When it comes to adding whisky to chocolate, the default serving method seems to be balls. From the canonical whisky truffle (all hail Delia) to the infamous WhiskyCast Bourbon Balls, when you combine whisky with chocolate you usually seem to end up with something spherical. But what about those of us with a minimal arts and crafts skills? Old Pulteney have our backs, with a recipe for Bitter Chocolate, Freeze Dried Cherry & Whisky Clusters. Aka Pulteney Balls.
I like Old Pulteney. As I mentioned way back in my first mention of them on this blog I think that they get a bit pricy a bit quickly (although now I’ve worked in whisky for a few months my ideas on pricing are fast being eroded) but they make good spirit. As such I was rather pleased, although admittedly quite surprised, to see that Jim Murray had named the Old Pulteney 21 year old his Best Whisky In The World in this year’s Whisky Bible. I was surprised as while I like the 21 I think it’s easily surpassed by the 17 and even the 12 year old, but that’s part of the point of Jim Murray – to put up a best whisky that almost noone agrees with in the whisky community, but that will make people talk. Happily this year he’s put up something that people do actually think has some right to a top spot, unlike in some previous years, and also happily it’s something made by people I’ve met and like. Well done Malcolm and the rest of the Pulteney gang.
Anyways, what that barely relevant intro brings me to is a pair of whiskies I had a taste of the other week – one as part of a ‘Twitter toast’ and the other one that I picked up while visiting the distillery.
This post has been fomenting for a while, but the perils of work and thinking too much about whisky have forced it into the background until now.
Domu888 on twitter (Dominic Edsall in real life) asked me a while back what my top 10 whiskies under £50 were. I fired off a few off the top of my head but said that I’d need to have a think about it. Well, thinking has been done so here’s a list, in no particular order. A thing to note is that this is all distillery bottlings – sticking in independents would hurt my head too much:
Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48%, ~£30: Cheap, cheerful and very full of flavour. LQC, to give it initials that may have a different meaning to two readers of this blog, is young Laphroaig which finishes its maturation in small ‘quarter casks’ which are a quarter of the size of the regularly used hogsheads. This smaller size changes the wood/spirit ratio in favour of the wood, upping the rate of maturation of the whisky and sticking on a ‘growth spurt’ at the end of its time in wood. This does mean that they can bottle their whisky younger, but it also adds a nice chunk of sweet woodiness to the whisky, which works well with the phenolic tang of the Laphroaig. It’s bottled strong and isn’t chill-filtered, and still comes out at about £30 a bottle, which is rather good. It’s also on offer in Tesco quite often, which doesn’t hurt.
Clynelish 14, 46%, ~£30: My default whisky at home, although it is currently replaced by the Distiller’s Edition which we had on special offer at work. Clynelish has recently started rocketing in popularity, in part due to Serge Valentin and John Glaser talking about how much they like it. Not much goes to single malt production still, and the 12 and 14 years old versions are the two that are generally available. While the 12 is good, and cheap, the 14 is my favourite of the pair – waxy, sweet and fruity with a hint of the sea. Pretty much a whisky made for me and one that seems remarkably good at luring people into the world of less well-known distilleries.
The Glenlivet 18, 43%, ~£40. This one is a steal – less than £40 for an 18 year old is something you just don’t see (and a quick search on TWE has it as the only 18+ whisky for under £40). Age isn’t the be all and end all of whisky selection, but this one has aged well and benefited from its time in the cask to produce and well rounded and tasty whisky – big, rich and fruity with a slab of The Glenlivet’s creaminess.
Nikka from The Barrel, 51.4%, ~£25 for 50cl. A small bottle so not quite as good a deal as it first seems, but an excellent one all the same. A blend of whiskies from Nikka’s distilleries, sweet and elegant with quite a big alcoholic punch. Quite bourbon-like in character and good for mixing as well as drinking neat (or even, sacriligeously, with a chunk of ice). And to cap it all, the bottle is REALLY pretty.
Tweeddale Blend, 46%, ~£30. I wanted to make sure there was a blend in this list, but I was torn between which one to choose – I could go for a traditional ‘one up’ blend like Bailie Nicol Jarvie, one of the more premium named blends, like the more expensive Chivas Regals, or even one of Compass Box’s two. In the end I’ve plumped for this one, as I like the story and the guy behind it. Basically, Alasdair Day decided to recreate a blend originally put together by his great grandfather, using the original recipe from his notes. I’ve tried it a couple of times and rather like it, and they released their second batch a couple of days back – time for a taste and compare I think…
Longrow 10 Year Old 100 proof, 57%, ~£45. Another one that used to be my default, before the Clynelish swept it away, and one that I feel slightly naked without a bottle of in the cupboard. Longrow is, missing out a couple of production details, the peated version of Springbank. It has that slightly briney Springbank note as well as a nice smoky hit, although not an overwhelming peaty blast. I’ve gone for the 100proof for two reasons: 1) This way you can water it down a bit depending on your mood, leaving it concentrated and strongly flavoured if you want; and 2) it’s cheaper per millitre of alcohol…
Ardbeg 10, 46%, ~£35. I’m rather liking Ardbeg again at the moment, as my previous sherry obsession fades in favour of a nice chunk of peat – I generally find I’m liking one end of the extreme whisky spectrum at a time, and it seems that peat is in again for me. This is big and mulchy, with smoke, mud and a slab of vanilla from the first fill casks they used to mature a lot of it. I’ve heard tales that it’s not as good as it used to be, but it’s still a top bit of peaty beast without the medicinal nature of Laphroaig.
Compass Box Hedonism, 43%, ~£50. Right on the limit this, sometimes tipping over the £50 but often on or under it (especially in Waitrose). I like grain whisky and this is one of the best out there, a blend that gives a masterclass in what the flavours of well looked after grain should be. It still varies in my estimation, but it generally sits very near the top. Stepping outside of the £50 limit, if you find £199 burning a hole in your pocket then the Hedonism 10th anniversary edition bottling is awesome – I’m still thinking about it 6 months after I tried it…
Old Pulteney 12, 40%, ~£25. While checking the price on this one I found that it seems to be currently sold out at both Master of Malt and The Whisky Exchange – it sells rather well, as you can tell. It’s a big and briney dram which I recently tried while wandering around the distillery up in Wick (the most northerly I’ve ever been). The range gets expensive very quickly, with the 17 year old next on the list and breaking the £50 mark, but this is eminently reasonable and also very tasty.
Aberlour A’bunadh, ~60%, ~£35. Bottled at full proof and varying in strength from batch to batch (the current one is #34, as I write) this is a massively sherried dram from Aberlour. They don’t give an age statement, but from what I hear it’s about 8 years old, a scarily small time to pick up quite this much from a cask, with loads of dry fruit and rich woodiness hiding behind quite a big alcoholic kick. It’s been, along with my now departed bottle of Glenfarclas 105, my sherried dram of choice over the last 6 months. I look forward to my sherry head returning…
Please let me know your suggestions in the comments below.
If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time then you know the drill by now – first week of the month = Whisky Squad. We were joined again by Rob Whitehead of Berry Brothers & Rudd, this time leading the session rather than just being an enthusiastic punter. The topic was Highlanders: whiskies from the ‘other’ region in Scotland. Strictly speaking calling the Highlands a region is a little misleading as the easiest definition is “all of Scotland that isn’t in the other regions” – everything north of the Highland Line that joins Edinburgh and Glasgow, excluding Speyside, Islay and Campbelltown. Going along with large geographic variation is a general lack of underlying style – the area encompasses everything from punchy Talisker to light Glengoyne and pretty much anything in between. It’s the largest region by area and the second by number of distilleries and production of spirit, beaten only by densely populated Speyside. Whether the islands other than Islay should be considered part of the region is often debated, with the SMWS splitting them off as a separate ‘Highland Islands’ region in their releases (but they also divide up Speyside as well), and Rob sidestepped that point by (sort of) sticking to distilleries on the mainland.
The first whisky was quite light and had a nose of salted caramel, nuts (walnuts & almonds?), damp forest, sour orange, brine and fresh green vegetables. To taste it had butter, salt & pepper, a touch of fizzy fruit sweetness, and a lingering sweet and sour fruit finish. Water brought out some grapes and lengthened the sweetness of the finish. When the whisky sock was pulled off (as Rob brought along his set of BBR bottle concealing socks, although this time they were augmented by one knitted for the squad by occasional visitor Ruth) it was shown to be a John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney. That’s a Pulteney that’s 7 years old, rather than an Old Pulteney, as the latter is the name of the whisky produced for Inver House at the Pulteney distillery. John (generally known as Jack) Milroy was one of the two brothers that opened Milroy’s of Soho in 1964, the shop that was the template from which pretty much all whisky shops have been stamped out since. Doug McIvor, Berry’s whisky king, used to work there and now that he’s at Berry’s him and Jack sit down from time to time to select a few casks to be bottled under the Milroy name. Rob selected this one as our opener due to the way that we do tastings at Whisky Squad – we try the whisky blind and then guess the age, strength and (if feeling brave) the distillery. We don’t generally get these right and regular Dave has in recent times decided to guess that all whiskies are 7 years old. In order to help him guess right at least once Rob brought this one along, only to be foiled by Dave guessing 8 this time. The whisky was matured in an ex-bourbon barrel specifically purchased as an ‘old refill’ and was retired after this whisky was decanted. The knackered nature of the barrel meant that it didn’t influence the whisky too much, keeping it light and reflecting some of the citrus and brine that you get in Pulteney new make. Unfortunately this one has already sold out.
Number two was a little bit darker and had a nose that developed quite quickly in the glass. On first pour it was quite earthy with mulchy leaves, but that quickly blew away to be replaced by Granny Smith and Golden Delicious apples, lime cordial, red fruit and vanilla, as well as floral notes that got stronger as it sat. To taste there were apple boiled sweets, candle wax, vanilla, grapes, orange peel and a hint of menthol at the back of the mouth which lingered into the fruit finish. Water brought out a bit of biscuit and cardboard on the finish and some waxy hand cream to the middle of the flavour. The sock came off to reveal that it was a Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991, bottled in 2004. I usually rather like Glencadam, after a very tasty SMWS release led to me picking up their own 15 year old bottling, and this one continued that trend. They’ve not been releasing distillery editions for long, with independent bottlers being the only way of getting a single malt until 2005 when new owners Angus Dundee Distillers, who bought the distillery in 2003, brought out the 15 year old. Since then they’ve expanded the range with a 10 year old appearing in 2008, with a relaunch of the 15 year old at the same time, and in 2010 a 12 year old port finish, 14 year old oloroso finish and a 21 year old. Up until the 2003 purchase Glencadam has had a bit of a checkered history, being closed several times since its opening in 1825, and was mothballed in 2004 when the Berry’s 1991 was bottled. This whisky sold out before Rob started at Berry’s in 2006 and was pulled out of their rather extensive archives, making two whiskies in this tasting that we probably won’t find again.
Next was another darker whisky, although it was difficult to see exactly in the rather dimly lit tasting room, and within seconds of nosing it inspired a cry of ‘sherry’. On the nose it had sour fruit, sherry wood, burned meaty bits, hints of brine and forest leaves. To taste it started with a powdery icing sugar sweetness which faded to sour red grape, stewed tea, sour fruit and spice, and finished with sour fruit and lightly tannic wood. Water brought out a touch of salty ‘old sweaty sock’ on the nose as well as dulling the smell in general. In the taste, dilution lengthened the sweetness at the front and added a bit of card on the finish. The sock came off and this one was a Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998, bottled in 2009. Blair Atholl is another distillery that doesn’t produce much whisky as single malt, with the vast majority going into Bell’s and a Flora & Fauna bottling being the main place to find it on its own. The distillery is in Pitlochry, on the southern borders of the Cairngorms, and has been owned by Diageo since they bought up Arthur Bells & Sons in 1985.
Number four was still darker and had a nose of plums, galia melon, royal icing, polished wood, vanilla, cream, a hint of strawberry shrimp and some cement-like minerality. To taste it started with sweet pastry, sour plums and worked its way through hints of stone and touches of green leaves to a finish of cardboard, and lemon rind and pith. Water simplified things, with sweetness leading to fruit leading to lemon rind – one to drink at bottle strength. This was revealed to be Berry’s Own Teaninich 1973, bottled in 2010 for a total of 37 years of maturation. It was made up of two casks and bottled at cask strength of 41.8% and sells for about £135, one of the most expensive Berry’s Own bottlings that they’ve done. This is in part due to buying the casks old, rather than Berry’s usual plan of buying them at filling time and then looking after them during maturation – it’s more of a gamble, but is much cheaper than buying the casks when you can see how good they are at the end of maturation. Teaninich is another Diageo distillery that mainly sees the light of day through blends and a Flora & Fauna bottling, and it’s near to Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon and Dalmore distilleries on the north side of the Cromarty Firth near to Alness. Outside of Diageo’s various products it’s also a favourite of Compass Box, appearing in their Asyla and Oak Cross blends.
Number five was brought along by co-founder Jason rather than Rob and had a rather dodgy looking thin topped cork. Rob couldn’t say much about the whisky for fear of giving away what it was, so we went straight in for a taste. On the nose it had wet leaves, hints of brine, a touch of wood smoke, nettles, candy floss and baked beans. The taste was rather uncomplicated, but quite pleasant, with wood smoke, woody fruit, butter, marzipan and a slightly beany finish with some more fruit. Water calmed down a bit of the alcoholic burn and brought out a bit more fruit, but didn’t really improve things. When the sock came off it became quite obvious why they couldn’t say much – it was Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt, also known as ‘The Shackleton Whisky’. This one has quite the story behind it and is a marketing department’s wet dream. When explorer Ernest Shackleton was forced to abandon his Antarctic expedition in 1909 he left lots of supplies in his hut and during excavations on the site in 2006 a case of whisky was found. Over the last 5 years it has been moved to New Zealand to be thawed, and eventually a couple of bottles were handcuffed to Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson and flown back to Scotland in W&M owner Vijay Mallya’s private jet. Paterson extracted a small amount of liquid through the cork with a syringe and recreated the blend for this special bottling. As only he and whisky writer Dave Broom have tasted it noone knows for sure quite how accurate it is, but it’s a nice whisky. This edition is limited to ‘just’ 50k bottles and at £100 (with a fiver going to the Antarctic Heritage Trust) it should net W&M a tidy sum. I’m not sure it’s quite worth £100 for the liquid, nice as it is, but with the old-style replica bottle (complete with dodgy cork) and pretty wooden box (containing a more durable cork) it gets a bit closer. I think I’ll wait until they revive the Mackinlay’s name, as I’m sure they will, and sell a hopefully similar but cheaper whisky.
The last whisky of the evening was very dark and a quick nose showed that it was a sherry monster – prunes, burnt meat, rum, moss and hazelnuts and an alcoholic punch that got right into the sinuses. To taste there was pipe tobacco, coffee, very dry fruit, chocolate and a fruit and tar finish. It was quite closed at full strength and water helped open up all of those flavours to be more distinct, with some more brandy/rum notes and a touch of menthol coming through. When the sock came off Rob admitted to cheating somewhat – this was from the highlands, but not the highlands of Scotland (hence the ‘sort of’ back in paragraph one). It was the Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 year old from Japan, bottled by Berry’s in 2007. The distillery is quite central on Japan’s main island of Honshu, in the foothills of Mount Asama, the most active volcano on the island. This whisky came from a single first fill American oak sherry butt, with an outturn of 308 bottles, and has really taken on a lot of sherry wood flavour. It’s quite a mad whisky and as such there are still bottles left, one of which will shortly be finding its way into my whisky cupboard.
The final whisky this time is a seque into next month’s tastings. After a year of bimbling around Scotland The Squad will be making its first major foray overseas for two Japanese whisky tastings next month. More details will appear on the Whisky Squad site soon…
John Milroy 7 Year Old Pulteney
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£30.
Berry’s Own Selection Glencadam 1991
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. Sold out. Was ~£35-45.
Berry’s Own Selection Blair Atholl 1998
Highland single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£35.
Berry’s Own Selection Teaninich 1973
Highland cask strength single malt Scotch whisky, 41.8%. ~£135.
Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt
Blended Scotch whisky, 47.3%. ~£100.
Whisky Magazine Editor’s Choice Karuizawa 15 Year Old
Cask strength single cask single malt Japanese whisky, 60.6%. ~£75.
One of the great things about booze blogging is the lovely people I’ve met, from the London based whisky gang to the overseas posse who I speak to through a combination of blog comments, emails and twitter. One of them is Lucas of the Edinburgh Whisky Blog. He’s been doing some online PR stuff for Inver House for a little while, and through him I’ve got a taste of some Hankey Bannister and anCnoc as well as a spot on a Balblair twitter tasting, but due to the vagaries of my annoyingly full schedule I’ve missed out on their most recent online gatherings – especially galling was my missing an Old Pulteney one.
I tried Pulteney for the first time in a while last year at a tasting put on by The Whisky Exchange and remembered how much I liked it, even if I found the quick ramping up in price with age slightly off putting, and have had a couple of bottles of the regular 12 year old pass through my door since. However, I’d not returned to the wider range until I picked up a bottle of WK499 in the duty free shop on my way to Porto in February and have been meaning to revisit them when I got a chance. As such I was rather pleased when Lucas pinged me a mail asking if I wanted to come along to a bloggers tasting at the new Boisdale’s bar that opened last week in Canary Wharf.
I wrote a pile about Old Pulteney last time, so I won’t dig into that again here, but instead will go straight on to the whisky.
First up was the solid centre of the range, Old Pulteney 12 year old. This is their best selling whisky, putting out ~600k cases per year split half/half between the UK and the export market. On the nose it’s briney with gingery spice and a punch of booze. There’s also lemon, sweet nail varnish, grain and a hint of something that was on the edge of parma violets. To taste it was much softer than the rather up front nose suggested, with butter, sponge cake, sweet cream, light lemony citrus, sour fruit chews, and a mineral and damp wood finish. Water added an icing sugar sweetness and more sour fruit, as well as some tannins into the finish.
We then moved on to the Old Pulteney 17 year old. Rather than just bottle the 12 year old recipe a little bit later the folk at Pulteney have instead opted to change each of the entries in their line-up to give a whisky with a different idea, although all coming from the same new make spirit. The 17 year old is made up of less first fill casks than the 12, giving it a lighter colour as well as body. On the nose there was vanilla, dried apple rings, sweet butter, cold butter icing, sweet lemons and toffee apples. To taste it had a syrupy sweetness to start, cut with woody spices and citrus – sweet lemon flesh and bitter lemon rind. It was sweetly buttery and had a bitter woody finish that faded to soft wood. Water added a bit more of a sherbet fizz and moved the finish from bitter to sour, with a sweet woody burn sitting on the chest.
Next up was the Old Pulteney 21 year old. This one has some more sherry wood in the make up (although Pulteney only mature about 10% of their whisky in ex-sherry casks) and as soon as noses went into glasses there was a call of ‘Shreddies’ from Joel Caskstrength and Ben from Master of Malt. Lucas chipped in with Happy Cola Haribo, brandy butter and ripe bananas. I saw were they were coming from but got more juicy raisin, butter and rich meatiness underneath it all. There were also the citrus notes that carried through the other whiskies, in this case more like the smell left on your fingers after squeezing a lemon wedge. To taste there was some unripe red grape, syrup sweetness, lemon cake and a hint of struck match sulphur on the woody finish. Water brought out more lemon on the nose and killed some of the sweetness, bringing in more soured fruit.
We next tried the Old Pulteney 30 year old. This was released in 2009 and took the 17 year old’s approach to wood, with predominantly 2nd and 3rd fill casks used to mature the whisky. On the nose there was crisp red apple skin, salty butter, polished wood, green veg, gravel and foam bananas. To taste the vegetal nature came through as a hint of nettles, with sour fruit and sweet fake fruit. As it sat in the glass it got sweeter, with ripe bananas sitting around into the finish. Water brought out more sweetness and vanilla (plain cupcakes?) but killed the depth of flavour quite quickly, although it did add some fruit stone bitterness to cut the sweet finish.
Last on the mat for the evening was a special treat – Old Pulteney 40 year old. This was extra specially special as pretty much noone could have had a chance to taste it as it was only racked a week earlier, made up of three sherry hogsheads and an ex-bourbon cask from 1968. The sample bottle that Lucas brought with him was at 53.4% but they predict that this will have dropped to 52.5% by the time it’s bottled later this year. On the nose I got the nettle vegetal notes from the 30 year old, randomly expanded while talking to Joel to be ‘foraged plant matter’, as well as sweet cocoa, buttery marzipan, thick red fruit, red wine, sweet orange marmalade, floury red apples and a touch of sour cherry. To taste the orange came to the fore, with hints of Fry’s Orange Cream leading to a buttery wood and Seville orange finish. In between there was leather, tobacco boxes and green veg. They’re still finalising the packaging, which Lucas wouldn’t even give us a hint about, but the release should be ‘imminent’. It won’t be cheap but it’s definitely worth a try.
Having worked our way through a stack of cheese (it seems I do like blue cheese now, which is a Good Thing) we repaired to the newly opened Boisdale bar to admire their impressive whisky selection (claimed to be 1000 different bottles) and try out their cigar sampling room (sitting in a legal loophole that allows the ‘sampling’ of cigars indoors), looked after by the award winning cigar sommelier I met briefly at the Victoria branch during last year’s Caskstrength The Glenlivet tasting. A rather nice night out and I suspect that some more tasting notes for the WK499 in my cupboard and the mystery sample pressed into my hand by Lucas as I left may be forthcoming… (mystery because I forgot what he said it was. I had been drinking)
Thanks to Lucas and Cathy from Inver House for inviting me along. Despite my best attempts I think I still owe Lucas a beer…
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.
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.
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