50 Years with Richard Paterson: A Masterclass

The Whisky Show – London is an annual event hosted by The Whisky Exchange, a retailer primarily specialising in the retail of, yes you guessed it, Whisky. It is currently held at Old Billingsgate over the first weekend in October.

As long as you’re of legal drinking age and are willing to pay the cost of entry any member of the public can attend the two day show. You can purchase tickets for either day or if you’re dedicated, the whole weekend.

On arrival at the show you receive a Whisky Tasting Glass, which you can then use to sample the hundreds of different whiskies available at no extra cost. Included in the cost of entry alongside the glass is a meal token for use in the show brasserie as well as a ‘Dream Dram’ token. This token entitles you to sample a Whisky that retails anywhere between £100 and £1000 a bottle. A list of these ‘Dream Drams’ is released prior to the show, this years’ list comprising of drams costing one token such as the 36year old Tomatin, a whisky that scored 96.5 in Jim Murray’s 2016 Whisky Bible all the way up to the Glenfarclas 60 years old, a whisky that would cost you 7 dream dram tokens to sample and would set you back over £14,000 a bottle. Note that additional Dream Dram tokens are available to purchase at the show for £10 each.

For the 3rd year in a row, on a very rare Sunday off work and accompanied by my Father, I rose at the crack of dawn, jumped on a train heading for the capital and joined a well-established queue 20 minutes before the doors opened.

In addition to your entry ticket, you have the option of purchasing tickets to attend any of the Masterclasses held during the show. This year there were eleven different masterclasses spread over the two days with only two of them (Cigar & Whisky Pairing and A Beginners Guide to Whisky) featuring on both days. Ticket prices this year ranged from £15 – £250 – fortunately only three were in excess of £75.

Previously I had given little thought to attending any of the Masterclasses however this year there was one Masterclass that was more than a little significant – 50 years with Richard Paterson. This was a celebratory talk given by Richard, the Master Blender for Whyte & Mackay, whose responsibilities also include the Dalmore, Jura & Fettercairn ranges. Richard is a legend within the whisky world who, over the course of 90 minutes, would present 6 different whiskies for tasting, one from each decade he has worked in the industry. Having attended a previous Paterson Masterclass in the old Whisky Exchange Shop in Vinopolis and given the subject of the talk, I very quickly concluded that this was one that simply could not be missed.

After welcoming every person in the room with a shake of the hand and a few words, Paterson was formally introduced by his co-host, author, commentator and friend Charles Maclean.

A 1973 Invergordon was the Whisky Paterson chose to kick off proceedings. The reason behind his first choice was to debunk one of the biggest myths in the industry: single malt whisky is superior in every way to that of a blend. Through personal experience, I already knew this to not be true (the Whyte and Mackay 13 year old being a particularly good example) but had no more than my personal opinion to back it up. ‘The Nose’ as he’s affectionately known by friends, colleagues and followers had come armed with numbers. In defence of blended whisky he went on to say that 92% of the whisky market is made up of blended whisky but did concede that the sales from the remaining 8% of the market made up by single malts are significant. The Invergordon itself was a simple dram carrying soft notes of cinnamon and spice, as well as a hint of bourbon coming from it’s time in bourbon wood developing towards the end. Despite never officially being bottled for retail it was in fact the recipient of 6 different gold medals from various spirit competitions, proving once more that blends are every bit as good as single malts.

The second whisky that had been selected to sample came with a bit of a history lesson. The blend was from the second batch of a recreation of the whisky explorer Ernest Shackleton took with him on board his ship, The Nimrod, to help sustain his British Antarctic Expedition in 1907. After failing to reach the South Pole, Shackleton and his expedition returned safely, leaving cases of the whisky behind. Over a century passed and the whisky was found during conservation work on Shackleton’s Hut by members of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust. There followed a period of negotiation between the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust and Paterson’s team (who were acting on behalf of Whyte and Mackay who owned the distillery which created the original whisky). Eventually he was allowed to take 3 bottles back to Scotland for scientific analysis without opening the bottle. Using a syringe a sample was extracted and from this an almost exact recreation was produced. The whisky, exactly like the original, has a natural strength of 47.3% alcohol, the perfect drinking strength for whisky and natural colour with a light body and a sprinkle of peat, all of these elements reflecting its Speyside character.

The first known reference to Scotch whisky is an excerpt from the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 where malt is ‘sent to Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae (latin for the water of life) enough to make about 500 bottles’. In 1994, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Scotch Whiskys first known reference, the Scottish Whisky Association (SWA) held a competition amongst distilleries to create a blend of 500 bottles. The blend that was produced by Richard Paterson for the competition, on behalf of Whyte and Mackay, was 21 years old (one of the criteria set out by the SWA) and was married in an Apostoles Sherry Butt. This was evident as we assessed bottle 110 out of the 500. The age of this unique blend, coupled with the effect of its marriage in a sherry butt makes for a sweetness on the nose similar to that of a heavily sherried whisky, the palate also delivering what the nose promised as well as some body to create a not unbearable warmth as it goes down. Predictably, the expression went on to win the ‘Spirit of Scotland’ award, which was presented by judges from the International Wine and Spirits Competition.

Gradually working our way back through whisky, we arrived in the 1980s, Paterson’s 2nd decade in the business. The expression chosen just happened to be one of my favourites from the previous years’ show, The Jura 1984. The whisky is named after George Orwell’s book which was largely written on the island of Jura. The 1984 is a 30 year old single malt, matured in ex-bourbon casks for 22 years before spending 6 years in Gonzalez Byass Matusalem sherry casks and a final couple of years in Amoroso and Apostoles Oloroso casks. It’s 30 year maturation shining through with a malt that is intensely rich and sweet with a body to match. On the nose, ginger and orange peel give way to a palate of fruit cake, honey and wine.

In all the excitement and laughter going on, I didn’t manage to record any thoughts on the penultimate tasting, save for the fact it was a 40year old, 1972 expression from the Fettercairn Distillery and the same year Fettercairn was acquired by Whyte and Mackay.

Being the youngest of 3, during my (nearly) 24 years on this planet I’ve never found anything else that was a better example of ‘saving the best ‘til last’. That was until we got to the very last tasting of the talk …

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To the untrained eye I can see how this might not look like much. A gold liquid in what looks like a wine glass that’s been through an intensive wash on my Mum’s washing machine. What this actually is, is the 1966 Dalmore Constellation.  To put this in terms that everyone understands, this is £381.70 in a glass. A whisky that is the second-oldest entry in the Dalmore Constellation series, this was first aged in an American white oak ex-bourbon cask for 37 years before a further double maturation – firstly six years in an ex-Matusalem oloroso sherry butt, then a final two years in an ex-bourbon barrel delivers signature notes of liquorice, spice and of course chocolate orange throughout this dram both on the nose and on the palate. This expression is just one piece of the jigsaw that goes into creating the rarest collection of whiskies ever assembled, a single bottle retailing at a mere £21,375.

Two questions that get asked a lot whether it be about expensive whisky, wine or a top end restaurant are:

  • Why would someone spend that much on ‘that’?
  • Is it worth it?

Not being a millionaire I can’t answer the first question honestly except to say that it might be for the perceived increase in quality (which I believe is true up to a point) or for those lucky enough, because they can. Whether it is worth it is a matter of opinion. Would I buy a bottle of this if money was no issue? Having given it some thought, I probably would. Equally though, there are some whiskies I’ve been lucky enough to try that command a price in excess of £600 a bottle and I honestly believe they are out shone by whiskies costing a quarter of that.

Like the Dalmore 1966 Constellation, Richard Paterson is a rare and incredibly special gift to the industry. His knowledge, craftsmanship and passion continue to bring people from all over the world together to enjoy this wonderful spirit time and time again, forging a legacy over the past 6 decades that is unlikely to be matched in the foreseeable future.

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