Monday, December 19, 2016

Old Pulteney, 12 year vs. 17 year

12 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $42
17 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, non-chill filtered, $110

Since my last post mentioned that Wolfburn had recently overtaken Pulteney’s status as the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland, I thought I should follow up with a long overdue Old Pulteney post.

The Pulteney distillery is somewhat unusual on a few fronts. You may have noticed that I’ve already been inconsistent with the use of the word “Old” preceding “Pulteney”. Keep in mind that a single malt Scotch is not required to bear the name of the distillery where it was made. Just one example of this is Springbank, which also produces single malts under the Longrow and Hazelburn brands. In this case Pulteney is the name of the distillery and Old Pulteney is the name of the brand of single malt whiskies which are produced there. It’s a small point of distinction, but one worth noting if you’re a stickler for details.

Most of the malt distilleries in Scotland have names that are mildly anglicized derivations of Gaelic words which describe their location or the water source they use. Pulteney is the only one in Scotland I’m aware of that is named for a person, albeit in a roundabout sort of way.

Wick is a fishing village on the eastern shore of the northern tip of Scotland which was at the heart of the Herring boom from the late 1700’s until the start of WWI. The town straddles the mouth of the Wick River as well as Wick Bay, into which the river feeds. The original village was solely on the north side of the river and bay. In the first few years of the 19th century a major initiative to develop a new harbor in Wick Bay and a new fishing town on the south side of the river was led by Sir William Pulteney.

Pulteney was a British Member of Parliament and the governor of the British Fisheries Society. He commissioned Thomas Telford, Britain’s preeminent civil engineer at the time, to design and supervise the construction of these major projects. Pulteney passed away in 1805 though, a few years before his vision came to fruition. The harbor was completed in 1808, and a decade later more than 800 boats were operating out of the port. The new town, built along the south bank of the Wick River and the south shore of the bay, was established by 1810 and named Pulteneytown in Sir William’s honor. Although originally considered a separate town, it has been part of Wick since 1902.

With a rapidly growing population, demand for whisky would soon necessitate a local distillery. Founded by James Henderson in 1826, the Pulteney distillery was named for the new town in which it was located, and indirectly for the man who was responsible for the development of Pulteneytown.

In addition to the distillery’s uncommon name etymology, it is also one of very few urban distilleries in Scotland. That is a term which could be somewhat open to interpretation, but even if you include distilleries with small amounts of dense development in close proximity to them, the only ones that come to mind are Auchentoshan, Oban, Highland Park, Bowmore, Tobermory, Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia.

Old Pulteney’s core range consists of a 12 year, a 17 year and 21 year (which I’ll taste in an upcoming post). The 12 year, which is at 43% and presumably chill filtered, is aged exclusively in ex-Bourbon barrels. The 17 year, which is at 46% and carries an “unchill-filtered” statement on the label, is aged primarily in ex-Bourbon barrels with the addition of some spirit aged wholly in Spanish oak ex-Sherry casks. The 12 year is noticeably darker in color, though neither bottling has a statement claiming natural color.

12 year:
nose – The aromas are gently malty, with hay and beach grass, a touch of vanilla and slightly briny minerality.
palate – It has decent weight, and a nice balance of malt and tree fruits with a touch of vanilla.
finish – The malt carries through, joined by grassy notes and a soft spiciness. The coastal, briny character is well integrated throughout.
overall – Lively and thought provoking with a nice evolution of flavors.

17 year:
nose – The aromas show more maturity than those of the 12 year. There’s still some maltiness and coastal character, but notes of clay and old books overshadow them.
palate – The weight is still there, but it kind of falls flat on the palate. Malt is the obvious character but it’s fairly one-dimensional, with just a bit of salinity coming along.
finish – Generous spice notes join the malt and sea spray, but it still feels like something is lacking.
overall – I don’t dislike the 17 year, it just fell short of my expectations and pales in comparison to the 12 year. If I didn’t know better, I would think this was the lower-proof, chill filtered one out of the two expressions.

I should note that I’ve had this bottle for nearly five years (I tend to ignore the ones that I find underwhelming), so more recent incarnations of the 17 year may have improved. I tasted it close to the time of purchase and not long after thumbed through Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, noticing that he was lamenting the use of tired old casks to mature Old Pulteney 17 year. I tend to agree.

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