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.

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