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Richard Paterson on 50 years in Whisky

22nd August 2019 // By Kristen Shirley

As he unveils the rarest whisky The Dalmore has ever produced, L’Anima Aged 49 Years, in collaboration with Massimo Bottura, Richard Paterson speaks to Kristen Shirley about his legacy, the spirit of whisky and why cask will always be king.

He’s been called whisky’s greatest showman, and gained a bit of notoriety as the man who throws rare whisky onto the floor during tastings (he jokes that the carpet at the distillery has become the most expensive carpet in the world). A tireless advocate for the Scottish spirit, Richard Paterson has spent 53 years working with whisky, 49 at The Dalmore.

His long tenure in the industry has made him an absolute expert, with the history of hundreds of thousands of casks to draw on as he creates new expressions. But there’s one thing that has never changed for him: “The cask is king, and no matter what we do, we must make sure at all costs that we have the wood in place.”

In February, Paterson traveled to New York City with Massimo Bottura, chef and proprietor of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, to celebrate their incredible creation, The Dalmore L’Anima Aged 49 Years. Only one bottle exists, and it was auctioned online at Sotheby’s with proceeds going to Food for Soul, a nonprofit organization created by Bottura to fight food waste. It sold for $141,688.

The youngest assemblage to appear in the expression is 49 years old, and it was aged in bourbon barrels, 40-year-old Gonzales Byass PX Sherry Butts and Graham’s Vintage Port Pipes. Collaborating with a chef in this way was a unique experience for Paterson, and it encouraged him to approach the expression differently, as Bottura did. And at the end of Paterson’s long career, it’s difficult to find a ‘first’ to create, since he pioneered much of whisky as we know it today.

You could say whisky is in his blood: Both his father and grandfather worked in the industry, and his father famously taught him how to nose whisky at just eight years old. His abilities are legendary, and gave him the nickname ‘the nose,’ but that skill is not the most important thing he learned from his father.

“My father actually told me to look and see what’s around you, but don’t be in a hurry. Try and listen to those people. He used to tell me things… Being young, you don’t listen to your father too often. He did say, ‘Always take your time, but look around you. See what it’s about, and don’t make a quick decision. Give the whisky time.’”

Time and wood are hallmarks of Paterson’s expressions, and perhaps his most enduring legacy is that of blending whiskies that matured in different types of casks in a single expression, which he pioneered. While multi-cask matured and finished Single Malt whiskies are not uncommon today, it was unheard of then. He began by experimenting with different woods before he began to wonder what would happen if he mixed Sherry, Port and red wine. Certain elements came through, but the true beauty came when he combined them with three others and gave them time.

“I waited, waited, and then I got the assemblage I was looking for. Like opening a box of chocolates for the first time with all the different centers, but it took a long, long time. We’re talking about probably three, four years before it gave me the elements I was looking for. It’s not just a quick fix in putting it together.”

Today, his personal favorite whisky is this blend, The Dalmore’s King Alexander III, which is “the only whisky in the world with six different finishes.” Despite his many experiments in whisky, Paterson very seriously says he has never failed. “The spirit will still be great and wonderful, even if it hasn’t attained the flavor I’m looking for. Then, I manipulate it in something else. So nothing is wasted in any shape or form, but you must get the very best out of it.”

He checks on his “babies,” what he affectionately calls his casks, twice a year, making notes like “he’s still asleep, she’s okay, she needs a new set of clothes, this one’s not ready, this needs to be transformed” to describe how they are progressing. If they are “sleeping,” they haven’t attained what he’s looking for and need more time. “Then, when we see the ones that we’ve done and we say, ‘oh, hello.’ You can’t describe it, because it’s so wonderful. This is just what I’m looking for.”

Of course, Paterson can create the perfect whisky, but if it’s not savored in the proper way, that’s out of his control. “I can’t jump out of the bottle, but I’d really love to do that,” he laughs, before explaining how to taste whisky.

Begin by nosing the whisky, smelling it softly in each nostril, then pulling it away to let the alcohol subside, finally nosing it again to discern the flavors within the expression. After this, keep the whisky in your mouth for 15-20 seconds before swallowing the first taste.

“The first taste is important, but the second taste will allow you to get right into the whisky, and as the word says, l’anima, you see the soul of the whisky. Whisky is not for knocking back; it’s for sipping, revering what age can bring.”

While he hasn’t announced any plans for retirement, one can’t help but wonder if the release of L’Anima Aged 49 Years and The Dalmore’s upcoming 175th anniversary is the beginning of Paterson’s swan song. He turns 70 this year, and after an incredible career that saw the rebirth of whisky’s popularity, what’s next for him? Whatever it is, the answers lay in rare casks deep in The Dalmore’s distillery, biding their time, waiting for Paterson to say “oh, hello.”

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