Distillery Focus

By the seaside

We visit the home of the maritime malt in Northern Scotland
By Gavin Smith
There was a time long ago when Wick harbour would play host to a thousand fishing boats during the annual herring season, and it was possible to cross from one side of the bay to the other by stepping from deck to deck of the vessels. As might be imagined, with such a glut of sailors and herring-curing women in town, things could get boisterous, and it has been claimed that at one time up to 500 gallons of whisky were being consumed in the port per day.

Today, as with so many of Scotland’s once-great fishing harbours, activity in the Caithness port is much diminished, confined largely to small boats landing crabs and lobsters, along with shipments connected to the renewable energy sector.

Along with Scrabster, Wick is one of the two principal ports in Scotland’s northernmost mainland county, where historically, Norse influences are stronger than those of Gaelic. Wick’s role as a major fishing hub began during the early years of the 19th century, when the settlement of Pulteneytown was developed along with a capacious harbour, being named after Sir William Pulteney, a governor of the British Fisheries Society, which bankrolled the venture.

The famous Stevenson family of marine engineers and lighthouse builders were responsible for constructing a breakwater at Wick in the mid-19th century, though it was twice destroyed by storms. Thomas Stevenson headed the project, and his son Robert Louis, the future author of classic tales such as Treasure Island and Kidnapped, spent time in Wick as a result. Clearly not over-fond of the town, he wrote in his essay The Education of an Engineer (1888), that it was, ‘One of the meanest of man’s towns, and situated certainly on the baldest of God’s bays.”

It was within Pulteneytown, high above, ‘The baldest of God’s bays’, that a distillery was constructed in 1826 by James Henderson, who had previously distilled at Stemster, near Halkirk, some 16 miles west of Wick. According to Alfred Barnard, writing during the mid-1880s, “Mr, Henderson was the proprietor of a small distillery further inland for a period of nearly thirty years, but on finding the demand for his ‘make’ increasing, he determined to start a distillery nearer the sea coast, which in those days was the only mode of transit to the south.”

After almost a century in family ownership, Pulteney was acquired by the Dundee blending firm of James Watson & Co Ltd in 1920, and five years later, Watson’s became part of the vast Distillers Company Ltd, which ended production at Pulteney in 1930. Not only was the world in the grip of recession, but Pulteney had the added problem of being located in the middle of a ‘dry’ town!

For Scotland had its very own era of prohibition, or to be precise the burgh of Wick did, being ‘dry’ between 1925 and 1947. This resulted from opposition to the hard-drinking reputation of the town during the 19th and early 20th centuries, as evidenced by that figure of 500 gallons of whisky being consumed per day.

Pulteney remained silent until 1951, when it was acquired by Banff-based lawyer Robert ‘Bertie’ Cumming. However, the Canadian distilling giant Hiram Walker was keen to expand its Scotch whisky interests in that post-war period and eventually purchased Pulteney Distillery from Cumming four years later.

A comprehensive rebuilding programme I took place during 1958/59, resulting in the external appearance of the distillery as it is today. Allied Breweries Ltd bought Pulteney in 1961, and operated it until what was then Allied Domecq sold the distillery and single malt brand to Inver House Distillers Ltd, now part of Thai Beverages plc, in 1995. As such, its Scottish stablemates are Speyburn, Balmenach, Knockdhu and Balblair.

Two years after its acquisition by Inver House, a 12 Years Old official bottling of ‘Old Pulteney’ was released, and that remains the best-known and multi-award-winning variant of the single malt. Marketed as ‘The Genuine Maritime Malt,’ the brand makes good use of its home town’s fishing-related heritage, given added relevance by the subtle briny characteristic present in most expressions of the whisky.

For some years, the core range was completed by 17 and 21 Years Old expressions, but 2018 saw a drastic restructuring of the portfolio, with the 12 Years Old remaining, though repackaged, while the 17 and the 21 were replaced by 15 Years Old and 18 Years Old variants, suggesting a shortage of aged stock. Additionally, an NAS bottling of spirit by the name of Huddart was added to the line-up.

Huddart is matured initially in second-fill American-oak, ex-Bourbon casks then finished in ex-Bourbon casks that had previously held heavily peated whisky, while the new 15 and 18 Year Olds are aged in second-fill American-oak, ex-Bourbon casks, followed by a period of further maturation in first-fill Spanish oak, ex-oloroso butts.

According to Vicki Wright, brand manager for Old Pulteney, “With Huddart, we were interested in experimenting with the power of casks on the spirit, to showcase their influence in a different way, as well as giving drinkers something new to try from Old Pulteney. The peated character of Huddart is also a homage to Captain Joseph Huddart, a hydrographer who worked for the British Fisheries Society, which built Pulteneytown and its harbour. Huddart Street in Wick where the distillery is based is named after him, and during his time, Pulteney would have been producing whisky with a more peated character.”

Concerning the overall changes to the core range, Wright notes that, “We felt that the existing Old Pulteney range would benefit from some reinvigoration to strengthen our position in the increasingly competitive whisky market. We also felt it was time to give our drinkers something new to try that would bring greater distinction in flavour between the expressions. We are really delighted with the results and the overall evolution of the Old Pulteney range.”

In addition to the 12 Years Old, a 25 Years Old remains part of the core line-up, having been launched in 2017, along with 1983 and 1990 vintages added at the same time, plus a ‘Flotilla’ 2008 vintage. Old Pulteney has also been active in travel retail outlets in recent years, where a 2006 vintage is currently available, along with the NAS Dunnet Head, Noss Head and Duncansby Head expressions, all named after lighthouses around the Caithness coast.

When it comes to the stills in which all of these variants start life, Pulteney distillery boasts two of the most individualist pots in Scotland, while a pair of unusual stainless-steel worm tubs take care of condensing.

Both the wash and spirit still boast prominent ‘boil balls,’ which encourage reflux, while according to local legend, the chopped-off, flat-topped wash still has this appearance because many years ago a new still was made for the distillery, but on arrival, turned out to be too tall to fit into the cramped stillhouse. The solution was to have a coppersmith remove the top and seal it.

The overall effect of the prevailing distilling regime is to produce a relatively oily, fragrant new make spirit, most of which is filled in to ex-Bourbon casks, although a relatively small percentage is aged in ex-sherry butts. Up to 30,000 casks can be held in Pulteney’s five warehouses.

Manager at Pulteney Distillery is Malcolm Waring, A ‘Wicker’ by birth, who started his career as a boat builder before joining the Pulteney distillery team in 1990. Having worked through all stages of the production process, he ended up as assistant manager, before getting the top job as distillery manager at Pulteney’s sister distillery, Knockdhu in 2000. Six years later he returned to his home town to take over Pulteney in August 2006.

Waring says, “The most recent change at the distillery has been the installation of a new mash house and six new stainless steel washbacks in 2016. There is also a newly-opened tasting room.”

Discussing the character of the whisky, Waring says, “Old Pulteney is a perfect representation of the place where it’s made, in Wick, Caithness. It’s robust in character but also has an underlying softness; it’s salty and coastal, but also with floral and estery notes and a nice oaky dryness.”