[Following on from my 2017 trip to Orkney – LINK].
Having occasionally wondered what England might have felt like ‘back in the day’ before industrialisation fully took hold, visiting Orkney may well be like stepping inside a Bronte novel. Picture postcard scenes speak of dramatic jurassic landscapes set against tranquil rolling hills, with cows, horses & sheep poetically placed on adorned agricultural and pastoral fields. With a few exceptions, there are almost no traffic lights, little traffic or parking restrictions and with every chance of overnight camping on deserted beaches. It’s no doubt a totally different prospect in the harsh throws of winter, but during a heat-wave on a beautifully mild, sunny July evening with Orkney’s bay waters as still as an oil painting and wildlife re-enacting excerpts from Disney films, the world is a fine place indeed.
Returning to the mainland and parking up in Wick for the night is quite the wake-up call. The Pulteney distillery surrounded by an array of old and newer residential estates, frequently accompanied by smokin’ cars and routine police surveillance may not be the idyllic Orkney’s, but the area itself is one of the most interesting places historically speaking.
Firstly there’s the herring trade and Thomas Telford’s aqueduct/lade, not to mention Pulteney’s unorthodox boil ball and ‘Baritone’ [as I’m coining it], stills.
What’s in a name?
Having always struggled with the ‘Old’ prefix with regards to the Pulteney distillery and its whisky, I was pleased to come across this article at undiscoveredscotland.co.uk, which clears things up nicely:
‘It is worth clearing up a source of confusion immediately. The correct name of the distillery is Pulteney Distillery, while the correct name of its product is Old Pulteney. This seems to have arisen as a marketing device, but if so it has been consistently applied for a number of decades, to the point where many now refer to the distillery itself as Old Pulteney.
This interesting and well written article further adds:
‘Pulteney is unique among Scottish distilleries in being named after a person, Sir William Pulteney, the founder of Pulteneytown’.
Scotchwhisky.com has recently covered the history of Wick [SW] and the Pulteney distillery [SW] in some depth and with aplomb, accompanied by some stunning photos – so I won’t regurgitate, only share what I personally gleaned from my visit.
- In 1946, Pulteney was bought by Robert Cumming who had bought the Balblair distillery 4 years earlier.
- Cumming then sold both Pulteney & Balblair to Hiram Walker in 1955.
- A series of mergers saw Hiram Walker passing control to Allie Domecq and later to Inverhouse, a stable which also includes An Cnoc, Balmenach and Speyburn.
- Pacific Spirits then buys Inverhouse which is then acquired by International Beverage Holdings [ThaiBev]. The big just get bigger.
Like Scapa [blog], Pulteney is a manual-led operation with seven distillery workers managing the site. Also like Scapa, Pulteney is size-restricted within its old walls. As a result, you’ll find all of the latest equipment squeezed into the original buildings often with little room to spare.
Designed by Thomas Telford and completed between 1807-09, Pulteney’s water source arrives from what is claimed to be the longest lade/gravity fed aqueduct in Scotland [source: oldpulteney.com]. It was designed to carry water 7km+ from Loch Hempriggs to Pulteney, supplying mill’s en route, followed by the Pulteney distillery [for washing & cooling], and then finally the [herring] harbour in Wick via an underground channel.
By 1845, the Albert Reservoir was piping water to the inhabitants of Pulteney. Additionally, Loch Yarrows built in 1906 helped supply the increasing population in Wick. As a result, and since the recent installation of adequate filter tanks, the lade water is now used exclusively for whisky production [source: highland.gov.uk].
Pulteney’s Porteus Mill came from the old mill at the Pulteney centre. The distillery’s impressive visitors centre utilises the old cooperage. Above remains one of the old maltings floors [see pic above].
The current mash tun was installed in 2012. It’s almost exactly the same size as the room it inhabits, so had to be brought in through the roof. Viewed from the stairs gives you an idea of how tight things really are.
With wash temperatures reaching 67.5, 85 and 87 respectively, Pulteney carry out a fourth water, also at 87. As a consequence of the four waters, mashing commonly takes up to 6 hours resulting in an extra hour for extensive cleaning. Pulteney undertake 3 mashes a day and is therefore working at near full capacity.
Six new washbacks were installed in 2016, again via the roof. The installation took from May to October.
Despite the popularity of Irn-Bru in Scotland, it isn’t economical for Pulteney to save or recycle their carbon dioxide.
The diesel heated Grant’s stills came from Dufftown. They are a bit nuts.
‘Pulteney’s wash still has a massive boil bulb almost as large as the base of the still and a flat top. This helps to produce high levels of reflux and separate specific alcohols. The spirit still has both a purifier pipe and a very convoluted, coiling lyne arm. Again, reflux is maximised here, with that purifier conceivably adding oiliness to the character‘.
My encounter with Pulteney’s new make was experienced directly from a blue bucket that seemed to be lying around the filling station. I’m unsure to this day whether this a regular tour set up or a random one-off. The spirit comes off the spirit still at approximately 68% abv.
- N: From a bucket, are you kidding me?!
- T: Coppery=cereal.
- F: Fairly sustained.
- C: I don’t recommend a bucket for nosing and tasting, but beggar’s can’t be choosers.
- Pulteney predominantly use 200 & 350ltr bourbon casks, 2nd refill only.
- 500ltr oloroso sherry butts are used to finish the 17yo expression, for 6 months or less.
- There are 21000 barrels on site with the biggest warehouse racking 10000 casks. The warehouse we entered was opened for the first time that day. The waft of the angels share was the biggest I’ve experienced – boozy to the point of near-barmy! As is customary with Scottish distilleries, Pulteney claim a 2% angels share loss per year. Yet if you look at the abv over age of the distillery only bottlings, the actual evaporation is less than 0.5 per year.
- Pre-1995, only 20% of Pulteney’s production went into single malt. Currently, around 70% of production goes to single malt.
- Apparently, Pulteney’s oldest available vintage is 1993, though I’m told a 50yo will be [at time of writing], bottled soon.
The tour video comes at the end so you can watch it [or not], with a dram. Smart!
With 100% bourbon maturation, this is Pulteney’s biggest seller. I had a bottle back in 2013 and liked it, though not nearly as much as the 17yo.
- N: Somewhat dunnage-y though with a very understated bourbon cask influence overall. Some brine/oil, a brown paper bag and a complex sweaty saltiness.
- T: Sharp clean oily bourbon. A little water brings an almost fruity oily bourbon husky Fimo setup, some light vanilla sponge and very light fruits. Chew for a salty light sweet, milk chocolate spirity oily mouthful.
- F: Long new make-like finish on coppery raisin-y cereal.
- C: This is well made whisky with the distillate at its heart, due in part to the rather soft cask [refill] influence – perfect for longer maturation hence why the 17 & 21yo are a step up IMHO.
Scores 80 points
Old Pulteney 2006/2017 10yo Ob. Distillery Only ex-bourbon cask #730 64.2% WB86
- N: Shiny bourbon-y, rounded honey cereal malt with that same sweaty saltiness and some garage oil – the oils releasing with water.
- T: Big, direct arrival with some green notes and some dunnage-y bourbon depth.
- F: Cream soda and a lingering inherent raisin quality, with a coppery-ness coming through at the final hurdle.
- C: Like the 12yo on heat, though £80 for a 10yo feels steep. The official 12yo is currently £26.
Scores 82 points
Old Pulteney 1997/2017 19yo Ob. Distillery Only ex-bourbon cask #1522 58.4% WB88.25
- N: Yet more of that sweaty saltiness again, three in a row. More lovely oiliness too, sweeter this time.
- T: Green-briney arrival with a reasonable malty/dunnage-y/putty/bourbon depth, somewhat sugary sweet.
- F: Thick sweet melon fruits, cream soda and candid bourbon cask action.
- C: Another well made, CS, distillery exclusive expression that reflects Pulteney’s character. Again, £140 feels steep though it’s decent whisky nevertheless.
Scores 86 points
For those of us concerned about Scotland’s drink driving allowances, our tour guide gave us his unofficial alcohol consumption advice for drivers attending tours, as explained to him by various Scottish police officers who had previously visited the distillery.
For an average male [sorry females]:
- 1-2 [sample measures, typically 1-2cl] – should be fine.
- 3 – should be ok depending on the usual factors – pre-food intake, rehydration levels, metabolism, weight/size index,…
- 4 – On the edge!
So, I should be ok as I head back up to Thurso and to Wolfburn.
With thanks to Daniel