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Spotlights and Deep-Dives

Whiskies of the Cold, Salty North: Old Pulteney


Distillery Spotlight: Old Pulteney Distillery

Region:  Highland, Scotland


Note: Our Distillery Spotlight articles discuss how each distillery's unique process results in the distinctive flavour profiles of their whisky. To find out more about each step of the whisky-making process, check out our Basics Series article on how to distil the elixir of life.

Distilleries of the old is often an integral part of a town's history, as much as the town and its development impacts the whisky. There is almost a symbiotic relationship that spirit makers have with their locality - and Old Pulteney is a shining example of this.

I've had an opportunity to attend a tasting of Old Pulteney's core range, and as always, understanding the history and stories of a distillery adds that much more depth to a dram.

Wick - at the Northeastern-most corner of Scotland


Map of Scotland. Source: Old Pulteney

Old Pulteney has been around since 1826, built in the far North-eastern town of Wick. Before automobiles were a thing, the remote corner of Scotland could only be accessed by ships (raw barley had to be shipped there for distillation as well). Hence, it is no surprise that Old Pulteney also happened to be one of the first few distilleries to be licensed for legal whisky production.

Moonshining in secret. Source: Whisky Me

Back then, lots of whisky production was done illegally, hidden away in mountains and caves to evade the taxman. But, when your distillery is right next to a port handling tonnes of fresh herring at the regular, - there really isn’t anywhere to hide, is there? 

Curing yard at Wick harbour. Source: Scottish Herring

Wick became an increasingly important town for ships trawling in the North Sea. With the booming fishing business bringing along a constant crew of weather-battered, hardened sailors in need for whisky. Docking in an isolated corner of the Scottish mainland after enduring harsh cold winds in the open waters, high-proof spirit almost became a necessary respite for most of these men.

Boatful of herring. Source: Scottish Herring

Left Hanging Out to Dry

By the 1900s, Wick became a bustling port town - one brimming with drunken sailors, fishermen, gutters and packers. Pubs and bars were the only real source of recreation for most of these visiting men, and their rowdy behaviour had gotten so out of control that residents voted the town to go dry. Old Pulteney ceased whisky production in 1930 as a result

WWII rationing in the United Kingdom. Source: Find My Past

World War II rolled along, and the UK saw itself rationing scare food resources to the population. Barley supplies were diverted away from whisky production, alongside limitations on whisky production and sales. This move also saw many distilleries boarding up - Old Pulteney included.

While strict, the limitations on whisky production and sale were gradually relaxed. Old Pulteney only saw operation again slightly over two decades since its closing. The distillery was up and running in 1951, where all limitations on whisky production was only lifted in 1954.

Source: Old Pulteney

The Terroir of Wick

The cold, gloomy weather is instrumental in making Old Pulteney whiskies so special. First, fermentation of the mash can go anytime between 65 to 105 hours, done in cold temperatures. Dry yeast is used in the fermentation - where the extra hours re-hydrating gives the final liquid a nutty character. 

Cask warehouse in Old Pulteney. Source: Old Pulteney

All the whiskies are then matured on site - where the early spring sea spray gets deposited on the casks. Some of the warehouses used to hold casks of herring, fished and processed fresh from the harbour before being shipped elsewhere. With how cold and humid the north gets, there isn't much loss to angel's share. Instead, a bit of moisture seeps through the cask and into the maturing spirit, bringing along with it that crucial sea spray that gives Old Pulteney their signature saline undertone.

Mash tun in Old Pulteney. Source: Whisky Gospel

A slight tangent here - the old mash tuns of the distillery were made out the same sort of steel used for ship building a few decades ago. However, due to leakages and general wear-and-tear, the mash tuns have since been replaced. It's an interesting morsel of history that once again calls back to the maritime affairs of Wick.

Giving Back to the Community and Beyond

We've mentioned how Old Pulteney supplied much needed booze to the fishing community in Wick. Nowadays, the herring industry has taken a back seat and is nowhere as active as it was in the hayday. Yet, that doesn't stop Old Pulteney from giving back to its community. Since 2012, the excess waste water from whisky production is used to warm up 250 homes within Wick, as well as facilities for retirees and the local hospital.

Source: Old Pulteney

Old Pulteney has also been finding ways to reduce its environmental footprint, opting for wood chips from surrounding industries and installing biomass plants on site for heating purposes. Old Pulteney also partners with SeaTrees, an initiative to plant mangroves and sea kelp to sequester carbon and restore marine habitats.

I've always been fascinated by the history and stories of distilleries - especially those from a long time ago. It's no surprise that Old Pulteney has taken on their signature flavour profile of salinity - from their affinity with the ocean and their local community. For those looking to dip their toes into more coastal, maritime whiskies, Old Pulteney is a good place to start!

Read our tasting notes for their core range!