We sometimes forget that wine and spirits begin as agricultural products, and as such they inevitably reflect the character of the land they originate from. If you doubt this, remember that for several decades many examples of Rutherford Bench Cabernet smelled like eucalyptus (at least until the trees were ripped out). In the same way, beverages grown and made near the sea seem to reflect the fresh, subtle quality of the surrounding salt water breeze. Spain’s Manzanilla Sherry is a good example, and Old Pulteney Scottish malt is another.
The story of Old Pulteney is intertwined with the town of Wick, the northernmost settlement in Scotland. In the early years of the 19th century, Sir William Johnstone Pulteney wanted to transform a sleepy town of several hundred inhabitants into an industrial metropolis. He created Wick’s substantial harbor, which led to a boom in herring fishery and the establishment of nearby Pulteneytown, built to accommodate the thousands of workers who streamed in to man the herring trade. The distillery opened in 1826. It thrived for a century, until the fishing declined and the Depression hit; it closed in 1930, reopened in 1947, and was sold to Inver House in 1995. Wick remains a charming place to visit—a small village that tourists may easily explore on foot, in between summer salmon fishing in the River Wick and the inevitable distillery tour.
Old Pulteney is sometimes referred to as “the genuine maritime malt.” Stylistically, it is a totally different kettle of herring than the vast majority of single malt Scotch. It is released with the age designations of 12 years ($40), 17 ($85), 21 ($125) and 30 ($350). The 21 Year-Old was named World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in 2012, and is now sold out (sadly, no samples were kept aside for spirits writers).
The Old Pulteney 12 year-Old has a brilliant tan color and a robust, earthy nose. The texture is rich on entry, giving way to a lively mid palate which is spicy and floral. In the mouth, as on the nose, the earthiness is evident but ultimately balanced. It finishes long and ripe, with hints of caramel and a pleasant saline quality.