Gemma Paterson shares an anecdote she's not supposed to. In hushed tones, she tells the story of how once on a night shift in Balvenie's distillery in Scotland, an apprentice dropped a screw in a vat of malt. His superior glared at him and stomped off, only to return moments later in his underpants. Under the bemused gaze of the newbie, the superior dived into the vat — 70 per cent alcohol — with his hand covering his nose, and retrieved the errant screw. “So that's why the 1962 The Balvenie is so special,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Gemma had not planned to be in the business of whisky in any capacity. As any successful person will tell you, it's all about focus and finding something that demands all your passion. She started by working at the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries in Scotland as a tour guide and in six years has become the global ambassador of The Balvenie, and in the process, a storyteller.
Her father, founder and director of a charity that helped children suffering from the Chernobyl disaster in Russia, was in that country in the 90s. Gemma studied Russian at the Moscow University and taught English in Russia after getting her diploma. On returning to Scotland her knowledge of the language came handy and she became a tour guide to Russian clients and delegates coming to the distillery. Her passion for language soon became a passion for whisky. “I could have got a job with oil and gas for a good salary using my knowledge of Russian, but I chose this,” she revealed.
Working part time, she met the chairman of a malt whisky trail who asked her to be the guide when he had Russian clients visiting, and that planted the seed that brought her to this point in her career — that she could do something with whisky. “It was not as well paying as oil and gas would have been, but this is a fascinating industry with so much history. The Balvenie, one of the few family-owned Speyside distilleries, and one of Scotland’s last truly handcrafted malt whiskies, even has its own fields of barley. I got to see every part of the whisky making process. This is highly unusual when distilleries often outsource some parts of the job. At The Balvenie, however, everything is done in-house, and done traditionally. I found that very inspiring.” The processes, she explained, that started in 1929 when the buildings came into existence, continue to date.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Gemma didn't have to formally study for it, did so from sheer passion: She studied for certification in distillation and passed the exams to join the nosing panel at The Balvenie distillery that involves nosing the whisky, ensuring it is consistent and that there's no off note. On her days off or when she had an opportunity away from her tour guide duties, she would spend time with the malt men, stillmen and mashmen who worked the night shift. There she got to see parts of the process that were not done during the day.
“I saw another aspect of the work and realised how physically demanding it is: Turning levers, opening knobs, emptying the steep, germinating grain to access sugars (by hand), soaking the barley in water, turning the kiln, mashing.” A colleague she met after some weeks had even lost 10kg when he was on a night shift. For Gemma, what's different about The Balvenie are the people who work there, and the sort of loyalty the place inspires. Some, like Dennis McCain (since 1958) the coppersmith, for instance, have been there for decades. Now in his late 70s, Dennis is still at hand to show his work and talk about what he does. Together the entire team has clocked in a good 1,000 years of experience. What they produce is a smooth whisky with no drama and few pretensions.
Linked to this level of dedication and how it's made is the taste and quality of the product. All the nosings and tastings, the time and dedication produce an accessible flavour profile that is at once fruity sweet, malty, with a good level of spice, a bit of everything. The DoubleWood 12YO spends time in two traditions of casks. First, American oak where it gets hints of honey, fruit, vanilla and then in Spanish oloroso cherry that imparts warmer richer and fruitier notes.
With cocktails all the rage now, whisky lends itself beautifully as a base. There's even a masala old-fashioned with The Balvenie. The way to enjoy whisky cocktails, Gemma suggested is to try the differently aged ones. “Different vodkas will not give you a different flavour profile,” she said. But different whiskies will. So try one with a 12YO and another with a 15YO and see how different they taste.” As with any drink, the way to have it depends largely on the occasion. With brown spirits trending all over the world, it's not surprising that India is at the crest of the wave. And Indians as we know love their whisky.
Her travels across the globe took her to China where she discovered tea and a new passion. Her desire to learn, made her a tea master. Now she works with mixologists on how to infuse whisky with various varieties of tea and make tea cocktails. “Tea is similar to whisky,” she said with a grin at my incredulous expression. “It is handcrafted, has history going back to millennia and it has provenance, much like wine and whisky. It has ritual and culture attached to it.”
Also read: Gin is in: The newest ‘trendy’ drink
With all that on her plate she still finds time to run the marathon and catch up on her reading. The downside of this hectic but glamorous life is uncertainty. “Nothing ever goes according to plan. It could be a delayed flight or a traffic jam. And I could always catch up on sleep.” She travels so much that her ideal holiday now is one where she can spend time in Scotland with her family.
WHISKY AND MORE
Even in her down time, Gemma doesn't tire of whisky and looks for one she hasn't tried before, but admits that she loves wine and beer, too. This Scottish lass loves her native crags and can be found hiking and exploring parts of her beautiful country that she hasn't seen. And of course, she doesn't tire of telling stories.
Know your flavours
1. Doublewood aged 12 years
NOSE: Sweet fruit and Oloroso sherry notes, layered with honey and vanilla
TASTE: Smooth and mellow with beautifully combined flavours — nutty sweetness, cinnamon spiciness and a delicately proportioned layer of sherry.
FINISH: Long and warming
2. Caribbean cask aged 14 years
NOSE: Rich, sweet and creamy toffee on the nose combines with fresh fruit notes
TASTE: Rounded with vanilla and sweet oak notes, with a fruity character that develops with time
FINISH: Soft and lingering
3. Doublewood aged 17 years
NOSE: Elegant and complex oak, vanilla, honeyed sweetness and a hint of green apple
TASTE: Sweet with dried fruits, sherbet spice, toasted almonds and cinnamon, layered with a richness of creamy toffee notes and traces of oak and deep vanilla
FINISH: Vanilla oak, honey and spicy sweetness