Just to show us what our delayed flight had deprived us of, Cathy James - the woman on the inside at Inver House and International Beverage by day, press ambassador and chauffeur par excellence by night - took a detour around the harbour on the way to Pulteney distillery.
An encounter with the Maritime Malt was about as close to the sea as any of us had really wished for. Malcolm Waring was captain of the good ship Pulteney and our first port was the visitor centre, an extremely stylish space formerly the old kiln, converted in 2000. Steering us away from the army of Glencairns, sparkling under the lights and emitting multiple gradations of warming golden glow, we passed into the chilly evening air of the yard.
The distillery is at present operating a twelve-day fortnight. This is not indicative, I hasten to add, of a deficient understanding of time, although I should imagine it would be very easy to lose two days in Pulteney if given the opportunity – but a regime whereby two days from every two weeks are devoted to a thorough cleaning of all the equipment and to give the stills a rest. Our visit coincided with one of these periods. The men would be in and out of obscure vessels, sanitizing steel and copper. We might not see them, however, said Malcolm, they’ll probably try and hide. An unseen cleaning force: pixies distillery-style.
Pulteney employs eight souls on shift, and the joke is that, in Wick, they come in two by two. Malcolm (or Noah, as he is referred to in this particular sketch) described how there were pairs of brothers and cousins, a brace each of Anguses and Michaels. It hadn’t a great deal to do with the whisky itself, but I enjoy hearing about the society that makes my dram.
It also pleased me to note that Malcolm keeps pigs – reared on the distillery’s draff. He has at least one taker should he ever decide to market Old Pulteney bacon…
At the worts cooler we learned that our party numbered nine of the 4,500 people who visit Pulteney each year - the redesignation of the A9 so that it no longer passes through Wick has dented the admittance figures somewhat.
Much magic happens in the stainless steel washbacks as dried Anchor yeast (‘what else?’) is pitched in at a very specific 36 degrees Centigrade and left for between 50 and 52 hours. With a large cohort of beer drinkers jostling around him, Malcolm fetched a recepticle for the wash, drew off some frothing yellow liquid and passed it round. Only then did he describe how, as a younger man, he partook of maybe a tablespoon too much, the fermenting brew sitting obdurately in his stomach for three whole days rendering him quite unfit for anything at all besides looking green.
Registering no ill-effects initially, we passed through to the still room. My nose quivered with delight at the smell of new make: tinned pineapple with some almond biscuits. The single pair of stills were initially two of six, although it is difficult, contemplating the enormous masses of copper, to see where these other four might have fitted. Despite the purifiers, Old Pulteney new make is famously heavy, the lack of a lyne arm on the wash still one contributing factor. The spirit still is run slowly, for roughly seven hours, and for three of those the middle cut will be taken.
This new make spirit is filled into fresh Bourbon wood and some Sherry butts at receiver strength – no 63.5% dilution here. Approximately 3,000 casks are filled for single malt each year, to be matured in their own warehouses, a mixture of two racked and three dunnage. Roughly 600,000 litres will end up in your bottle of Grants or Whyte & MacKay among other brands.
As we crossed the road to one such warehouse – formerly a herring curing yard, but now mercifully exuding the aroma only of gently improving whisky – I came face to face with one of my arch enemies: a MacPherson’s tanker. I remarked to Malcolm that Aberlour was a long way to come from to collect spirit in Wick, and that I supposed one of the perks might well be hounding exhausted cyclists on the A9. He replied that theirs was certainly a challenging spot from which to make and market a global product: particularly cruel winters scuppering the intake of raw materials and the export of finished spirit and jeopardising production schedules for weeks.
Like a mob of five-year-olds released into a sweet shop, the bloggers sped away into the darkest, most fecund corners of the warehouse. The ‘interesting’ questions started from Mark and Jason: what’s your oldest cask and will we get any of it bottled? Malcolm would not be drawn on specifics, but did murmur that something would be released next year. Watch this space.
The tasting was magnificent, although most cumbersome on an empty stomach. I shall go into it only briefly, however – the other bloggers (see previous post for the hyperlinks) will do a far more thorough job of the tasting notes.
I cannot sign off my account of Old Pulteney without elaborating on that new make spirit, though. In the debate about chill-filtration, it was a fascinating study. Taken off the still only the day before, this liquid was 68.6% ABV and right enough, heavy. I was rather impressed by it all the same: creamy, with lemoniness, strawberries (from the yeast), with some barley sugar and shortbread. A touch of water sweetened it further, bringing out lemon meringue pie, banana and some spice.
How then, do we arrive at the clean, fruity and fresh 12-year-old? Malcolm told us that, at the bottling hall, Old Pulteney malt whisky goes through more filters than most. In body and texture the two were, as a result, completely different!
The other expressions were the beautifully discreet 17-year-old and the resinous, rich 30-year-old. A sample was also drawn from the 1990 cask, sitting just behind us and available for visitors to bottle for themselves , as Jason did following the tasting – twice. This had been matured in a peated cask and arrived in our glasses at a strength of 57.4% ABV. Perfumy at first – almost reminding me of hair products, the peat soon emerged with barbecue smoke and rich, creamy vanilla. It was superb.
My pick would be the 21-year-old, however. Non chill-filtered at 46% ABV, a vatting of a third Fino Sherry casks and two thirds Bourbon (Pulteney doesn’t ‘finish’ any whisky: it simply fills new make into various casks and leaves them until the time is right) this was pure deep sweetness. White grapes, jelly sweets, caramel; leafy, soft oak with intense blackcurrant cordial. There was the Pulteney saltiness, though subtle and of a delightful texture. Water pulled out more Bourbon oak and broom flowers as well as tropical fruits, icing sugar, and fudge tablet. Bourbon richness was evident on the palate, with some thick medicinal sweetness and a peppery finish. More, please!
Taking our leave of Malcolm with regret, we piled into the minibus which would take us to Tain and, most importantly, food. I grew into the role of sat-nav, for even in the dark and with a quantity of the Pulteney product within me, I could remember stretches of road from my adventures in May. On the way out of Wick, following Northcote Street, we passed Netherby B&B where inside I knew to be the wonderful Allison and William.
As the bus rolled about the twisting roads of Caithness and then Sutherland, Mark passed round his bottle of the latest Lagavulin 12-year-old. In the blackness of the cabin, the smell hit me first whenever the bottle came within my territory. It was the most wonderful experience.
Not that I needed it, but after an excellent dinner at the Morangie Hotel, for which we were privileged with the company of John MacDonald – manager of Balblair and our guide for the following day – I indulged in a nip of the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban, which did a fine job of putting me to sleep.