Single Malt Whisky Review: Old Pulteney 12 year old

The Highland whisky producing region in Scotland, that country's second-largest (next to Speyside), is marked by great variation in the whiskies produced. Unlike Speyside or Islay, each of whom produce in an instantly identifiable whisky style, Highland whiskies roam the map, literally and figuratively; peaty bruisers like Oban or Tobermory, heathered-honey drams like Highland Park or Dalwhinnie, or the soft dulcet tones of a Glenmorangie are all lumped together in the same category. Describing a whisky as being "Highland" is about as instructive as describing 7-Up as a carbonated beverage. While Old Pulteney is technically a Highland dram, its characteristics, location, and style make it, in many ways, the embodiment of a Coastal whisky; it is not known as "The Manzanilla of the North" for nothing.

Founded in Wick in 1826, a godforsaken, windswept coastal patch of northern Scotland, Old Pulteney holds the distinction of being the most northerly distillery in the Scottish mainland, just twenty-five kilometres south of John 'O Groats. Both the package and the bottle prominently display a steam-powered transport vessel, giving homage to a time when everything, from the barley to the finished product, had to be shipped by sea; indeed, many of its early employees doubled as fishermen in the summer. Aging barrels, though nearly airtight, are not immune to the effects of decades spent being buffeted by salt wind, and so the final product in all Coastal whiskies, Old Pulteney at the forefront, presents a briny, rugged character. Indeed the distillery itself, like its whisky, is not the model of grace and beauty; at the corner of Huddart and Rutherford streets in Wick, it presents a long, grey, crumbling wall to the street, located in a rubbly field strewn with trash surrounded by public housing. This is a blue collar whisky if ever there was one, and I'm loving it already - let's take a sip now.

Nose

Surprisingly gentle. Honey, vanilla, and almond notes mingle, like a freshly baked pound cake - this has clearly been aged in both bourbon and sherry casks. Behind it is a fresh, salty component, which is intensified if water or ice is added. Lovely - no trace of alcohol whatsoever. The colour, too, is nice, presenting a light amber, golden hue. But wait now, what's this? A closer look on the bottle reveals the tiny words "Mit farbstoff", in German, and beneath it in Danish, "Farven justeret med karamel". Uh oh. It's well known that many distillers use E150 caramel to darken the colour of their offerings, as marketing gurus have shown that a darker-coloured whisky is assumed to be, by the consumer, more aged, flavourful, and rich. I can live with that. What gets me is that they had to hide this fact in tiny letters, in Danish and German, on the English bottle. Although Germany and Scandinavia require the declaration of added colour by law (thanks Dimview), forcing their primarily English consumers to have to ascertain that by consulting a language dictionary seems disingenuous. And the final product is not even that dark anyway. Seems kind of pointless to me.

Palate

Light bodied. What was honey and almond on the nose turns to sweet malt and marzipan notes on the palate. However, upon transition to mid-palate the salty brine element becomes abundantly clear, marked by a noted tanginess, while the malt moves from sweetness to more fruity, citrusy notes. Tropical fruit is a term used by many reviewers to desribe the tangy, semisweet flavour some whiskies present mid-palate, and I can see that; slightly unripe mango is what springs to mind immediately, for me. That said, YMMV, and the true joy of sipping whisky is in experiencing the interplay of different flavours it provides on your own terms. That tropical zest is something you can find in a lot of Speyside whiskies, but the mixture of salt found in Old Pulteney provides an extra layer of complexity and balance which I've only ever tasted before in a Glen Scotia 15-year old, another noted coastal whisky from Campbeltown. The addition of water tends to eliminate most of the sweetness leaving a harsh, salty drink in its midst, so I would recommend staying away from that, especially given its light body and 40% ABV.

The lightness of body is unusual even by Coastal whisky standards. This is due in part to the unique shape of the wash stills at Old Pulteney, as they lack the distinctive swan-neck at the top that concentrates the first distillation (producing what is known as low wines). It's rumoured that when the original stills were delivered in 1826, they were slightly too tall for the stillhouse and so the manager at the time ordered that the swan-necks be cut off. Subsequent generations of distillation equipment were modified like the original to maintain the distinctive flavour Old Pulteney had by then established. Modified stills are by no means unique to them, though; Glenmorangie boasts the tallest stills in Scotland at 26 ft. 3 inches, which they claim produces their trademark light, fresh quality, and the original stills at Cragganmore were modified by distiller Big John Smith to have a flatter top than usual, and subsequently maintained. But with the dozens of independent factors inherent in single malt production, it's hard to tell exactly what role a slight manipulation of the stills plays, and subsequent generations of distillers typically keep the stills as-is out of fear of inadvertently altering anything; a dented still, when replaced, will have a new dent hammered into it, in exactly the same place, by the coppersmith. Roddy MacKenzie, manager of the Linkwood distillery in the 1930s, refused to even clear out the spiderwebs in his stillhouse for that reason. This combination of the vast amount of independent factors that lead to a whisky's final taste is known among single malt makers by the term provenance - an expression of the sum total of the production process. Provenance is the reason that Balvenie, though literally across the street from Glenfiddich and using the same water, barley, barrels, aging and expertise as the latter, produces an entirely different whisky altogether. Why is that? Nobody knows.

Finish

This is an example of Oak Done Right. Aging in bourbon and sherry casks gives the finish a nutty, slightly honeyed feel, with the oak providing a clean, unobtrusive dryness. While apparent, it never overwhelms the spirit (remarkable for one so light-bodied as this), and merges with the salt element to provide a quick, yet graceful exit that finishes very clean and zesty, almost like a gin and tonic. That said, this is no long, drawn out finish by any means, and is almost entirely gone within a few seconds, making this offering an excellent aperitif if so inclined.

Conclusions

"Unashamedly excellent and deserves so much more recognition around the world." - Jim Murray, whisky guru, as quoted on the box

Though often given to hyperbole, Jim Murray is right; there's no question that Old Pulteney is not among Scotland's more celebrated drams, and the unique whisky it produces should receive greater recognition. It's perhaps the quintessential Coastal dram, with a brazen saltiness some find off-putting but I, personally, love. What's great, though, is that the salt is kept in check the whole way - in the nose and opening palate by bourbon and sherry aging, and in the finish by the oak, with the pleasant result that the salt is a welcome passenger along for the ride. The fact that they can accomplish this fine balancing of flavours in such a light-bodied whisky is, well, providential - a slight tweak in one direction or the other could send the whole thing off-kilter; these distillers, despite the aged, dilapidated facility they work in, know WTF they're doing. That said, an increase to 43% ABV might give the whisky a little added weight, and for such a light-bodied light-coloured spirit the addition of E150 caramel is simply unacceptable, and unnecessary. One wonders what the spirit looks like prior to colourization - must be no darker than a Pinot Grigio - but I'm an open minded guy, and would accept it as is. Especially considering the bottle is encased in a solid box. I had no idea what the spirit even looked like until I got home. But I digress. This is a wonderful whisky for novice fans, or hardcore veterans, with something to appeal to each. If you're looking to try something decently-priced, that is a clear reflection of its geography, Old Pulteney is a good way to go.

Single Malt Whisky Review: Cragganmore 12 year old

Located on a dead end one-lane country road, itself at the end of another dead-end country road, the vaunted Cragganmore distillery consists of one small stillhouse and a warehouse, on a parcel of land measuring 160 x 80 metres. Next to it, in an overgrown wood an empty Hanoverian courtyard delineates a long-forgotten home; across the street is the small, whitewashed Manager's house, framed by a barley field and the distant Scottish Highlands. Whoa, brake. Goat crossing the road there. Welcome to the bustling downtown core of Ballindalloch, Scotland, which is surprisingly home to what is widely considered to be the definitive, most complex, and most decidedly awesome Speyside whisky in existence. Whisky gurus can wax poetic about the Macallan, Longmorn and Balvenie; but at the end of a long day of whisky tasting, the one they relax with at home, beside the fireplace with some Gibbon, is Cragganmore. Let's review this gentle giant posthaste.

Founded in 1869 by legendary whisky master Big John Smith, Cragganmore has been, nearly since its inception, highly regarded by blenders (who rated it in 1925 as the top single malt to blend with), and single-malt aficionados who consider it among the best from Speyside, and hands down having the best nose. These kind of things don't happen by accident; next to George Smith of the Glenlivet, John Smith (no relation) is one of the domineering figures of 19th century whisky. At age 17, when most of us are now debating between entering a Bachelor of General Arts program or teaching english abroad, John Smith was already manager of The Macallan distillery; fifteen years later, he leased the Glenfarclas distillery from the family who owned the adjacent farmland and in his five-year tenure turned it into a renowned Speysider. Upon the lease's expiration in 1869, John Smith, who had by then spent his life immersed in the art of whisky making, settled on an obscure, agrarian site near the River Spey, and critically near a railroad line, to build his new distillery. The greenstone which built the warehouse and stillhouse was quarried on the nearby Cragan Mor - hence the name.

John Smith slightly adjusted the stills in his new distillery, having the tops flattened to promote greater condensation. This adjustment was kept as the distillery was passed through the years from father to son, and is considered on of the trademark features of Cragganmore's lighter taste, but given the literally dozens of independent factors that lead to a whisky's final flavour - known as provenance - it's hard to pin down exactly what contributes to it, and in what quantities. Eventually, the distillery was purchased in 1966 by Distillers Company Limited, who after merging with Guinness in 1986 became United Distillers, which itself morphed into Diageo in 1997. This distillery would probably be lost, if not closed, if not for the fact that it became part of the United Distillers "Classic Malt" series - one whisky chosen from each of the production regions (six total - United Distillers invented a few purely for their own marketing) that they feel best exemplified each region, and giving it the kind of global reach and marketing these tiny distilleries could never manage on their own. Which is why the bottle from a distillery that only manages 1.6 million litres of spirit a year (compare 10 million for Glenfiddich) is sitting on my table right now, four thousand kilometres and an ocean away from its origins.

Enough of that. Let's pour a dram of this bad boy.

Nose

"It has the most complex aroma of any malt...astonishingly fresh and delicate." - Former top whisky guru, the late Michael Jackson.

"'The most complex aroma of any malt', boasts the label. As wonderful as it is, I really don't think so. Obviously no-one at Diageo has stuck their nose in a glass of Glenmorangie. Or Ardbeg. Or Glen Elgin..." - Current top whisky guru, Jim Murray (what's with all the generic names in the whisky business??), throwing down the gauntlet to his old master.

So it looks like we have a divergence in opinion at the top. That's ok, though; at the end whisky, despite all the fluff and sophistication of its "gurus", is really about how you get the most mileage out of your own dram, and how you perceive and enjoy it. So then...

Immediate explosion of fresh, yeasty sweetness, like rising bread. Rich honey, marzipan, cinnamon toast, a slight smokiness - WOW is the only word on my mind. Incredibly substantial nose, you can almost taste the aroma as it wafts out of the glass, filling the room with a soft sweetness. This kind of aroma permeation is something you only get with Islay whiskies like Ardbeg or Lagavulin. Unbelievable. Beneath the obvious, lush sweetness is a gentler, more floral component, like being downwind of a rose bush. The idea that something that is 40% ABV can smell this good is startling. Cragganmore prides itself on its nose, and it's easy to understand why. However, it is often the case that a whisky with a fantastic nose fails to follow through on the palate - clearly more investigation is needed.

Palate

Immediate onrush of rich, vanilla malt apropos of the aroma. However this, the taste you've been expecting, quickly turns into spicy dryness - cinnamon, oak, sea salt - and as it moves backwards through the mouth, resolves into a pleasant, fruity phase characterized by apricot...pear...still with some spice throughout. Cragganmore has accolades heaped upon it for having a complex nose; perhaps the palate, too, should be given its due. You'll notice that throughout, each flavour seems to be intensified by an almost burnt caramel quality; this, folks, is the legendary Smoke Devoid of Peat, a rare beast indeed. Although peat moss is generally used to kiln the barley in almost every distillery, how much peat is allowed to permeate through is tightly controlled and forms one of the signature elements of each malt. As a result, a smoke flavour without any peat (characterized by a green, earthy, ash taste) is something that is highly difficult and the mark of a master distiller.

The tableau of flavours present in this dram are all woven together intricately, whereby each flavour is unique and definitive yet faultlessly integrated into the whole. The oak, just enough of it, imparts a spice and dryness which keeps the initial malt rush in check. Likewise, the resurgence of sweet stone fruit at the end saves the whisky from a bitter, dry finish. It's like each flavour expression is trying to punch its way out of the same latex cocoon, which simply stretches to accommodate its thrusted fist. Cragganmore has on occasion been characterized as a Thinkers' dram. I think I understand why now.

Finish

Long, creamy, slightly spicy, and lingering. Typically, whiskies with this much oak dry up like volunteers for Philip Zimbardo's later experiments. Old Pulteney is a prime example, with a zesty finish more like a gin and tonic than anything. But in Cragganmore, each side - spicy and fruity - plant their claim for dominance, and ride out into the sunset as equals. Burnt toast, apple juice, cinnamon, sea water - each find an expression in this luxuriant finish. Wow. The addition of spring water makes the finish even more rich and creamy, though at 40% ABV only a couple tiny drops are needed. Curse those Diageo suits.

In a way, it's a mixed blessing for a dram as splendid as this to languish as a tiny cog in the lumbering beverage alcohol juggernaut that is Diageo. On the one hand, the unparalleled global reach and advertising budget that Diageo has is the sole reason I'm even enjoying this in the first place - but that comes at a Faustian price. The colour, too dark for a twelve-year-old Speysider, has obviously been enhanced by E150 caramel. Chill-filtration, where the whisky has been cooled to near zero-degrees celcius and forced though an essentially cardboard filter (to filter out any offending haze), has undoubtedly marred this great dram. Forced bottling at 40% ABV, instead of a more appropriate forty-three or forty-six percent, ensures that every drop of the 1.6 million cask-strength litres has been maximized for shareholder dividends. Make no mistake, Diageo does not give a flying fuck about the quality of this whisky, insofar as its still-excellent comportment ensures them steady sales. In 1993, United Distillers purchased and subsequently demolished the Rosebank distillery near Edinburgh, because it competed with Glenkinchie, their chosen "Classic Malt" from the Lowlands distillation region. Rosebank, according to just about anybody who knew anything about whisky, was hands-down the best malt from the Lowlands; but United Distillers, eyeing the tourism possibilities of Glenkinchie's picture-perfect, quaint barley pagodas nestled in green country hills, chose to promote that malt instead. Rosebank, located along the Forth and Clyde canal in a crumbling industrial region, got the boot.

In 1957, Distillers Company Limited, which later purchased Cragganmore, signed a sixteen-year deal to market Thalidomide. Among its slogans were "It's non-toxic!" and "There's no known toxicity!". Once Thalidomide started to get a bad reputation, it marketed the same drug under the names Asmaval, Tensival, Valgis, and Valgraine instead. Make no mistake, these idiots could care less about the quality of human life, much less the quality of their whisky. It's in some ways no small miracle that Cragganmore has been able to survive relatively unscathed despite its association with gigantic, evil corporations.

Conclusions

In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that I'm irreparably biased towards this whisky; this was the single malt that turned me from a Scotch dilettante into a full-blown malt maniac. The aroma, the taste, the lingering finish - every step of the way elicited a loud "WOW!" from me. Now, even with a corporate behemoth behind it, this is not cheap whisky - middle to top shelf stuff at most stores. But if you have a little extra money to burn and want to experience what a truly legendary malt tastes, feels like - this is the way to go. Its lack of peat, focus on sweet malt flavours and silky smoothness make it a great introductory malt to anyone so inclined; and the shifting flavour profiles, expressive nose, and perfectly balanced presentation make it a delight to someone who knows their whisky, too. Although its corporate branding is regrettable, it needn't be a harbringer of the future; with a growing awareness of craft commitment to whisky, led by the venerable Bruichladdich, more and more small, craft-committed whisky distillers are popping up, notably Bladnoch in the Lowlands and Kilchoman in the westernmost reaches of Islay. This bodes well for the future of whisky, and one wonders the heights Cragganmore could reach if made in the same, ancient methods as intended. Ah well, it's a damn good dram nonetheless. Drink it up and enjoy.

Scottish single malt whisky comes in four varieties, based on where it is distilled. The four whisky regions of Scotland are the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay, and Speyside. Each region has a distinctive nose and flavor, and each individual whisky adds its own elements, based on the equipment, the ingredients, the location of the distillery, and the production process.

Whisky Production


The production of whisky has six main steps. First, the barley used must be malted, after which it is mashed, fermented, distilled twice, and finally matured.

  • Malting the Barley

    The barley used in Scottish single malt whisky must first be germinated. It is soaked in tanks of water for several days before being spread out on the floor of the malting house. As the barley germinates, it produces heat, and so it must be turned over regularly to prevent too much heat from building up. This is usually done by throwing it into the air with wooden shovels. When the barley has germinated enough (anywhere from two days to a week), it is now called green mash. It is put in kilns, where it is dried over peat fires, stopping the germination process. The temperatures are kept low, to prevent the breakdown of enzymes produced during germination, which will convert the starch in the green mash to sugar.

  • Mashing

    After the barley has completely dried out, it is ground finely, and mixed with hot water in a mash tun. The water is added in stages, gradually getting hotter. After the starch in the barley has dissolved into the hot water, and the used grain is strained out, the liquid is known as wort.

  • Fermentation

    After mashing, the wort is cooled and moved into a washback, a vessel used to hold the wort while it ferments. Yeast is added, and the fermentation process begins. The yeast break down the sugars in the wort, changing them into alcohol. After about two days, the fermented liquid, now called wash, is six to eight percent alcohol by volume, and is ready for distillation.

  • Primary Distillation

    The wash is moved into pot stills, made of copper, for distillation. Each still is shaped slightly differently, and so distills the wash differently. For this reason, distilleries avoid changing the shape of their still, to preserve the unique flavor of their whisky. The temperature in the still is raised to just below the boiling point of water. This allows the alcohol and other chemicals in the wash to vaporize. As the vapors travel out of the still, they are condensed, using a water cooled copper coil.

  • Secondary Distillation

    The distillate, known as low wines, is then passed into a spirit still for the final distillation. This step is much more demanding, as the stillman has to avoid collecting all but the "middle cut". The "foreshots," volatile compounds which evaporate before the alcohol, and "feints," oily compounds that come after, need to be separated from the middle cut. These are returned to the spirit still to be redistilled with the next run. The result of the secondary distillation is a colorless liquid about 68% alcohol by volume.

  • Maturation

    After being reduced to 63% alcohol by volume by the addition of pure Scottish spring water, the distillate is put in casks for maturation. The previous contents of the casks, commonly sherry, bourbon, or whisky, will impart the whisky with most of its flavor. To be called Scotch whisky, the whisky must age a minimum of three years in the cask, in Scotland, but most whiskies are aged more, often twelve to twenty-five years. After it has aged, the whisky is bottled and sold.

Whisky Regions


Foriegn Single Malts

In addition to the single malt whiskys produced in Scotland, which are classified as Single Malt Scotch, there are several other single malt whiskys produced in other countries. As mentioned above, these are not true 'Scotch', as they are not aged in Scotland, but are often marketed as such.


sources for this node
The Scotch Whisky Association. http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/ The Scotch Whisky Association 07/23/02
Water of Life. http://www.whisky-heritage.co.uk/information/wateroflife.html. The Scotch Whisky Heritage Society. 07/23/02

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