Old Pulteney Tasting at The Whisky Exchange

The Whisky Exchange’s (mostly) monthly program continues apace, this time bringing the manager of the Pulteney distillery, Malcolm Waring, down from far-off Wick to lead a tasting of the Old Pulteney range.

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Old Pulteney is distilled in Wick on the coast in the far northeastern corner of Scotland, making it the most northerly distillery on the mainland – they’re 3° north of Moscow. The town of Wick has had a checkered history since the early 1800s, when Pulteneytown was founded on the other side of the River Wick. It grew as a major part of the North Sea herring fishing boom and the distillery, also named for Sir William Johnstone Pulteney who had commissioned the building of the town, was opened in 1826 by the James Henderson to serve the increasingly large population of seafaring folk who, in stereotypical fashion, liked their booze. Isolated from the rest of the mainland with few roads, the town became known for its lawlessness, with a potentially apocryphal 500 gallons of whisky being drunk per day by its inhabitants – with approximately 8000 fisherman in town (along with 81 bars, split 40 in Wick and 41 in Pulteneytown) that works out at about half a bottle per person per day. In 1922 the law stepped in and Wick (along with Pulteneytown) was made a dry town, with the distillery continuing production as the only scottish producer making whisky in a dry area. This restriction was lifted in 1947 and the distillery rumbled on quietly, changing hands several times, until 1997 when their first inhouse single malt bottling (as there had been a number of independent bottlings over the years from Gordon and Macphail and others) – their 12 year old single malt.

The distillery is part of the Inver House group, who also own Balblair, Balmenach, Speyburn and Knockdhu (where anCnoc is produced), and also produces a liqueur in addition to single malts. Their style is quite simple – unpeated and using a mix of sherry and bourbon barrels, with no finishes. They are, as all the single malt distilleries are, quite finicky with their wood, going for air dried barrels as much as possible rather than faster produced kiln dried barrels – they generally get these from Jack Daniels and Makers Mark. They seem to prefer second fill casks, both bourbon and sherry (standardly oloroso), to mature their whisky with the less active wood working better with their spirit to produce the whiskies that they want. They do seem to use their barrels for quite a while, with rejuvenation (by planing down the insides of the staves before recharring them) after 2 or 3 fills to give at least another fill before the barrels need to be retired.

Their brewing is quite interesting, using dried yeast instead of the usual wet yeast that most producers use. This is due to their relative isolation which restricts deliveries and makes getting fresh yeast in sufficient quantity very difficult. The dried yeast poses its own challenges as it needs careful temperature controlled rehydration to avoid killing it and it activates faster than live yeast on being added to the wort, starting the brewing process earlier than normal. Pulteney exploit this by using a medium length fermentation (52 hours) but produce a higher alchohol wash, coming in at about 9% rather than the usual 8ish.

The peat-free nature of the current version of Old Pulteney is a more recent change in the distillery’s history. Until 1959 they had on-site maltings that used peat as fuel (sitting on the edge of the Flow Country they had a ready supply of it), but when that was closed they moved to unpeated malt, prepared offsite. They currently use optic and have since the late 90s, but due to varying yields (currently about 410l of spirit per tonne of barley, but in the past it has been as low as 405 and high as 420) are currently experimenting with different varieties. This is done more for yield than flavour, as the variation between different barlies isn’t particularly influential in the flavour of the spirit, but the amount of production is all important. The distillery was at one time part of a group including Ardbeg, so despite there being no peat in the spirit for years some Pulteney has a hint of it after being matured in second fill Ardbeg casks. Malcolm didn’t say much about those barrels, but I suspect that they may well be around somewhere as interesting single cask bottlings.

Pulteney New Make

Their two stills are quite squat, with a long neck on the spirit still and a lyne arm that comes off before the top on the wash still (as can be seen in the pictures on this account of a distillery visit), which all helps produce an oily heavily flavoured spirit. Malcolm had managed to bring along a small amount of the Old Pulteney new make spirit, which was handed around for everyone to nose and taste. It was thick and had a strong grainy smell which cut off abruptly, like with a high quality vodka. There were hints of oil, lemony floor cleaner, oranges and dry cardboard, as well as a whiff of rocket fuel – understandable as it was 67.9%. To taste it was surprisingly leathery, despite the lack of peat, the cardboardy nose taking on a darker turn, and also shot through with lemons. Water brought out some sweetness, especially as it developed in the glass, and tempered the lemon into a light citrus note that was dominated by the leatheriness. I’ve still not tried many new makes but this was yet again entirely different to the others I’ve tasted, with the lemon/leather combo both strange and surprisingly palatable for so strong a spirit.

To start the tasting we were presented with the second whisky on our mat, with Malcolm preferring an order that worked better with the flavours rather than the regular youngest to oldest (plus special editions) order. #2 was the Old Pulteney 17 year old, an 80%/20% mix of bourbon/oloroso casks, bottled at a slightly strong 46%. On those nose it was oily with apricots, liquorice and a hint of sulphur. To taste it was woody, with sherbert lemons and apples. Water tamed the wood a bit, leaving a pleasant apple and lemon combo.

We moved on to the Old Pulteney 21 year old, again a combination of sherry and bourbon casks (although using American oak sherry casks rather than European ones), and also bottled at 46%. This one had much more sherried sweetness on the nose with vanilla toffee, lemons and a hint of salt – almost like a lemony crunchy bar. To taste the wood dominated again to start, with lots of tannin and a heavy drying sensation down the sides of the tongue. Once you pushed through the wood there was butterscotch, apples and a hint of woody smoke (“Like toffee apples on the far side of a field to a bonfire on November 5th”, my increasingly flowery tasting notes suggested). Water turned wood into vanilla, upping the sweetness and bringing out more woody spice and sulphurous struck matches. There was a suggestion that the smoky notes were from the water, flowing through a culvert from nearby Loch Hempriggs (that you can follow to the distillery on Google Maps), but I’m still sceptical that the relatively minor flavour of the water survives not only mashing and fermentation but also the double distillation process.

We then stepped back to #1 on the mat – the Old Pulteney 12 year old. This is the standard distillery bottling and is the only one of their whiskies to be chill filtered (none of them use colouring agents). This is a 100% bourbon matured whisky with about 80% first fill casks and 20% refill. On the nose it’s got brine, oil, some orchard fruit and wood, and a bit of almost ripe banana. To taste it’s sweet and buttery with more banana, some vanilla and a hint of saltiness at the back. With water there’s even more vanilla sweetness and the mouth feel becomes a bit creamy, all rounded out with a woody finish. This is the one that I’d tasted before and the reason why I came along to the tasting – I like briny whiskies and this is the one that introduced me to that flavour. Its appeal has diminished for me as my tastes have changed, but tasting it again for the first time in years I see why I remember it still.

Next up was the oldest whisky that they standardly produce – the Old Pulteney 30 year old, bottled at 43% and matured in refill american oak hogsheads. On the nose it was nutty with mango and orange, very different from the younger whiskies. To taste it was oily with bananas, hazelnuts, dry oak, oranges (maybe some mushy red berries mixed with the oranges), vanilla and a lingering dry citrus finish – quite complex. Water brought out a wheaty, biscuity flavour (a bit like Nice biscuits if you scraped the sugar off the outside), Tropico (the tropical fruit squash that I used to drink on holidays to France when I was a kid – a scarily specific flavour), butterscotch, unsalted roasted peanuts and more vanilla, topped off with a tannic woody finish. I was rather impressed and this was easily my favourite dram of the night. Unfortunately, it also comes in a £245 a bottle, so I suspect it won’t be making its way into my whisky cupboard quite yet.

The final two whiskies were a pair, unfortunately only available to travel retail (although The Whisky Exchange think they might have a few bottles appearing soon) – two 23 year olds. The first of the two was the Old Pulteney 23 year old Bourbon Casked, matured entirely in refill bourbon casks. On the nose it had bananas and butterscotch, and was quite light but with an underlying richness (which could well have just been my nose having been worn out by the 30 year old). To taste it had rich toffee, butter, sour wood and a tannic dry finish. It also had a hint of citrus and some oat cake – overall all a bit like slightly lemony shortbread. Water turned this into banana shortbread, knocking out the citrus, and softened the wood to creamy vanilla. It was similar to the 30 year old but for the more reasonable price of about £150.

The second of the pair was the Old Pulteney 23 year old Sherry Casked, matured entirely in refill sherry casks, and filled and bottled at about the same time as the bourbon casked giving an opportunity to compare the wood influence. On the nose it had dark chocolate, nuts, raisins, stewed apple and oats. To taste it was thick, spicy and tannic with an oaty finish. The sherry influence was clear with sweet dried fruit and plums sitting in the middle of the flavour. A touch of water mixed everything up to give garibaldi biscuits and a spicy wood finish. Very different to the bourbon cask, it reminded me of the Macallan 12, although with much more to it.

A range of whiskies that doesn’t seem to get as much press as they deserve, the Old Pulteneys still tickle my tastebuds, even if not to the extent that they would have in the past. The only problem I see with them is the price, ramping up quickly from £25 for the 12 year old to £40 for the 17 and £80 for the 21. While they’re all good whiskies I’m not sure if for me they’re quite that good, and while the 30 year old is really very good indeed I’m not sure if it’s £245 of very good, especially when there are equally good highland bottlings for significantly less. That’s not going to stop me keeping an eye out for a dram of it, though…

Old Pulteney 12 year old
Highland single malt whisky, 40%. ~£25

Old Pulteney 17 year old
Highland single malt whisky, 46%, ~£40

Old Pulteney 21 year old
Highland single malt whisky, 46%, ~£80

Old Pulteney 30 year old
Highland single malt whisky, 44%. ~£245

Old Pulteney 23 year old, Bourbon Casked
Highland single malt whisky, 43%, ~£145 from travel retail

Old Pulteney 23 year old, Sherry Casked
Highland single malt whisky, 43%, ~£145 from travel retail

Old Pulteney new make spirit
Highland new make, 67.9%. Not available commercially

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