Scot

Old Pulteney 12 Year Old

Reviewed by: The Cynical Scot

Old Pultney 12 Year old Whisky Waffle

There are three places in the world where the merest mention of the name can take me back in heart and spirit. The first are the cliffs at Yesnaby on the mainland of Orkney. Here, the crash of the Atlantic is stalled by Earl Thorfinn’s walls and the salty air is scoured into the finest lines of the skin. The second is the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye, where I have swum in the ice clear waters and tasted the pure heart of the Cuillins. The third, and the subject of this review, is the bond store at the Old Pulteney distillery in Wick.

I found myself here on an overcast Saturday in 2013. It was the third distillery on a self-guided tour which was to take me around the best parts of Scotland. My true blue Australian friend (who insisted on referring to the drink as ‘OP’) and I didn’t know then that it would be one of only seven distilleries we would visit on that trip. By the time we arrived in Pulteney town, we already had the creeping realisation that most large scale whisky making operations are done along similar lines. Coupled to this, we had satisfied ourselves that whisky makers send their whisky all over the place. Since then we have regularly enjoyed our whisky without feeling the need to visit the place of origin.

The Old Pulteney distillery was built in 1826 in a town built to support the herring trade. With a lack of foresight uncommon in the Scottish, James Henderson’s lads built the roof too low for the still. When the brand new copper pot still arrived, the swan neck kept clanging off the rafters. Without any ado they applied a choice piece of Scottish logic to the problem and sliced off the top of it. Job done, the still was installed, the top sealed and a pipe bunged on the the side creating the unusual appearance you’ll see today. The bulge further down the giant copper kettle also gave them an idea of how to shape their bottles.

You’ll see all this and more on the tour, proving beyond doubt it is a whisky making process. After you’ve seen the unusual squat stills you’re taken out to the bond store. On the day we visited it started raining at this point. We made a dash towards the barrels, which in my mind were stacked six high (my photographic record shows only four), and the door was shut behind us. While we learned about the maturation process we avoided the tears of the angels and breathed in their share of the whisky; a fine ethereal vapour floating in the salty air. Yes, we all smelt that whisky, we all knew what we were doing and we yes, we all found questions to ask to keep us there longer.

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Old Pulteney has the taste of the sea in it too, they say. I can’t taste things like that, but Wick is not too far away from the places where the mighty Atlantic meets the moody North Sea and that can’t happen without seriously affecting a drink as emotional as whisky. The salt, they said, coats the barrels and works its way through the grain and into the final product. This may very well be the case. Salt for me is something I put on chips and any other food. It’s never been more complicated than that.

As for taste of Old Pulteney 12 year old, it’s a fine single malt, very fine. I find it harsh on the nose, easy on the draw and the burn is frank and satisfying. It has a rich stickling after taste like bronze coins falling over a weir and I’ll always like it because it’s the whisky I drink with my father.

I asked Dad why he drinks this particularly spirit. As a seasoned Famous Grouse drinker, it turned out his discernment was a result of him acquiring a bottle at no cost from an appreciative work colleague. His opinion of ‘Aye, it’s a nice one that’ is fair if not particularly detailed or nuanced. I confidently predict that he will continue to drink this brand so long as it remains at his personal initial price point.

For me it’s not what goes into a bond store it’s what comes out. That day in Wick an amateur whisky drinker went into the bond store. After delaying as long as I could, a happier, more philosophical and more content amateur whisky drinker came out. The OP lads do the same with their whisky. They wait and they wait and after twelve years a fine drink appears. I don’t know what makes this my homely stand-alone bottle of go-to, or why at times, when I can neither get to Yesnaby nor the Fairy pools of Skye, I can have a drop of Old Pulteney 12 year old and be at both at the same time. It’s a mystery I don’t want to think through too much and if I ever need to know, I can just ask my dad. He knows.

★★★★

Distilled Not Diluted: a rebuttal from a cynical Scotsman

This article is a response to our article: A Brave New World

Posted by: The Cynical Scot

Cynical Scotsman

So Ted. The big boys are coming to town are they? The fathers of Scotch are looking at the colonials and are coming over to gobble us up?

Come off it!  ‘Big Industry’, ‘sharks circling’, ‘crusty entrenched old world?’ Diageo buying into Starward? A chance to get some big bucks into the Australian whisky industry? You do know that Diageo owns far more distilleries than they care to slap a name on the front of. They have done a very clever job of maintaining the branding and character of individual distilleries as the industry recovered in the ’80s and ’90s. They have reopened distilleries that had been moth-balled after not having a legitimate business case.

Saying Scotch is ‘weighed down by centuries of tradition’ misses not only the importance of the tradition, but also the dynamic changes that have taken the industry to what it is today. This has also created quality recognisable products (have a look in every duty free in every international airport in the world). Whisky is something that if you put a cheap and an expensive dram into plain bottles and labelled them both ‘whisky’ it would be difficult for the layman to differentiate between them. Selling of whisky involves more than just touting a nice tasting beverage. It is the selling of an image, a lifestyle, a legend and sometimes a dream. I don’t buy Diageo whisky, I buy Talisker, Caol Ila, Lagavulin and when I have to, Johnnie Walker.  http://www.diageo.com/en-row/ourbrands/categories/spirits/Pages/Whiskey.aspx

So it seems Australia is selling out. Diageo have bought in, and as a minority shareholder in a single distillery at that. So what?….  What’s in it for them and what’s in it for Starward?

Well, for Diageo they can dip their foot in the water and get a first hand look at the Australian business environment. They can get a taste for a new market and they have a fresh brand to expand and work with.

For the distiller they have the knowhow of a company that has many very successful whisky brands under its belt and certainly knows how to flog the stuff. Having a big producer on board will probably make it easier for them to weather ups and downs in demand. Not only that, an individual distiller with higher production could also better standardize their product. Don’t get me started on ‘vintaged’ releases.

It’s one distillery. It’s a minority share. I don’t think Diageo is going to weaken the idea of Australian whisky, but they may change it in time. They may produce an affordable Australian brand. No more expensive bottles you may ask? Not at all. You’ll still see 500ml bottles priced at over $150. What you will have is diversification into the wider market. Imagine being able to taste something from Bothwell in Tasmania and say ‘Yup, that’s definitely Nant. That’s how it tastes’, and it only costs $85 (or whatever). Well, then you could buy a bottle for a friend. Two years after you tasted the stuff you’d still know what they were getting!

This would be a move in the opposite direction from the Scottish market, which traditionally seems to have existed in the mass-produced signature single malt or blend. More recently there has been a trend for creating a broader high-end range and raiding the history books for thought provoking names (I’m thinking of Highland Park in particular here: http://highlandpark.co.uk/taste/). But that’s how whisky works isn’t it? A single recognisable product becomes the poster boy for the new entrant and the budget conscious enthusiast. Then you have a few fancy, expensive types that allow the distiller to show off the finer points of their art and the consumer to have something extravagant to crack open when Grandpa has his 80th. No bad thing.

But where do you want the growth within the sector to come from? Do you want the Australian industry to grow from the inside as demand rises and production increases to meet it? Or do you want a big boy from out of town to buy it all up and franchise the lot? I would say that one aspect that sets Australian whisky apart is the fact it is a small craft industry. You sell out from that you’re like an IT Startup selling out to Google. Sure you’ve made your money, but did you really care about your product or was it just a means to an end?

So many questions. Fortunately, the Australian distilleries I know of don’t seem to be like this. They’ve been founded by distillers who have often made their money elsewhere and are using that to fund a business in something that matters to them – whisky. And good whisky at that.

So hello Diageo. Welcome to Australia, there’s work to be done but let Australian whisky speak for itself and find its own formula. It already has its own character. I’d hate to think that Australian whisky just became another branch of the Scotch map – Speyside, Lowlands, Highlands, Islay and Australia. If it ever gets to that I’ll find an island somewhere that Diageo hasn’t heard of and start growing some barley. Maybe Bill Lark will already be there.