Distillery Focus

Beauty is in the glass of the beholder (Old Pulteney)

Gavin D Smith tells the story of Old Pulteney, a beautiful whisky from a 'ginm, windswpt fishing town.'
By Gavin D. Smith
Some single malts feature illustrations of the distilleries from which they originate on their bottle labels and sleeve packaging, but Old Pulteney prefers a picture of a herring drifter. Pulteney’s owners, Inver House Distillers, have also chosen to use on their 12-year-old single malt bottling a quote by Robert Louis Stevenson describing the beauty of the herring fleet sailing forth from harbour. However, conveniently omitted from their publicity material is his declaration that Wick was "one of the meanest of man’s towns, and situate certainly on the baldest of God’s bays."Why he wrote what he did becomes apparent on visiting Pulteney, Scotland’s northernmost mainland distillery. Pulteney is characterised by discoloured concrete and pebble dashing, and is situated in an insalubrious backstreet neighbourhood high above Wick harbour, in the county of Caithness. Forget the notion that coastal distilleries all enjoy the locations of Talisker and Lagavulin! Prof RJS McDowall (The Whiskies of
Scotland) writes of Old Pulteney: "It is to me quite surprising that such a good whisky could be made in this grim, windswept fishing town on the North Sea. Caithness is indeed a bare county, and needs a good whisky to warm it up."If Pulteney distillery can best be described as functional, then the principal culprits were the Canadian distillers Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd who gave the plant a brutal makeover during the late 1950s - the beginning of a lengthy period when many distillers seem to have suffered from an aesthetics bypass. "You’ve got to judge it by the quality of what it produces, not what it looks like," says Pulteney’s Manager Fred Sinclair. And more and more drinkers have been discovering during the last couple of years that the quality of the product is very impressive. Tom Morton, broadcaster and writer, believes Old Pulteney to be "the most underrated whisky in the world."Since Airdrie-based Inver House acquired the distillery from Allied Distillers in 1995, a great deal of money and effort has gone into re-packaging and raising the profile of the whisky, ensuring that its future is now secure. Once the preserve of truly specialist outlets it can now be found on the shelves of many supermarkets. There is even a dedicated Old Pulteney website and a regular newsletter entitled ‘The Official Line’. According to Margaret Mary Timpson of Inver House: "After re-launching Old Pulteney as a 12-year-old sales have increased year on year by at least 25 per cent and in the first half of 2000 were up by 59 per cent on the same period last year. We now export the whisky to 25 countries."Inver House boasts an impressive portfolio of distilleries, which includes Knockdhu, Speyburn and Balmenach on Speyside, along with Balblair in Easter Ross and Pulteney. Prior to their take over, Old Pulteney was only available from independent bottlers as an eight or 15-year-old, with many commentators considering it to be a notably fast-maturing whisky. In 1997, however, Inver House launched Old Pulteney 12-year-old Single Malt. "We decided to bottle Old Pulteney as a 12-year-old because we wanted to re-position it in the market", says Margaret Mary Timpson. "We felt it needed more age if it was to compete with the likes of The Macallan and Highland Park, and the extra four years give it greater depth and complexity."James Henderson, who had previously run a small whisky-making operation at Stemster for some thirty years, founded Pulteney Distillery in 1826. An increase in demand for his product led him to move the operation to Wick, where the sea provided an efficient mode of transportation at a time when road connections south from Caithness were very primitive. Legal distilling has been carried on at some 18 sites in Caithness and up until 1911 Pulteney had a major rival in the shape of Ben Morvern – or Gerston – Distillery, located near Halkirk. But since the First World War Pulteney has been the only licensed distillery in the county. In 1923 Pulteney entered the DCL group via John Dewar & Sons, but was silent from 1930 until 1959, having been bought by the Banff lawyer R. Cumming, who also owned Balblair. In 1955 he sold Pulteney to Hiram Walker, who acquired Scapa on Orkney around the same time.If Wick seems a long way north to most people, it is actually quite a southern location to Fred Sinclair, a native of the little Orkney Island of Sanday. Fred started his career in distilling at Scapa, where he graduated to the role of brewer, moving down to Glencadam at Brechin in Angus when Allied mothballed Scapa in 1994. In June 1998 he joined Inver House as manager at Pulteney.Old Pulteney has been described as "the Manzanilla of the north", a reference to the dry, salty, tangy sherries which are matured on the Mediterranean coast near Jerez in southern Spain, and the whisky produced in Wick has an obvious maritime influence. Fred Sinclair is very much a practical distiller and not a man with much time for flights of poetic fancy when it comes to descriptions of the whisky he makes. He cautiously admits, however, that the adjective ‘briny’ could be applied to it, but points out that the malt used in its production – from long-time supplier Robert Kilgour of Kirkcaldy – is not peated. "So if people detect peat in Pulteney it must comes from the water", he says. Pulteney’s cooling water is conveyed in a lade designed by Thomas Telford from Loch Hempriggs, while the production water is taken from the town supply, which emanates from Loch of Yarrows, some four miles south of Wick. Interestingly, while many commentators detect a peatiness about Old Pulteney, RJS McDowall writes that it has "a succession of flavours and not noticeably peaty; indeed, one is tempted to think that a good whisky could be made without peat at all." The distillery is equipped with a semi-lauter mash tun and six 24,000-litre stainless steel washbacks, one of which is located in the stillhouse because of lack of space in the tun room. When Alfred Barnard visited Pulteney during the 1880s, he noted: "three old Pot Stills; one of them the Wash Still, holds about 4,000 gallons, and the other two spirit stills, holding about 2,000 gallons, of the oldest pattern known, similar to the old smuggler’s kettles." Today there is a more conventional pairing of one wash and one spirit still, though there is actually very little conventional about the wash still, which has a remarkably large ‘boiling ball’ for its size, perhaps adding to the comparative purity and lightness of the finished whisky. The wash still also has a unique ‘sawn off’ appearance and the story goes that when a new still was due to be installed it was found to be too tall for the still house. The manager of the day therefore decreed that the top should be removed to facilitate its installation. The spirit still has a purifier on the lyne arm, and Fred Sinclair notes: "the heavier distillates have a chance to fall back, so the spirit is lighter in character than it might otherwise be." Unusually, both the wash and spirit still have similar capacities, each holding some 14,000 litres. Rather than use condensers, Pulteney still uses worm tubs. Yet unlike the wooden ones in place at distilleries such as Dalwhinnie and Edradour, the Pulteney pair are constructed from stainless steel. The distillery currently operates quite close to full capacity, employing eight production staff and working a five and a half day week, beginning on Sunday afternoon and ending the following Friday. In Barnard’s day the annual output of Pulteney was in the region of 8,000 gallons and during the year 2000 Fred Sinclair and his team will distil a total of just over one million litres (22,000 gallons) of spirit. Around a quarter of Pulteney’s output is matured in four warehouses on the premises, and all of the spirit which is ultimately bottled as single malt matures at the distillery. Most of the wood used for Old Pulteney is ex-bourbon, with a smattering of ex-sherry casks also in use, and there is an on-going programme to fill into sherry wood for future specialist bottlings.Tangible investments on site during Inver House’s ownership of Pulteney have included major refurbishment of the administration area and the creation of a visitor centre in the former cooperage – a building which had previously been part of the maltings. In keeping with the packaging and promotional emphasis on the whisky’s maritime heritage, the tasteful, low-key centre draws inspiration from the sea and Wick’s historical role as a major herring port during the 19th century. Pulteneytown - where the distillery is located - was built in 1810 on the south side of the Wick river as the port’s population boomed and was named after the Director of the British Fisheries Society, Sir William Pulteney. In the New Statistical Account of Scotland of 1840, the Rev Charles Thomson of Wick wrote: "it has been ascertained, that, during the six weeks of a successful fishing, not less than 500 gallons a day were consumed." If Thomson’s figure is anywhere near accurate, it is clear that not only the herrings of Caithness were soused. The legacy of Wick’s drunken heritage led ultimately to a fascinating and little-known period of prohibition. As Caithness historian Iain Sutherland explains: "For a quarter of a century, between 28th May 1922 and 28th May 1947, there were no public houses or licensed grocers in Wick open for the sale of alcohol to the public." Needless to say, as in New York and Chicago, the drinkers of Wick found ways to quench their thirst, and several illicit stills operated in the town. My paternal grandfather grew up there and in later life spoke of the puzzling sight of burly farmers in a tea shop on Bridge Street, apparently taking tea from a silver pot, served in dainty china cups. According to Sutherland: "its contents had been brewed some considerable time previously. And not in India or China either."Neil Gunn – exciseman, novelist and author of the classic Whisky and Scotland – was a native of the Caithness fishing village of Dunbeath, so it is appropriate that the last word on Old Pulteney should go to him. He reminisces: "(I have) childhood memories of seeing it in a bottle perfectly white and certainly new. In those days it was potent stuff, consumed, I should say, on the quays of Wick more for its effect than its flavour! When I got of an age to understand Old Pulteney, I could admire its quality when well matured, recognising in it some of the strong characteristics of the northern temperament."