Distillery Focus

Northern soul (Old Pulteney)

Pulteney takes some getting to but there's plenty to fall in love with if you make the effort. Dominic Roskrow reports
By Rob Allanson
Welcome to the Badlands. The wild North. So far North in fact that you to get here you have to out-Highland the Highlands, passing along a breath-taking route with mountainous beauty to your left, coastal beauty to your right until the land flattens once more and you cross Scotland’s equivalent of the Prairies.By the time you start to approach Wick the relative civilisation of Inverness seems a long way away. Tight-knit and remote, Wick feels like an island.Its houses hug the harbour area and shoreline. It has the sort of atmosphere you find in so many ports and harbours round Britain, the damp odour of curdled prosperity. You feel straightaway that the fair moved out of town long ago, and ripped the community’s heart out at the same time.Once this was the biggest fishing port in Europe. During the boom years of 1860 to 1890 1000 fishing boats were based here to fish the herring. So busy was it that they say you could walk from one side of the large harbour to the other just by crossing over the boats.More than 13,000 barrels of salted herring were shipped out from here, and 12,000 fishermen and land workers linked to the trade were based here. There were an astonishing 300 coopers working here, and 1000 men were employed on larger boats bringing the salt to the town.It has its links with famous names of Scottish history, too. Wick itself is actually two towns, Wick itself to the North and Pulteney town, built to provide cheap accommodation for the thousands of immigrant workers brought in to help with the herring trade, to the South. In 1810 Thomas Telford, who had set about linking Scotland’s transport system up, built a bridge here to link the two communities.Robert Louis Stevenson had family connections here and was a regular visitor to the town. Not that he was any great fan of it.“Certainly Wick in itself possesses no beauty,” he wrote in a letter. “Bare, grey shores, grim grey houses, grim grey sea; not even the gleam of red tiles; not even the greenness of a tree.” Nice local folk, though?“The men are always drunk. Simply and truthfully always. From morning to evening the great villainous looking fellows are either sleeping off the last debauch, or hulking about the cove ‘in the horrors.’” And there was plenty of opportunity to get drunk. With such a huge industry and such an unforgiving environment perhaps it was no surprise that the town hosted 45 pubs and a distillery.Not much remains today, of course. A handful of boats, a handful of pubs. But the distillery, established in 1826, not only remains at the heart of Wick’s community, it’s probably enjoying as high a profile as it has ever done. Tough and grainy Wick may be, but it’s hard not to fall in love with Pulteney distillery.It nestles off a side street in its own little courtyard, not unlike the distillery at Oban.Those grim grey buildings that Stevenson alluded to are much in evidence, and on a dark and wet day perhaps they’re make for depressing viewing.But the distillery smells, the flurry of activity of delivery lorries and the hustle and bustle of whisky production can’t help stir excitement in the whisky enthusiast.The moment you step inside the distillery’s walls you are aware of its personality.What’s so odd about Pulteney is that there really isn’t that much to it, and yet everything there is worthy of note or comment.Everything seems to have been crammed in here, and although it’s small and bursting at the seams, it’s the distillery equivalent of a boxer dog – ugly and beautiful at the same time, power, energy and enthusiasm.If ever a distillery suits its environment it’s Pulteney, not least because inside it’s like the bowels of a ferry, a mass of humming engine room, steel corridors and cramped walkways.Within this environments is the strangest mish-mash of equipment you’ll find anywhere making spirit in the quirkiest of ways. Pulteney is like no other distillery and all the better for that.It’s all just a bit Alice in Wonderland. You pass a cast iron mash tun wrapped in pine wood with a stainless steel lid; five wash backs are squeezed together in one room and another has been put in the still room.Then there’s the wash still, as weird and wonderful as you’ll find in any malt distillery anywhere. Known as the smugglers’ kettle, it has a huge ball on the neck and its top cut off.This was because the roof wouldn’t fit over it – obviously. The spirit passes through a purifier before passing outside to – and you know what’s coming – an external worm tub.It’s not just the equipment that sets Pulteney apart, either. Fermentation is a relaxed 55 to 60 hours long, the process is deliberately laid back and gentle.Because of Wick’s remote location it’s not the easiest to service. The creamed yeasts that parent company Inver House uses at sister distilleries Balblair and Knockdhu aren’t available to Pulteney, so they’re currently trialling a South African dried yeast, lots of tiny light brown balls appropriately called Anchor.While Wick itself may have seen better days, you get the sense from the people at the distillery and from talking to Inver House’s Iain Baxter, that this distillery’s time is just coming.Investment in quality casks, the launch of a couple of new expressions to join the highly palatable and very more-ish 12 year old, and Pulteney is getting the attention it so richly deserves.But better still, it’s giving the community of Wick a renewed focus. They’re rightly proud of the distillery of course, but it’s in the process of going one better, Pulteney is part of an environmental experiment that is putting it at the very front of green awareness. “ All very fine and dandy but it wouldn’t mean a jot, of course, if the spirit didn’t match up to much. And of course it does. It comes off the stills at around 68.5% or 69% and is filled mainly in to ex-bourbon casks though there is a proportion of sherry.The oddball equipment, the gentle production process and an attention to detail have all helped shape a spirit that is building a growing reputation for itself.Back at the distillery’s stylish visitor centre – complete with suitably nautical theme - and over a glass of Pulteney, you can’t help but feel that this is now the Wick community’s lifeblood.It’s a long way to go to visit a distillery but Pulteney really is worth it.And as more and more people inevitably make the effort it can only be good for the whole community.TASTING NOTES
New make 68%
Nose: Crystallised sugar, toffee apple, a
touch of aniseed and subdued cereal notes
Palate: Quite rich, sweet toffee, spear mint12 Year Old 40%
Nose: Lemon, candy shrimps, soft toffee, a
hint of apricot?
Palate: Sherbet, dandelion and burdock soft
drink, salt and spice
Finish: Pleasant and lingering but not
aggressive, with fruit and vanilla
lingering longest17 Year Old 46%
Nose: Richer and deeper fruit notes, overripe
melon, grapefruit
Palate: Not what you’d expect from the
nose. Sharper and spicier at first then sweet
refreshers and sherbet fruits.
With water, more soft toffee notes appear
Finish: Sherbety fruit remains but longer, as if
the oils have coated the inside of the mouth21 Year Old 46%
Nose: Sweet tangerine, orange
Palate: Fabulous! Summer berries, peach
and melon Starburst fruits, a nice dose
of spice
Finish: Sweet, fruity and rich16 Year Old Distillery only
2nd fill bourbon 62.9%
Nose: Pineapple chunks, grapefruit, some
vanilla bourbon notes
Palate:Warming, yellow fruits, sweet and not
harsh at all
Finish: long and warming