Sunday, February 5, 2017

Old Pulteney, 12 year vs. 21 year

12 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 40%, $42
21 year – single malt Scotch, Highlands, 46%, non-chill filtered, $137

When I decided to write a post comparing Old Pulteney 12 year to Old Pulteney 17 year, I thought it would be a good idea to get the 21 year old in the mix too. It’s somewhat of a pricey bottle though, so I was trying to avoid buying one. I am, however, always looking for a reasonable excuse to visit some of my favorite whisky bars in Montreal. That was all I needed to head north one more time before the busy summer season got going at work.

I’ll pick up where my last post on this distillery left off, with a little more history. After being established in 1826, Pulteney operated continuously for more than 100 years and remained in the control of its founding family up until 1920. James Watson & Co. Ltd., the new owner, sold it on to John Dewar & Sons Ltd. in 1923. Just two years later it was sold to the Distiller’s Company Ltd.

With the Herring boom at its peak, there must have been some wild times in the port town; local authorities enacted a prohibition on alcohol, making Wick a dry town from May 1922. Diminished local demand combined with global factors detrimental to the whisky industry caused DCL to close the distillery in 1930.

The local prohibition came to an end in May of 1947 and four years later the distillery was purchased and resurrected by Robert Cumming, a lawyer from Banff. In 1955 he sold the distillery on to Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. They renovated and modernized the operation in 1958-59, bringing an end to its use of traditional floor maltings (though worm tubs continue to be used to this day). This is likely also when the original pair of 9,092-liter spirit stills were replaced by the single 17,343-liter spirit still that is in use there today.

Pulteney was sold on to Allied Brewers in 1961. That company later changed names several times through a series of mergers and acquisitions. Finally, the distillery was purchased by its current owners, Inver House, in 1995. They released the official 12 year old bottling in 1997. The 17 year old was introduced in 2004, originally at 40% or 43% abv (depending in its intended export market), but the alcohol level was raised to 46% in 2006. The 21 year old was added to the core lineup in 2007 or 2008.

There have also been limited releases of older bottlings, including a 30 year old in 2009 and a 40 year old in 2012, as well as several non-age stated bottlings that were special editions or sold only in duty-free shops.

Looking to clarify some information about the cask types used to mature Old Pulteney’s core range, I came across their online shop which had different product descriptions than their main website. The pages on that site have links to the online shop, but shipping is only available to the UK, so I doubt very many people click on over for a look.

For the 12 year old the cask descriptions are identical; “Matured wholly in air-dried, hand selected ex-bourbon casks”.

For the 17 year old the main web site gives the rather vague description of “Aged in both American and Spanish oak casks”. But the online shop goes into more detail, noting that it “…..predominantly features ex-bourbon maturation, with the addition of spirit that has been wholly matured in Spanish wood ex-sherry casks, predominantly Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso”.

Unfortunately, for the 21 year old the two descriptions contain conflicting information. The main site notes that “…..with this expression we marry together Old Pulteney matured in ex-bourbon casks with spirit from ex-Oloroso sherry casks. We mostly use second fill American oak, plus some Spanish oak first fill. However, there is a higher proportion of ex-Oloroso sherry cask compared to the 17 Years Old”. But the online shop states that “As with the 17 year old, with this expression we marry together Old Pulteney matured in ex-bourbon wood with spirit from ex-sherry wood casks. The crucial difference, however, is that the ex-sherry wood in this case is made from American Oak (mostly Fino Sherries)”.

If I can get any official clarification from the company, I’ll post an update in the comments below.

So, I bellied up to the bar in Montreal and ordered a glass of Old Pulteney 12 year to calibrate my palate. On my first sip I immediately knew that something was off. After a brief instant of self-doubt, I took a closer look at the bottle and noticed that this was the 40% abv bottling rather than the 43% abv bottling that gets exported to the U.S.

I usually harp on the difference in flavor that can be realized when distillers stop chill filtering; a move that usually goes hand-in-hand with the alcohol level rising to 46% or more. I found it very interesting that a three point drop in the alcohol percentage with no change in filtration was so obvious to me, even when I hadn’t tasted the higher proof version for several months.

The 12 year old shows biscuity malt aromas with some subtle tree fruit and briny coastal notes.
Somewhat full bodied, the palate has a good balance of malt and oaky spice notes with a touch of sea spray.
It gets thin on the finish, falling a little flat after a respectable start.

The 21 year old is much darker, with a beautiful mahogany color.
The nose is somewhat restrained, without much volatility. But the aromas that are there are full of complexity, with mature oak-driven notes and briny minerality.
The palate is very oak-forward, but not out of balance. Long-soaked staves, shoe polish, maple and warming spice notes all come through.
The finish is long and evolving with a coastal character reminiscent of old fishing nets emerging. Everything is very well-integrated.
Overall it is well-composed, and while bold and assertive it doesn’t get unruly.

Back in November I came across a bottle of the 21 year old in MA for $130, which wasn’t much of an difference over the 17 year old. Knowing how much I enjoyed it after my sampling in Montreal, I was tempted but decided to wait until I was back in the area a few weeks later. When I returned to the same store, that bottle had a price tag of $175.

I questioned someone working there to see if it had been marked in error. He did a little checking and found that the price from the distributor had jumped dramatically with their latest delivery. He actually offered to sell me one for $150, noting that their cost was now $144. I appreciated their effort to keep a customer happy in the face of quickly rising prices, but I passed and drove a few miles down the road to a store where I had recently seen the 21 year at $137. Fortunately they still had a few bottles on the shelf.

These are both stores with pretty aggressive pricing, so most places will probably have it priced in the $180’s, if not a bit higher. Looking at prices online, I got the sense that the 17 year is jumping from around $110 up to the $130 neighborhood. I haven’t seen any indication of the 12 year’s price rising at this point. If you come across any of the 21 year Old Pulteney at the previous price, snap it up while you can.

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