Floating Whisky Palace in Cannes

When I was young, I once overheard the term ‘floating gin palace‘ in conversation. I didn’t then know what it meant and was disappointed to learn later that the term refers (disparagingly) to the kind of luxury motor yacht plentiful in Antibes, Cannes and other South of France marinas, and not the inflatable Taj Mahal-esque ode to gin that my imagination had conjured up. Nevertheless, last week I spent the evening in Cannes as photographer on a vessel that could have been fairly accurately described as a floating whisky palace.

meeting a whisky superstar

Two men tasting whisky in the saloon of a super yacht
Whisky supremo, Richard Paterson, leads a tasting session

During the international duty-free trade fair that comes to Cannes every autumn (the excitingly named TFWA World Exhibition), movers and shakers in the businesses of perfume, cigarettes and hard liquor get together to buy, to sell and to party. My client, a prominent Scottish Highlands whisky brewery, required an event photographer on the French Riviera to capture a rather special evening aboard Clara, a fine superyacht moored in the port of Cannes.

Three men post for a photograph, glasses of whisky in hand
I don’t think Richard has noticed that the chap on the right is holding his glass wrong

The event was an introduction to the world of fine whisky. Every 10 minutes, invited guests filed into the wood-panelled inner sanctum of the yacht for a tasting and presentation given by something of a king in the whisky world. “We need a photographer so that all of our guests can have the opportunity of a picture with Richard Paterson. If you know whisky, you’ve heard of Richard. He’s a superstar in the whisky business” my client had explained, before her arrival in Cannes. As the chosen photographer, I was to document the party, Richard’s presentation and his happy fans, delivering photographs in black and white after the event with a watermarked company logo to make fine memento prints for guests.

The Nose

Richard Paterson goes by the formal title of ‘master blender’, and the more informal ‘The Nose’ (interestingly, the same term is applied to master perfumers). A third generation whisky man, he excels at tasting, assessing and blending fine whiskies. His nose is insured by Lloyd’s of London for no less than €2.6 million. With his all-round enthusiasm, broad Scottish accent and infectious laugh, Richard proved himself to be an engaging speaker too. When not expressing passionate “mmmmmm“s and expansive, almost Gallic gestures as he non-verbally demonstrated how to hold and move whisky around the mouth, his non-PC humour was sprinkled increasingly throughout his presentations, much to the silent exasperation of the PR team sitting at the back. The guests of course loved him. “You’re even better than the whisky“, said one.

Black and white photograph of Master Whisky Blender Richard Paterson smelling a whisky
A nose worthy of a Frenchman

“Taking Great Photographs is like Distilling Fine Whisky”

As the evening advanced and Richard got more and more tastings under his belt, there was a definite sense ‘loosening up’. No ice or mixers had been added to the whisky (sacrilege! Richard vowed to throw anyone who requested either into the Mediterranean) and no precious mouthfuls had been spat back out either. After the first presentation, I had been introduced to the room by the CEO: “We have a photographer here so if you’d like a picture with Richard, please come over“. By the last presentation, it was no longer the CEO introducing me: Richard did the honours. Beginning “Now, ladies and gentleman, meet the wonderful, the fabulous Rebecca. This fine photographer who will now do the photographic equivalent of what we do. Taking great photographs is like distilling fine whisky. The light, the composition, the nuances of tones in black and white…“, he continued as such for a little longer than was strictly comfortable.

Two smiling woman chink whisky glasses as they toast
No ice. No water. Certainly no coca cola

A one-on-one whisky initiation

In between presentations, Richard asked if I had tasted the ‘good stuff’ yet. I said not and before I had the chance to consider the potential side-effects for an on-duty photographer, I found myself with a 12-year old Dalmore blend in my hand and the rather intense experience of being educated by Richard, eyeball to eyeball.

The lesson began even before I smelled the whisky. “No!! Don’t cup the glass. I see that way too much in France. You mustn’t warm the glass!” Corrected, I held the glass by the stem and base and brought it to my nose. “No!! You’re smelling it too fast. You’re letting all the air in. How can you smell it properly like that?” He showed me how to put your nose (and, optionally, moustache) into the glass, close the air off and roll the whisky from one side to the other. One nostril apparently has a superior capacity for smelling whisky. I was reminded of French truffle hunters at work.

As I enjoyed my first sip, I had the biggest telling off yet. “No!!! exclaimed a distressed Richard. “Don’t swallow yet! You should hold the whisky in your mouth for at least 20 seconds” Fortunately Richard is a man who believes in giving a second chance. “Keep it on the top of your tongue – you’re getting the chocolate orange, the ginger, the almonds… Hold it, hold it… Now move it under the tongue, you’re getting the spice now, ooh yes the kick, the zing is coming in now… Don’t swallow! Move the whisky back onto the top of your tongue, can you see how the taste has changed? Smoother, oakier…” As he talked me through it, a whole new world of taste was blossoming in my mouth.

If a person blinks while holding the whisky in their mouth, it means they need a little spring water to be added“. I didn’t blink.

Close-up photograph of a man drinking whisky
Sampling a fine malt and not blinking

Rob Roys and a Rocking Boat

Elsewhere around the yacht, the rest of the team and guests were living it up, Cannes-style. It wasn’t hard for a photographer to find congeniality and whisky being savoured to capture. What was hard was turning down invitations to join them, as glasses were offered to me left, right and centre by my clients and guests alike. I had already quaffed a Rob Roy, a divine whisky cocktail that I had photographed. I suspected that it was stronger than it tasted, but I simply couldn’t refuse. “I prepared it for you and for your photograph. I will be mortally offended if you don’t drink it afterwards” said the barman, apparently a few Robs down himself. Thinking of my imminent drive back home along the French Riviera and a slight swaying that may or may not have been the boat, I reluctantly turned down further hospitality.

Wide view of yacht at night-time hosting a cocktail party
The floating whisky palace put neighbouring boats to shame

When I left, I looked back along the line of superyachts in the port of Cannes and noticed with a smile that Clara was rocking more than most. In that moment, as whisky aftertaste transformations were still taking place on my tongue, it seemed to me that Richard had been right: “They say love makes the world go round. That’s not true. Whisky makes the world go round, only twice as fast.

A whisky cocktail photographed from above
My Rob Roy, a mix of fine Dalmore whisky, Vermouth and bitters. Black and white doesn’t do it justice
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