One can’t approach what has already been declared the world’s best single malt, at the recent World Whiskies Awards, without some degree of expectation. It’s one of the reasons I appreciate tasting whiskies blind (as are these particular awards), so you just come to the dram with a neutral mind. Not so with this offering from Old Pulteney. It comes with a reputation.
Old Pulteney is a very good distillery. It’s a long way up to Wick, which is tucked up in the far corner of the Highlands. The distillery was established in 1826, and produces around a million litres of spirit a year from a single wash still and a single spirit still. As with many distilleries, for a great deal of time its single malt whiskies were only available from the independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail. Curiously during the 1930s the distillery closed its doors due to the local parish establishing a form of prohibition, but re-opened a couple of decades later. It was only in 1997, under the new owners of Inver House Distillers Ltd – that it released its first single malt.
And now there are stacks of its whiskies, many of which are well-respected. In fact, even if you head to travel retail, you’ll be struck by quite how many there are at the moment in comparison to other brands. In 2011 the distillery hit the headlines when Jim Murray decided on a whim that he was a fan of Scotch after all. And now one of its whiskies has been declared the overall winner at the World Whiskies Award 2016.
The Old Pulteney 1989 was bottled in 2015, which makes it 26 years old. It has been matured in second-fill ex-Bourbon barrels, which had previously held heavily peated malt whisky. It’s quite unusual to see many whiskies like this, which (a) proudly wear the second-fill label on its sleeve, but (b) has unpeated spirit maturing in casks that are caked in peat from another whisky. It’s a form of flavouring, in a way, but all within the law.
Old Pulteney 1989 Tasting Notes
Colour: pretty pale for its age – old gold, yellow gold perhaps. That’ll be the second-fill cask.
On the nose: peated, yes, but very coastal. Brine. Flecks of citrus. Lots of esters, with green apple notes. Pineapple. Grapefruit. Quite floral, in fact, with a touch of rose. Grassy and vegetative. Unassuming.
In the mouth: Viscous and oily. Gorgeous texture, with a lot of intense levels of what are usually quite subtle flavours. Lime juice and soda. Oat biscuits. Boiled pork. Dried hops. Light and fresh. Orange peel, or rather blood oranges. Stewed apples. Grapefruit juice. Honey. A little briny, coastal quality on the finish – and really, the peat comes across only in a gentle warmth rather than anything in your face. There’s none of the earthiness or sweetness; the peat is more on the nose, and the spirit’s inherent oily, coastal qualities take over.
The Old Pulteney 1989 is indeed a very good whisky. It is all about subtlety though – it’s a whisky that whispers its qualities, rather than shouts them. As for me, well… I was not moved. It’s extremely good, don’t get me wrong – but my soul wasn’t stirred in the same way as last year’s Kilkerran bourbon cask release, for example. That’s what is important in a whisky to me these days. Does it make my hairs stand on end? Do I close my eyes and get a little shiver? That’s the criteria for top whiskies. The Old Pulteney 1989 is fantastic. But there is no emotion.
It cost around £135, as a limited edition whisky, but is almost certainly sold out everywhere. I’d be surprised if you ended up paying less than £300 once it gets onto auction sites, given it’s won such a prestigious award. If you really want this, time to get out or max out your credit card.