One of the most enigmatic master blenders and all-round stalwart whisky ambassador, Paterson has spent more than 40 years working with Whyte & Mackay (and Dalmore), taking over from his father at the young age of 26.
But it’s not been easy. He’s seen ten different takeovers and had to hold his own throughout managers from all different countries.
I managed to sit down with him at the recent Victoria Whisky Festival to have a frank discussion about his career, how he sees the future of the whisky industry, his hatred of ice, his defence of the £1m Paterson Collection and why re-charring casks is a bit like using Viagra.
You’ve been in this industry for more than 40 years and have seen so many changes. What is the most interesting market for you right now?
What I love more recently is the Middle East – Oman, Dubai, places like this, where whisky is filtering in for the first time. People have the money in these areas but they want to know what they’re buying. But no matter what country it is, the whisky connoisseur is becoming very demanding. Long gone are the days when you could go along and present maybe your 12 year old and 15 year old – that is just not enough for enthusiasts today. The people are hungry.
Do you think it’s sad when whisky connoisseurs become so focused on finding that thing that’s rare, they forget staple products really can be quite good?
I think I’d like to see them looking around far more – some are very loyal and will not actually change their tastes once they hone on to a particular style or distillery and very rarely steer out of their comfort zone. But I have to say, all of my other fellow distillers are producing very innovative product. What you’re seeing now is of course more no-age statement (NAS) releases and what a lot of people don’t realise is that it allows the whisky blender to actually use his stocks in a much more efficient and appropriate manner and allows him to, in many cases, create something better.
Do you think it will be a challenge for whisky producers to communicate that message about NAS?
I think the connoisseurs are aware that they’re getting good value for money; but there is the perception that just because it’s not got an age it’s not good. We’ve been marketed under the ’12-year-old banner’ for so long and it really is time where all the major companies are now producing non-age. But equally what they are doing more than anything is packaging it in the proper manner. And why not? I get so exasperated sometimes: this is Scotch whisky, it is something unique, this is a great product and everybody should be proud and they should market it in that manner, the packaging should be good, it should be there to lure in everyone from the discerning whisky drinker to the man, or should I say, woman, in the street.
As we see more focus on packaging, do you think that will bring in a younger consumer?
I find it so interesting to see today that the majority of whisky consumers are younger. And you have to be careful about what you mean by “younger” but I’m talking aged 21 up to 30, and that surely must be considered young. When you go to Taiwan and South Africa, nearly 40-50% are in that category. I love that side of it because I was doing a tasting with a group of young guys recently I could see it in their eyes, they were absolutely focused on the taste of the whisky. That’s what gives me the biggest buzz nowadays: talking to people and seeing them really want to understand what they’re tasting and knowing it’s not for knocking back. When you see that expression of enthusiasm, that’s the biggest reward I get because it is genuine. And you won’t please everybody. I never think that at any one of my presentations I’ll please 99% of people; but by focusing and feeling that you’ve actually gotten to them is a great reward because they can then go on and talk about it and become ambassadors themselves.
When you’re out there and talking to people, what is one of the biggest misconceptions about whisky?
Blended whisky accounts for around 92% of the whisky market, yet there is this perception that it is inferior to single malts and that just simply is not the case. Yes, single malts are rising and becoming more attractive but blended whiskies in the older categories are really superb yet they are not quite as revered. That is a misconception. The other side is that blended malt, blended grain and single grain whiskies are still waiting to be discovered as they can be equally as attractive. It’s down to all of us to get up and market it and tell people about these and package them in the right way. The education side is what it is all about.
And ice: people seem to believe you have to put ice in your whisky. I remember I was in China two years ago and I met this guy and he had a huge tumbler filled with ice. And I said, “Oh I see you like ice with your whisky.” And I asked what he was drinking and he said, “One called Dalmore Aurora.” And I went: “You must be joking. That’s 45 years old. That’s worth thousands of pounds a bottle.” And he said, “Well, the barman told me that’s how you drink Scotch whisky.” So, if the barman’s not getting it right, what chance does the consumer have?
I suppose, though, if someone wants to drink it with ice, they should be allowed to do what they want?
A lot of people say, “Well how dare you tell me how to drink my whisky.” If someone wants to put it with ice, it is purely personal. But it just seems such a shame to dilute it when it’s taken such a long time to create it. If they would just stop, hold it in their mouth for 15 seconds, and afterwards say, ‘Well actually I still like it with ice‘, well that’s fair enough. But a lot of people haven’t tried it. A lot of people have grown up with their fathers or grandfathers drinking it on ice and they think that’s the way it has to be done.
Do you think that patriarchal viewpoint of how whisky is drunk will continue, especially in countries where buying expensive whiskies is done only as a status symbol, to say: “I’ve arrived in my father’s shoes.”
If you take Russia and China as classic examples as places where they have money and maybe liked to show the product at a table to say, “Look, I’ve arrived” – well, what I’m actually finding now is that once they start buying very high-end whiskies, they are also mixing with certain individuals who are saying respect the whisky, don’t add ice to it.
Do you have any worries that these super premium whiskies will skew the lower end of the market to the point where the entry will be too high for the majority?
No. For instance, if you want to enjoy Dalmore, you can try something from $40 to $400,000. But it’s like footballers, like Wayne Rooney. If someone said: ‘Oh do you want him?’ And the response was: ‘Well, yes, he’s a great player.’ Then the answer would be that you’re going to have to pay for him. If they pay millions for a player you can ask, ‘Is he really worth it?’ Well, he is; because somebody thinks he is. It’s the same with a whisky. People say to me: ‘Is you Paterson collection worth just short of £1m?’ As far as I’m concerned it’s worth every single penny. That took years to put together, I had to write a book for it that took even my Christmas Eve and nights doing it; Nick Fleming from Harrods and I worked together and sampled and sampled and sampled them. It’s a one off. And once it goes, that’s it.
You’ve no doubt seen pressure on stocks and on the industry generally over the years. Do you think the right decisions have been made to ensure whisky for the future?
Remember: Dalmore is one of the few distilleries, like Glenfarclas, like Glenfiddich, like Macallan, who actually had the foresight to lay down stocks. A lot of companies simply do not have these stocks. And I’ll be honest, in my day I’ve been asked to get rid of very expensive whisky, blend it into something; if stocks were not turning over, you’d use older whiskies in your younger blends. You’ve got to manage your stock and use it as it dictates in the market. It would be wonderful to not sell or hold these whiskies but unfortunately you’ve got to work within the confines of your margins. It’s challenging. But, while I might have seen 10 different takeovers my enthusiasm has never diminished, even if it has been under a lot of pressure through these years.
You are so associated with the brand: does that put a pressure internally to be worried about what happens if they do make you release something you’re not happy with?
You’ve got to fight your corner. You’ve got to make sure you’ve always got stocks, that you’ve got consistency, that you’ve got the right casks coming in. And as production increases, that’s the talk about town now: a boom in Scotch whisky is happening that we’ve never seen but you’ve got to have the casks.
It’s certainly something we’re all hearing. So how do you see the next five to 10 years when it comes to cask management?
You’ve got to have contracts with your suppliers to make sure the wood is in place, that there is the loyalty. Some will still struggle. I see all these boutique distilleries popping up but, guys, don’t even think about starting up and presuming the wood is always going to be there. There is the danger that people will start filling into anything but people have to remember that the cask is king.
So what’s your opinion then on rejuvenated casks?
It’s a bit like Viagra: you can rejuvenate or rechar, but don’t think of it as a long term solution. It will help to manipulate things but if you try to char it too much, it will take on a woodiness, a chip board quality. So it is good, it does help but a nice beautiful bourbon cask from a reliable source is still preferred.
You’ve seen the changes in the industry and known many people in it. Lots of people comment to me on how friendly the whisky industry is. Do you think that’s one of its saving graces?
It has to be. The friendliness, the companionship. After a whisky festival, after we’re exhausted, we’ll go to the bar and sit and chat as friends and that’s what we all look forward to. That is the beauty of things. When you meet a distillery manager like Willie Cochrane, he’s a gentleman, he’s just a really nice guy. Or Ian Miller of William Grant, all the guys from there, they’re just a lovely bunch. The courtesy that everyone extends to each other is amazing. Outside of this industry, people would say, “Well, why are you talking to that guy? He’s your competitor.” But, no, they’re my friends.
Looking at the current hunger for whisky, as you phrased it, has that been a surprise to see it happening now when you look back over your career? Do you think it can last?
I would say that 1994 was the year that it all really started kicking off. It was the beginning of the big festivals, of big awards. Glenfiddich had really challenged the industry in 1964 but in the 1990s, single malts were coming in. Then when New York Whisky Fest started, people started to do promotions in cities and we blenders started to get real recognition around the world. Although we were blenders, we also became ambassadors. The enthusiasm now is just incredible. So, after 40 odd years in the industry how do I think about it? It’s fantastic. It’s bringing in more people, we’re sharing it further afield. Whisky is here to stay.