I journeyed to the far Northeast of Scotland to Pulteney Distillery on the same day I’d visited its sister, Balblair. The drive from Tain to Wick took me along one of the most dramatic roads I’ve ever driven—a narrow two-lane highway (A9) all along the sea cliffs, sometimes mere inches from a massive drop, winding up and up and then plunging down. Once the haar lifted, the day was beautiful and bright, but oddly I kept driving through pockets of fog that made the journey both dull and frightening (not a great combination for a solo driver!).
Along the way there are wonderful diversions, such as the abandoned ruins of Badbea village, where victims of the Highland Clearances were forced to scratch out a life (tying their children and animals to the house lest they fly away in the high winds off the sea); the Cairn of Get, a fantastic chambered cairn accessible through a few sheep fields and a hill of heather; and the Hill o’ Many Stanes, a mysterious field of standing stones whose ancient purpose is yet unknown. There was also the most delicious chippy ever in Golspie, recommended by Crystal Coverdale and a perfect meal for a day full of whisky. Plus, the drive takes one past Brora (RIP) and Clynelish, where I’d certainly have stopped if time had permitted.
Pulteneytown (now part of Wick) built by Sir William (Johnstone) Pulteney in 1810. He was director of the British Fisheries Society and indeed Wick had a massive herring fishing industry until the 1930s. Sir William was the patron of civil engineer Thomas Telford, who built the compact little Pulteney distillery in 1826 for James Henderson, as well as a 5.5-mile “lade”—a passage for water—from the Loch of Hempriggs. (He built a great many other things as well and is considered the Father of Civil Engineering by some.) The Hendersons owned Pulteney Distillery till 1920, when James Watson and Co. bought it and, three years later, Dewar’s. In 1930 it was mothballed and then revived in 1951 by solicitor Robert Cumming (the same one who resurrected Balblair). He quickly sold it to J&G Stodart, a subsidiary of Hiram Walker, which rebuilt it in 1958. In 1961 Allied Distillers bought it, and finally Inver House (now InterBev) acquired it in 1995.
(Something to note: The name of the facility is Pulteney Distillery. The name of the single malt is Old Pulteney.)
The whole distillery has a sort of cramped yet labyrinthine feel, with wee flights of stairs and low ceilings and a surprise washback set apart from its companions. Things are practically built on top of each other. Even the stills are short and squat, with the wash still lyne arm actually having been sawed off and soldered on sideways in order to fit under the ceiling. No doubt this is a main contributing factor of Old Pulteney’s heavy, oily character. The distillery also has old-school worm tubs to cool the spirit as it comes off the still—a relative rarity these days (see Trivia #1).
Pulteney runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and produces 1.7 million liters of spirit annually. The spirit goes into the barrel at 68% abv, a bit higher than the typical 63.5% abv. About two-thirds of production gets bottled as single malt while the rest goes into blends, including Hanky Bannister, which might be my favorite brand name of all time. The stuff destined for blends gets aged off-site but all the single malt goes into Pulteney’s four warehouses, some of which are modern-style and another of which used to be the distillery’s floor maltings. Almost everything is aged in ex-bourbon casks, although there are a few sherry casks as well. Marrying and bottling happen down in Glasgow, where InterBev has a facility.
Here’s something I learned at Pulteney that has become an ongoing project of discovery: When bourbon producers sell their casks to Scottish distillers, they usually break them down into staves for shipping—saves a lot of space and thus money, as you can imagine. When they arrive in Scotland, the casks are then reassembled into various size configurations by coopers. But Wick is a fairly remote town and there aren’t any nearby cooperages, so the distillery actually gets its casks shipped whole, which must be incredibly expensive. I’ve since learned that Kavalan does the same and that these bourbon barrels are shipped with some liquid in them so the wood doesn’t dry out—meaning that some bourbon may or may not be retained in the barrel when new spirit goes in. (See this post on the Astoria Whiskey Society blog for more detail.)
Fun fact: From 1922 to 1947, Wick became a dry town (apparently thanks to American evangelist Aimee Semple Mcpherson) but the distillery continued production during this time, much like the Jack Daniel’s distillery produces millions of gallons of whiskey every year in a county that has been dry since the early 20th century.
Old Pulteney isn’t always to my taste, but now that I’ve visited I understand its terroir better, and I’m certainly interested in continuing to try it as my palate evolves.
Old Pulteney 12-year-old
The nose is redolent of honey, vanilla, and earthy moss and minerals. On the palate, it’s oily, briny, leathery and vanilla-sweet. The back palate is spicy, with a cinnamon bark finish.
Old Pulteney 21-year-old
There’s a creamy caramel aroma with notes of honey and butterscotch. The palate has lots of red berries, walnut cream, vanilla sugar, and herbal and mineral notes, with a lingering warm finish.