To boast strength of character sets you apart. You don’t have to shout to be heard; pulling power isn’t about the size of your bank balance or the cheap thrills you promise hangers-on. Strength of character combines expertise, sincerity, idiosyncracy. You don’t have to chase people – they will come to you.
This is how I feel about the Pulteney distillery in Wick. In 1826 it supplied whisky for those who relied on their skill and bravery for a living: the herring fishermen. Today, it continues to produce a spirit which is essentially traditional but unlike anything else. When I went round the distillery in 2010, I couldn’t come to terms with the ramshackle nature of its layout and location. This is a distillery born out of opportunism and a mend-as-we-go mentality, yet the confidence and character impress you.
When Inver House Distillers, Old Pulteney’s owners, invited me back exactly three years ago, I peeked into a few more corners, asked a few more questions and again reflected on the distillery’s infectious pride and personality. Its situation – so far up on the north coast – is said to instil a saltiness into their whiskies which rest in the warehouses by the harbour; its equipment is unique: ugly duckling stills rather than the more graceful swans from elsewhere in the industry feed into worm tubs, both of which build complexity on top of flavour on top of texture. In 2012, Jim Murray recognised Old Pulteney 21yo as the best whisky in the world. Having bought a bottle four months before the announcement, the plaudits came as no suprise.
On that last November visit, manager Malcolm Waring filled a glass with the visitor centre single cask bottle-your-own dram. It was a 1990 Old Pulteney from a Bourbon barrel that had previously held peated Scotch single malt. I don’t remember it all that well, being the final dram of a mammoth sampling, but a bracing freshness, depth and sweetness had been evident. Now, the brand is to release a 1990 vintage marriage of several ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks with that peated wood element in play. As 1990 is my birth year, I was eager to see a) how the whisky had developed over the last three years and b) whether I might need a bottle for a special occasion.
Bottled at 23 years of age or thereabouts, this whisky is 46%, natural colour and not chill-filtered.
Old Pulteney 1990 Vintage 46% (900 cases) £120 (RRP)
Nose – slightly musty fruits from above with old yellow apple, papaya and mandarin. A tickle of spice (ginger), syrupy sweet oak with plenty of vanilla and rich earthiness. With nose in the glass it is very self-contained with lush meeting spicy. A waxy weight to this. Seville orange, green fruits, sherry-soaked currants and rich oak sugars. The malt has a soft, perfumed shell, behind which is zesty barley. A bracing salty edge when warmed.
Palate – sparkles around the mouth with a wealth of bubbly fruit: apple, pear, peach and flamed orange zest. In time there is weighty, firm and dark oak as well as rich earthy peat just at the tail.
Finish – the smoke pervades for a time, just drying on the edges of the tongue. Then butterscotch and sherried fruits emerge. Salty with again that weighty, waxy spirit character.
Adding water made this even more expressive: a fraction dryer on the nose as the spice and salt really kick in. The oak is nicely creamy, however, with fudge and vanilla aromas. The peat note is farmy while apricot develops with time. The palate is a show-stopper: age is apparent immediately with dense oak and oily malt. However, it still conspires to be fruity with pear, orange and apricot in alliance with oak, salt and peat. These last three club together in a dazzling triad to grip and structure everything. Far smokier to taste than the straight sample, but it is still a very mild peat influence and only there for a spicy, sweet complexity. The finish is unmistakably dry with salt and hot oranges. The barley is still clean and gristy beside the dried fruit of the oak. That muted aged peatiness from the oak returns.
So…? As I said, strength of character. This is not a whisky that makes a song and dance about its merits, which are extensive. It hadn’t the lush vigour of the 12yo, or the oily austerity of the 17yo, nor the gloriously expressive orange and spice crackle nose boasted by the 21yo; however, every one of the 23 years shows. When analysing, there was simply so much going on and I worried I hadn’t kept track. Rather than the flirty and the obvious, this evolves in the glass and I can see this being a seriously reliable fireside dram as well as a joy for food pairings: a hard cheese like a vintage gouda or dessert would be my suggestion.
The Old Pulteney spirit does things its own way, which I certainly commend. Weighty, fruity, waxy, spicy, salty – it brings a great deal to the table and is always a malt I relish returning to. This 1990 is possibly a fraction out of my budget for the time being, and I’d still recommend the 21yo in its stead. For those who do make its acquaintance, however, they will not be disappointed.
Thanks go to Lukasz Dynowiak for the sample.