I grew up on Islay – surrounded by whisky, fed copious amounts of it in hot toddies as a child – and all my life I’ve liked the taste of it. But for most of my adulthood I’ve not been a drinker of alcohol.
Like every teenager I drank a wee bit, but I never really enjoyed the feeling. I’ve only ever been properly drunk twice – and I hated it. In my early twenties, when socialising, I would drink one drink, just for the taste: but no more than one, because then I would start feeling tipsy and I didn’t like it. Soon, I gave up altogether.
In my thirties I went through a phase of having one glass of red wine with my dinner, because it’s good for you – but red wine goes straight to my head! So I gave that up too. But recently I read some interesting articles expounding the benefits of whisky. The phenols are phenomenally (see what I did there?) good for you – moreso than red wine. It has all sorts of benefits for your heart and circulation. And, you don’t have to drink it all the time – one large glass a week is enough to make you healthy as anything.
Well! That got me thinking. I like whisky. And I’ve always had a much higher tolerance to spirits than I have to wine, beer and cider. Maybe I could drink a large whisky and not feel unpleasantly legless. And once a week? Well, we’ve recently started a tradition of Saturday Night At The Movies In The Livingroom. I could cosy up in front of the fire with my husband, a DVD, a packet of Maltesers and a large whisky – sounds perfect!
And so, around my fifty first birthday, I decided to enter the World of Drink.
But which whisky? There’s a lot to choose from – around a hundred malt whisky distilleries are currently in operation. So I embarked on a journey of exploration, eagerly assisted by my dipsomaniac other half. And then I wondered if anybody else would be interested in my very amateur opinions, and maybe some history of the distilleries, and so this blog was born.
This time, it’s –
Old Pulteney 12 Year Old
In the early 1800s the governor of the British Fisheries Society commissioned Thomas Telford to design a herring port at Wick, and Pulteneytown, the largest herring fishing port in the world, was born. The port and associated village were named after their founder. Sir William Pulteney, 5th Baronet, must have been a very busy man. As well as governing the Fisheries, he was an advocate, a politician, and a developer. He also owned chunks of North America, and was allegedly the richest man in GB.
Thomas Gainsborough – William Johnstone-Pulteney, Later 5th Baronet
Sir William died 21 years before the 1826 birth of the Pulteney Distillery, and so never got to taste the whisky which bears his name. The distillery was established by James Henderson, and is thought to occupy the site of an old barley mill. It uses water from the mill lade, one of Telford’s constructions and the longest lade in Scotland. This water comes from Loch Hempriggs, a couple of miles away.
Although one of Sir William’s investments had been in Scottish roads, he evidently didn’t bother too much with Pulteneytown, as this northerly mainland distillery was only really accessible by sea. The barley was shipped in by sea, and the whisky was shipped out.
The workers in the distillery were often also fishermen, strengthening the sea connection further. (As a side note, my paternal ancestors came from Caithness, and a branch of our family owned a couple of merchant ships in the 19th century – perhaps there were times when the Jessie Sinclair or the Janet Sinclair laboured their way south to an eager market, sails creaking, holds groaning with barrels of Pulteney. It would be nice to think so.)
Pulteney remained in the Henderson family for almost a hundred years, until in 1920 they sold out to James Watson & Co Ltd, Dundee. Two years later, Wick embraced Prohibition, became dry, and would remain so for 25 years. The distillery was taken over by the DCL (Distillers Company Ltd) in 1925, but temperance was taking its toll. The lack of alcohol consumption, combined with the economic depression, resulted in the Pulteney Distillery ceasing production in 1930. It lay mothballed until 1951, by which time the whisky industry was recovering. A Banff solicitor named Bertie Cumming saw an opportunity, reopened the distillery, and Pulteney has been flowing freely ever since.
Bertie sold out to James & George Stodart Ltd (a subsidiary of Hiram Walker) in 1955, and substantial refurbishment began in 1958. The floor maltings were decommissioned, and they now house the visitor centre.
Allied Breweries bought the distillery in 1961, and it changed hands again in 1995, to the present owners: Inver House Distillers. Pulteney had long been a major component of the Ballantines blend, but Inver House made the decision to enter the growing single malt market. 1n 1997 the distillery released Old Pulteney 12 Year Old. This was followed by a 17 Year Old in 2004, and a 21 Year Old in 2005.
Pulteney used to have the distinction of being Scotland’s most northerly mainland distillery. But in 2012 a new distillery was built in Thurso – a resurrection of the old Wolfburn distillery which closed in 1877. This new Wolfburn went into production in 2103, and now has the title of most northerly distillery. However, the Wolfburn spirit is still sleeping, and not expected to awaken until 2016: so for now Old Pulteney remains the most northerly mainland whisky. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible named Old Pulteney 21 Year Old the World Whisky of the Year 2012.
So, that’s the story behind the distillery. But what does the product taste like? It styles itself the Maritime Malt, so I wondered what I might be letting myself in for…
I poured out my very scientific two finger measure, and began my investigation. Worth noting here that I know absolutely nothing about how to analyse or describe whisky. I believe you’re meant to waffle on about violet top notes and molten lava aftertaste. I’ll do my best.
Well, it’s a very pretty colour – a deep golden amber, the sort of colour you think about when you imagine whisky. Good start.
I swirled it around under my nose. It smells like the sea! Most definitely. The tangy, bright, salty sea. Not the rotting seaweedy sea. (Worth also pointing out that I am currently labouring under a vicious coldy flu virus thingy, so my sense of smell and taste are not what they might be.) It also seems to smell a bit caramely and fruity, and it feels cool in your nose like menthol.
Time for a wee taste. It’s not rough – some whiskies are a bit hot and bitey, but this one’s smooth. It is peppery, perhaps a bit dry. It does taste salty, but not unpleasantly. It’s sweet. There’s a dry, fruity aftertaste. Possibly a bit like apples.
Next up, I chucked in two lumps of ice. I’m never sure what exactly to do with whisky. I can drink it fine straight. I know traditionally you put some water in, as it releases more flavour. I feel strangely averse to adding water, but somehow ice sits all right with me. Our tap water is very nice, very drinkable, and makes acceptable ice.
So, in goes the ice. Now the whisky feels beautifully cold and creamy. It’s not so dry, but it’s still salty. It’s even smoother than it was before, and still sweet and creamy.
I take a couple of hours to drink it, in front of the woodburner, watching The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It tastes good, and it goes all right with Maltesers. I like this one!