“Wait for a moment,” Richard Paterson says, placing his hand on my arm. We stand at the threshold of warehouse No. 4 at The Dalmore distillery in the Scottish Highlands.
“Can you smell that?” His eyes are closed, inhaling deeply through “The Nose,” the one that shaped his career. It’s a nickname that describes his uncanny ability to nose whisky for its aromas, imperfections and potential.
From here, all I can smell is Cromarty Firth, the nearby inlet, at low tide. But I follow Paterson’s lead. I close my eyes and lean forward into the old limestone building, absorbing notes of malt, wet wood, earth and dried fruit. I smile and look to him. Beneath his mustache, Paterson is smiling, too. “Now, step in.”
Inside is another world, a place where Paterson has spent much of his 50 years as master distiller of The Dalmore nosing, tasting and tweaking formulas. It’s dark, offering just enough light to make out silhouettes of 3,000 barrels of whisky, stacked three high. They are left to “sleep”—some for more than 60 years—in new American white oak barrels, and those that once held Bourbon, Matusalem rum and Cabernet Sauvignon.
As important as the barley, water and stills are to the raw spirit, it’s the wood, Paterson says, that has the greatest influence on the final expression.
He pours me a dram. “Don’t just knock it back,” he says. “Hold the whisky long in the mouth, tuck the tongue back and let it sit.” He hums a song and moves his hand through the air. When the song ends, I swallow slowly, tasting chocolate and orange, spice and the velvet remnants of Sherry.
A third-generation blender, Paterson has spent years traveling the world in search of wine and spirits barrels to impart the perfect finish on his whiskies. That encompasses thousands of trials and errors, successes and failures, all of which he has been recording by hand since he was 18.
I want to see his notes, but, he assures me, he has something better.
Paterson leads me to a small office. Inside stands a tall rosewood cabinet. He unlocks it and cracks it open. Inside, illuminated like the Holy Grail, are 12 crystal bottles filled with blends made from the distillery’s most rare and valuable expressions dating from 1868. At the center of the cabinet sits a large white book.
Paterson opens it, revealing 200 hand-written pages filled with his personal stories of whisky making and history. It speaks to tenacious searches for casks and the art of blending, stories of his life and gratitude he has for the people who influenced and guided him.
Paterson’s last dram as a distiller is in sight. He knows that someday, when both he and his whiskies have left this world, what remains of his legacy will be in that book.
Before we say goodbye, Paterson pours me a Dalmore from 1973, the year of my birth. The length of time it took to create this rare spirit is not lost on me.
“You’ve got to wait, you’ve got to have patience,” he says. “They will come up like diamonds from coal, but you’ve got to give them time.”
And I know he’s talking about more than just the whisky.