky, of which is no more than 500 bottles had been produced. This was, indeed, putting the blender to the test, and my colleagues and I took it extremely seriously. Accordingly I searched our inventory for our most appropriate makes. For years I had been in the habit of keeping back casks of exceptional character which I could not bring myself to use in our blends. 

I was looking for a blend with weight and body but with a rich velvety finish. Although grains such as Cameronbridge, Caledonian, Port Dundas, and Invergordon were included because I had decided the blend would be a minimum of 21 years olds, the grains would only play a minor part. The true backbone of the blend would be single malts from the Highland region. I included Longmorn, Glenrothes, Macallan and Glenfarclas. A subtle whisky of Islay was provided by Bruichladdich. A total of 16 component parts were included, however, the key to it all was a perfect marriage. I called on Gonzalez Byas to provide the most perfect Apostoles Oloroso sherry butts. 

 This had not been the best of years for me professionally or personally, and so as the competition date neared I became more and more tense. I really needed to win this to boost my morale and confidence. That night in the packed Guildhall was one I will never forget. All the nominated blenders assembled on stage to the accompaniment of trumpets and bagpipes. When the golden envelope was opened and my name read out I was numb. It was one of those rare occasions where I was speechless. It was a momentous evening I wanted to share my emotions with the people I cared about. In particular, I wanted to share them with my father, though sadly he was not there. After all, he had done so much for me, and as is often the case with father and son, I had never really thanked him."

9. What is your favourite non-whisky vice?
(Lots of laughter....) Drinking too much red wine!

10. What is your annual carpet cleaning cost?
(More laughter...) Very high... Not too bad actually.

And on to the "essay" portion of my questions

Q1: What people impacted your career and helped mould who you are today? 

A: So many! I'd like to think that when I speak of whisky people realize that number 1, they say: "He knows what he's talking about but 2, he conveys conviction of passion". I've always been fortunate to be surrounded by people with those convictions and it instilled in me that it doesn't matter what job you are in, you gotta love it and you have to have passion. I really hope that when I'm gone people will remember that I always had passion, believed in innovation and helped people look at whisky differently. The greatest thrill I still get is when I create a new whisky and they get that wow factor of "Gee we've never experienced anything like this before". (At this point I may have received a small sneak peak/description of what the newest Dalmore will be, but I'm under strict blackout. All I can say is whoa!)

Q2: As a master blender are you single-handedly responsible for choosing the releases that come to market, and if so can you tell us in a nutshell the process involved in doing so?

A: Yes. My responsibility as the master distiller and master blender is to select the single malts, may it be for Jura, Whyte & Mackay or Dalmore and make them sing. What am I doing? First of all I need to have the stocks. I need to know how to manipulate them and look after them. What are they doing? Where are they? They are asleep in the warehouses. Are they at the top, middle or the bottom of the racks? What age whiskies do we have? Let's have a look. Oh this one is really asleep, let's give it a bit of Viagra. What are we going to do? American white oak? Maybe Sherry, Port, Madeira or Marsala? I stimulate the sleeping whisky and leave it for 18 months, 2 or maybe even 3 years. Then I go back you and that's when I say, wait a minute I think we might have something here but sometimes I still have to wait. I judge the development carefully, decide on my selection and convey it to the marketing people. So of course they come along and say: "Well, what have you got?" Then it's the process of working in harmony with each other but sometimes I do get calls to say: "Can you do... this?" and I say No and they reply with: "But why not?" and I answer Because it's not ready, you will have to wait. "Yeah but when will it be ready?" and I always reply: When I say so. 

Earlier today in another interview I was asked the NAS question, you know do you "believe" in it. And I want to say: "Come on, none of my fellow blenders, including myself want to create or release something that's inferior. For me, it has to be of a particular quality because that's my credentials written on all these bottles. Just because a whisky is in a barrel for 12 years doesn't mean it's mature yet and in the very next barrel next to it, the whisky may have matured at 8 but then if you use 14 year olds with that 8, you have to trust that it will compensate and marry well. I have to ensure that it's up to a certain standard which I always do.

Q3: If you had to pick a non W&M whisky as a possible favourite, what would it be and would you consider it a desert island dram that you would pack in a large suitcase? 

A: (He laughed heartily and thought for a few moments...) Honestly, there is one company I really admire and I make no bones about it. I really admire William Grant & Sons. David Stewart... his whiskies reflect his style. He's a real gentleman and I love him very much. He produces warm and sensuous whiskies. Balvenie 21 Portwood finish really has that elegant balance and I call that real warmth and sensuality. That's the one I would choose right now, but there are so many others that I do love that are not just Dalmore or Jura.

**I want to add at this point, that I did ask to discuss E150a, and we did... but honestly I really don't want to include it in the interview simply because I didn't see it as added value. It's an overdone and pointless question that leads to nowhere but arguments** 

In September of 2016, Mr. Paterson will be celebrating 50 years in the whisky industry. In that time he's seen 10 takeovers, 19 different bosses and 2,563 marketing people. (That may have been said tongue in cheek, but regardless is impressive!). 

Q4: What is the biggest change you've seen?

A: Whisky festivals, whisky tourism. Over 1.5 million people coming to Scotland. Whisky clubs creating greater awareness. Thousands of people, not only in North America, but all over the world drinking and learning about whisky. Social media! Today's technology is so quick and you can see everything right away. How whisky is promoted is so much more important now. 

Q5: How do you ensure work/life balance?

A: Sometimes there are things in your personal life that are going on and you think to yourself, I can't disappoint. You have to put the "persona on" where everything in your life is simply rosy. On a few occasions I've had to cancel trips because of a family member's illness but you can't get away with it because people have expectations and want to know why you are not coming or say "well you have to come back". It's not that easy sometimes. And as far as work balance, I'm fortunate that the people that are part of my team understand that so they try not to overbook me when I come to festivals like this one. I was up early this morning, but they ensure I have some down time. That's where the program and the people put in the thought of how important that is and it's fantastic. 

And just like that the interview was over and 1 1/2 hours had gone by!!! 

Not long after I arrived Mr. Paterson said: "You know sometimes you walk into a room and meet someone and right away you can tell by their body language or level of comfort whether or not you'll get on with them."

I have to say I totally agree. I've interviewed a few people in the whisky industry and with some, I immediately got the feeling that they 'had' to be there with me. I was always polite and would ask my questions but would leave feeling disconnected and simply hoping that I had caught them on a bad day, after all we are all human. With Mr. Paterson, I didn't feel awkward, rushed or like I was interviewing someone who was going through the motions. Even after the interview was over and we continued to discuss a little more about Canadian whisky, the local weather and talked about the festival that was happening on Saturday. It was like having a great conversation with a friend that was visiting from away. He has a knack for making people feel truly comfortable in his presence.

His schedule is rigorous, the work tireless, the many faces he meets all over the world are sometimes a huge sea of smiling people with their whisky glasses in hand and yet he remains dedicated to his following, passionate about what he does and most of all the reality is after you get to sit down and 'get on with him', if you listen long enough you quickly realize the last thing he wants to do is talk about himself. He's much more interested in who is front of him, what whisky means to them as an individual and how he can help create something special for your whisky journey. 

Courtesy of Ken Arsenault
The next day, Mr. Paterson was up by 5:30am, more sales team work, interviews then leading a large group through a lovely 5 course whisky/food pairing, signing books, posing with fans for hundreds of photos and appeared at the afternoon and evening session of the tastings. I watched as he took the time with each person that came over, genuinely interested in where they were from, whether or not they had tried Dalmore or Jura before and happy to take selfies, shake hands and of course entertain. 

My friend Crystal who is just starting her journey into the whisky world was introduced to Mr. Paterson and afterwards she stated: "I learned more in those 5 minutes with him then I have in the last 6 months". He never once demeaned, belittled or treated her any different than the other two hundred or so people he met that night. That speaks so much to how forward thinking he still is after all these years, a dinosaur he is not!

About 15 minutes before the evening session was over, I came over to hand Mr. Paterson a gift. A copy of Davin's book to take back to the UK with him. He loves history so it only made sense to give him that book. I received a warm hug, a message whispered in my ear that made me giggle like crazy and Graham and others clicked away as the photos on cell phones multiplied. 

I think his father would be more than proud knowing that Richard is genuine, dedicated and passionate about his job and that's why he will always be remembered as one of the giants. 

I am thankful to have walked, if only for a few moments, by his side. Thanks to Denise (NSLC), Lindsay (Mark Anthony Brands) and above all Mr. Paterson for making this happen. It was a wonderful experience and a lovely way to spend a Friday morning talking about whisky, listening to stories and learning... Constantly learning!


PS - Gavin Smith if you are reading this, I know what whisky Richard has set aside in his will for you!!!  


  1. Well done! I love reading about the people behind the whisky!

  2. A beautiful interview - you really have a disarming skill at revealing the inner person, Johanne!
    RP is a hugely entertaining speaker with all of the hard-won blending room credentials and iconic releases to back the 'persona' up. His words about David Stewart show the extraordinary respect that connects those who have dedicated their working lives to making whisky. I somehow doubt the W&M Director of Marketing would speak in the same tone about their opposite number in William Grants.
    The whole point of whisky festivals for me is to be able to catch a few seconds of conversation with people like Paterson, rather than queue with my glass thrust out for a dribble of whatever is oldest on the stand. You Canadians have been very lucky!
    Ever thought about branching out to interview luminaries outside whisky? I'd love to read those, too.

    1. I love to listen to people talk and then relay their stories, although I've never considered it before this... I'm thinking of the possibility of maybe writing a book of the whisky greats... A chapter about each... mini interview... Hmmmmm.... now thinking ;)

  3. Interestingly, I asked David Stewart who he admires in the whisky industry & he said Richard Patterson. I'm not surprised that there is a mutual respect between the two.

    1. If ever I have the opportunity to run into Mr. Paterson again, I will let him know that!

  4. Great post Johanne. You know my heart went pitter-patter when he spoke about David Stewart.

    1. Mr. Paterson said it with the deepest respect in his voice. Truly genuine. Was a lovely experience.

  5. Fantastic post and a peek into what Richard is really like! He's someone I'd be completely star-struck to meet, and knowing he's behind my newest love in the Dalmore Cigar Malt makes me even happier. It always makes me so happy to find men who are genuine and happy to share their knowledge with newbies (like me) and aren't condescending or snooty about their credentials. What a great list of questions to ask, as well.

    1. He's not "old school" and I was impressed with the fact that he thinks whisky is for people, all walks of life, there is a whisky for everyone. He was truly a gentleman and giant to meet.

  6. That was genuinely one of the most interesting reads i've had, i've met Richard a couple of times and always thought he was very approachable and a genuine person, his love of whisky comes across strong and his ability and desire to listen to others, helps him to be the fabulous speaker that he is too.

    A true gent of the industry.

    1. Very much agree! I was extremely fortunate to have been given this opportunity (Totally kismet/karma as to how it happened). Thank you for the lovely compliment Tom, that means a lot!