Dave Broom follows JBB's Richard Paterson on a typical working day and learns much about blending, showbiz and living life at full pelt
It’s 7.30am and I’m heading into the centre of Glasgow, towards JBB’s offices which are close enough to my old school to cause a nervy shudder. The modern building sits on the cusp between old and new Glasgow, sandwiched between the motorway and Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s finest church. Glasgow’s always been a bit like that, ancient and contemporary thrown together in weird juxtapositions. Not a bad place to be a blender.8.00am: A brightly lit room. There are bottles everywhere, framed photos of men with heroic moustaches and, sitting on a central table that looks like the control panel of Dr Who’s Tardis, a huge measuring flask of whisky. A man is kneeling in front of it. Dark suit, dark hair, a handkerchief flopping from his breast pocket, tie knotted just so. Everything about him is neat and precise. He’s Richard Paterson, Master Blender at JBB, and I’m here to see what a day in his life is like. It’s only when you go into a sample room that you get an idea of how complicated a blender’s job is. A mess of bottles and glasses, there’s always at least three things going on at the same time but the blender seems oblivious to this apparent chaos. The sample room is like a physical manifestation of his mind with flavours, aromas and textures sitting next to each other which only he can decode and combine. On the table are two examples of a day’s work. A working model of a newly commissioned blend and a range of samples from the blending centre at Invergordon sent down for his approval. A blender not only creates new products but approves new make, finished product and the final blend. It’s a complex system of checks and balances run by one man’s nose. So what is a blend? In simple terms it’s a mix of grain and malt whiskies. It’s the style of whisky that made Scotch a world-beater. How each firm approaches its blends is however slightly different. They’ll be aiming for different styles, with different ingredients, creating and maintaining individual brand personalities. For Richard, the Whyte & Mackay style comes down to double marriage. The grain whiskies for the blend are vatted together and left to marry. The same also happens to the malts. He pushes a glass towards me. “This will have anything between 25 and 45 malts of between four and eight years of age, married for four months.” That’s a lot at a time when many firms have cut down on the number of malts in their blends. It doesn’t stop there. The vatted malt and vatted grain are blended and then returned to sherry butts to marry once more. “It’s expensive,” he says with a smile. “But we believe it will maintain consistency.”8.30am: The component parts of the new blend are laid out like a dissected body. We start with the grains: an intense 35-year-old from Invergordon, a rich, powerful 1962 North British and a complex, elegant 1957 Dumbarton. We’re so malt-centric these days that grain’s important role in the blend is forgotten. We work through. It’s never easy for a blender to explain precisely how he (or she) puts a blend together. They therefore live their life in a world of metaphor and analogy. For Richard, the components are people at a party. “Folk think this is neutral alcohol,” he says holding the Invergordon sample. “This is Cindy Crawford. She’s going to walk into the room and seduce the malts.”The process is repeated with a venerable range of malts, starting with a 1962 Glen Scotia. “This has depth and roundness,” he says. “It will seduce this Ledaig [‘72] while the next one [Bruichladdich ‘69] is a pot of gold which will tame the Ledaig.” There’s a jigsaw puzzle of aromas, textures and flavours being fitted together in his mind. Some give upfront character others, like a ‘74 Ben Wyvis, just sit quietly in the background. He seems happy enough. “What I’m looking for is charm, elegance and harmony. You can’t have everyone in a blend fighting like cats and dogs.”You’re also looking for consistency, but here’s the rub. Distilleries close, change ownership, alter wood policy. What happens to the blend when one of its components becomes extinct? “That’s the advantage of having large stock holdings and a large number of whiskies in the blend,” he says. “We’ve got maybe five years to blend a rare malt out of the system and blend its replacement in. Do that over a long period and there’s no way the consumer will notice.” It’s not ‘cheating’, the reality is that there isn’t a single recipe that the blender follows slavishly. Instead he produces a consistent product with components which can change. 9.40am: We head north. The plan was to drive to Tullibardine, about 45 miles north of Glasgow, nose some casks there and then head up to Fettercairn (a further 83 miles north-east) to look at some more maturing stock. Trouble is we have to be back at Glasgow airport by 4pm. We’re already an hour behind schedule, so the visit to Tullibardine has been dropped. While today’s schedule is a tad crazed, Richard’s is a job that involves a lot of travelling. JBB has offices in Glasgow and Edinburgh, bottling plants in Leith and Grangemouth and a blending centre in Invergordon. There are stocks maturing at various distilleries. He doesn’t wait for things to come to him. As he talks I realise that his mind doesn’t work in a linear fashion: sentences are left hanging as another idea pushes itself forward and questions will be half answered, apparently dropped and then pop up again five minutes later. Maybe it’s down to having so many jobs going on at the same time or it’s a case of having to have a mind like that to be able to pluck different flavours from the memory banks and slot them together. Putting together a blend involves knowing precisely when each whisky starts hitting its peak and how it behaves in different types of cask. “A whisky is like a plane taking off,” he says as we roar towards Stirling. “Nothing happens in the first 10 yards, then it gathers speed, takes off, climbs. They all get to that point, but at different times. Basically you have to know these people. If a stranger is there you introduce him politely. If a gatecrasher arrives, it’s a mess!” He talks of the harmony and elegance that he tries to build in his aged blends. But hasn’t the downward pressure on price caused a convergence of styles at the cheaper end of the market? The low cost labels are using fewer and younger malts, one grain and all now taste the same. There’s a long pause. “Supermarket buyers want consistency and good honest value for money. That’s why you’ll get similarities.” True. But because blends have been sold as a commodity, the image of the category has fallen. There may be great blends out there, but few new whisky consumers want to try them. What’s the answer? This time he answers immediately. “Education. When you have a glass of good wine at dinner you don’t slug it back. You sip it, savour it. Why the heck aren’t you doing that with Scotch? It should be treated with the same respect.”11.50am: We arrive at Fettercairn and are met by Manager Willie Tait who is in remarkably good spirits given the fact that Celtic have just taken the SPL title from his beloved Rangers. We crack on with a look at four samples of a month’s worth of Fettercairn new make. Every month Richard will do this exercise with every plant to check that distillery character is being maintained. It will be a long time before we taste the results in a blend – before that happens Richard has to ensure it goes into the right wood and make sure that there’s enough of it to satisfy consumer demand.12.30pm: We head to the warehouse to look at potential special release malts. In a dark cobwebby office sit a cluster of bonbones (large glass demi-johns used for storing high-quality, mature spirit which the distiller feels has spent sufficient time in cask) and the tiniest barrel of whisky in the world. It contains approximately 11 bottles worth of a 62-year-old Dalmore. “It’s had a chequered career,” Richard says. That’s putting it mildly. In January it was almost dead from woodiness but the mini-cask has brought it back to life. There’s various exclamations and “bloody hells” as the glass is passed around. The risky move has paid off. He beams and turns to the bonbones that contain a tangerine/spice, chocolate-accented 51-year-old Dalmore. Then it’s the turn of two casks of 1965 Fettercairn. He’s clearly a man with a rare talent for working with mature whiskies, knowing when they’ve hit their peak, holding them back (much to the accountants’ annoyance you feel) until he feels he’s squeezed every ounce of complexity from them. It’s time to leave.1.50pm: Back on the road. We’re talking flavour. It’s clear from the word go that he’s a sensualist. His terminology is full of talk of seduction, bedding together, harmony and of letting flavours meld together in the mouth. Five minutes of this is enough to convince anyone to give blends a shot but people clearly aren’t. Whose fault is that? “Everybody’s,” he says, putting most of the blame at the feet of film stars drinking it with lots of ice – which seems a little harsh. The industry has to be big enough to admit it screwed up. Although 95% of the whisky sold in the world is blended, few punters take it seriously. How do you get people drinking blends again? “You keep shouting,” he says. He’s making more noise than most on a global schedule that would drive most to an early grave. Strangely, he appears to have the ability to slow time down: he’s always underlining how good whisky needs patience and can’t be rushed. Admirable sentiments in a world which demands instant gratification. Punters want a quickie in a broom cupboard, not a long-term marriage.In many ways he’s like that Glasgow architecture – modernity and tradition abutting each other. On the one hand he’s a blender of the old school, from the way he approaches his job to the way he dresses. Yet on the other, he (the third generation of master blenders in his family) gives talks where he balances whisky on top of water and favours the use of party poppers, chocolate and coffee. The blender as showman? His forebears would be birling in their graves. How does he reconcile the two aspects? “What you have to remember Dave,” he says as we head past Tullibardine for a second time, “is that my passion is to produce something that’s recognised as the best and then go out on the market and promote it. But why should people buy Whyte & Mackay? That’s why I use a bit of razzamatazz. Make it exciting! Don’t for God’s sake make it boring.” Was it a matter of using showmanship or watching blends die? “You’ve hit the nail on the head,” he says. “When I started doing all this stuff, people said ‘you can’t do that’. Rubbish! Of course you can.” Just don’t mention ice cubes. As he starts ranting about how they’ve ruined whisky his right foot gets pressed harder to the floor. “Every time you see ice cubes hitting people’s lips, there’s a great whisky being frozen. If you ripped your clothes off and stood outside in January, you’d get a fright. Well the whisky gets a bloody fright too! These rocks ... why do these bartenders always do it?” He shakes his head.4pm: We relax with a dram in a lounge at Glasgow Airport. I wonder if he considers himself an artist or technician? “I think artist is closer to it, but – and this sounds vain – I’m trying to be a perfectionist. My job is to produce something with quality, consistency and, more importantly, something that the consumer can enjoy.”I’m feeling a little frazzled. Richard, on the other hand, still looks immaculate. Earlier he’d said how he wasn’t a member of “the white jacket brigade” of blenders. “I’m not one for casual dress either,” he’d added. “My father and grandfather were always presentable and that’s just the way I am. What you see is what you get.” I wonder whether just as some people come to resemble their pets, Richard is like his whiskies. Smart and presentable, the outside package as important as what is inside. Is there a Richard Paterson style? “I don’t know,” he laughs. “I always look for silk, finesse, elegance and harmony. A dram to really relax with.”5pm: Quite when he relaxes I don’t know. His flight is called. Tomorrow he’ll wow the crowds at Whisky Magazine Live. It’s a life run wilfully at full pelt: he knows blenders are only as good as his next batch. “You cannot be complacent. It’s like a pop singer taking a year off: he comes back, the market’s moved on and he’s forgotten. Life’s too short for that.” He finishes his drink. “It’s all there for the taking. It’s just a matter of having the courage of our convictions and making it work.” With that he heads for the plane, party poppers, whisky and chocolate in his bag. Ready for another day.
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