Secrets of Scotch Craftsmanship
An exclusive interview with Richard Paterson, Master Distiller at The Dalmore — one of the world’s most exclusive single malt Scotch Whisky makers in production since 1839.
By Steven Joseph
George Bernard Shaw once said, “Whisky is liquid sunshine.” Tucked away in the Scottish Highlands, nestled in the banks of the Cromarty Firth, The Dalmore whisky distillery has been producing single malt Scotch whisky for almost 180 years. The company’s longevity is a testament to the principles set forth in its founding in 1839: uncompromising quality, game-changing ingenuity, and a steadfast belief in their product. But a lot of their recent success can be attributed to their Master DistillerRichard Paterson, an industry stalwart for half a century.
Richard is a 3rd-generation Master Distiller, who first tasted whisky at the tender age of 8. Despite his father and grandfather’s occupations, however, it was not always ‘Whisky or Bust’ for him as a career path. Paterson recalls, “I was actually wanting to get into the hotel business. I was working at a big hotel in the heart of the Highlands when my father phoned me and said, ‘Well, if you want to learn the proper way (to make a living) you’ve got an interview at the distillery in Glasgow on Monday.’”
Richard took over at The Dalmore in 1972, but the legendary distillery already had a history as rich as the spirit they produced, as steeped in tradition as the casks in their cellars. After its creation by Sir Alexander Matheson, himself an international entrepreneur and Scottish railway magnate, the distillery was managed by three generations of the Mackenzie family, beginning with brothers Andrew and Charles in 1863. The Mackenzie family shared Matheson’s vision to create a unique and luxurious single malt whisky, and brought with them their clan’s iconic crest, a 12-pointed stag, which still adorns Dalmore’s bottles to this day. You see, the Mathesons are a part of the Mackenzie clan – the same clan in which, many generations earlier in 1263, clan chief Colin of Kintail saved Scotland’s King Alexander III from a charging stag. The grateful king granted the Mackenzie clan right to use the stag symbol on their family crest and, eventually, to the label of their Dalmore Scotch. Today, rare bottles of Dalmore have fetched at auction a royal sum, ranking among the top 10 most expensive whiskies in the world.
Three generations of Mackenzie leadership and innovation set the stage for the transition to Paterson’s creativity and craftsmanship. The Mackenzie family had created pioneering industry standards in the hundred-plus years since they took over the distillery, which gave Paterson an incredibly distinct foundation upon which to build. “Our stills are more bulbous than other distilleries, and they’ve got ‘water jackets’ that increase the reflux during the distillation process. It gives our new spirit an incredible amount of complexity and backbone. I need that strength, that weight in the spirit,” says Paterson. But Mackenzie’s contributions didn’t just stop with the still design.
Andrew Mackenzie also helped usher in the idea of aging whisky beyond the norm at the time, which was 5 or 6 years. Mackenzie started to store the whisky for 12, 15, and even 30 years at a time, and he sought out the Gonzalez Byass sherry casks to mature the whisky in. This proprietary relationship still exists over 100 years later. “These Methusalem sherry butts (casks) are what really mold the character of the whisky. The sherry is aged for a minimum of 30 years, and it matches perfectly with the richness of Dalmore,” Richard gushes. The Dalmore boasts satisfying notes of coffee, orange, chocolate, vanilla and spice, which are only made possible by their incredible dedication, care and skill.
Since becoming Master Distiller at The Dalmore, Paterson has seen an explosion in the interest in his art. “New York held the first ‘Whisky Fest’ 19 years ago, and now they’re in every major city all over the world.” Paterson believes the rise in craft whisky drinkers can be attributed to the amount of information desired by the imbibers. “We used to say, ‘This is Dalmore whisky, aged in sherry,’ end of story. But now the consumer is demanding so much more. They want to know what makes it special.”
Dalmore currently has two very distinct collections, the Principal and the Constellation. The Principal Collection is comprised of a 12-, 15-, 18-, and 25-year-old whisky, as well as a Cigar Malt Reserve, and its crowned jewel, the King Alexander III. The Constellation Collection is for the true connoisseur, containing 21 vintage spirits ranging from 1964 to 1992. “It took us about 15 years to create. Every vintage is distinct and individual. They have their own color and their own flavor depending on the woods they were finished in,” Paterson says.
When it comes time to enjoy any of The Dalmore’s offerings, Paterson shudders at the thought of knocking it back in a shot, or even worse, mixing it with anything. “What I’d like you to do is take a generous mouthful, hold it in the middle of your mouth, on top of your tongue. Then put it underneath your tongue for a little while, then back on top. Take a deep breath and then finally swallow. You’ve got to keep it in your mouth for 20-30 seconds and use your entire palate.” And Paterson would know, he’s been drinking it since he was 8!