A solid accompaniment for any whisky traveller is having a bottle close to hand. For those overnight stays and moments with friends there’s little better than revealing a bottle of whisky to be opened, shared and hopefully enjoyed.
On the eve of the Fife Whisky Festival, Andy had ventured up into the wonderful wilderness of the Kingdom, residing at my gaff for 2 nights. A busy schedule did allow time to sit around the table minus the vocal half of our Tormore4 membership. It was a welcome opportunity to catch up and discuss all things whisky. The fridge in advance had been loaded up with local beers from the Limekilns Brew Shed who have a passion for reviving old recipes. Snacks bought in advance, pizza ordered and an emphasis on relaxation after a tough week at work and for Andy a long drive north. Then the whisky appeared…
Whenever we meet up annually – and this was a bonus get-together – each member of the T4 brings along a bottle, or several. Last year was a good effort with old bottlings and Mark who in his modest own way, brought along a blend he had created. Unfortunately, this was not universally praised by the group and we hope that he will do better when we meet again in Campbeltown.
My own table offerings were the St Magdalene Waterloo release (review incoming), an old Springbank cask strength and then that fabulous – as of yet unreleased – Cadenhead’s Glen Mhor cask that’s still sitting untapped in Campbeltown. Andy, being his usual generous self, announced he had brought a bottle up that he had always wanted to try from his own stash. In reality, it was a toss-up between a Ledaig or what then appeared on the table with an imposing burst of darkness. Yes, ladies and gentle we give you the Gordon & MacPhail 1973 single cask from Old Pulteney.
This is an exceptionally rare and therefore desirable bottle often dubbed a unicorn whisky. Distilled on 26th April 1973, before residing in a 2nd fill sherry hogshead until June 2003. This 30 year old resulted in an outturn of 241 bottles. We joked about its current value and Andy confirmed he had been approached about selling the bottle previously, but the only currency he knows or desires is from Islay and it’s called Ardbeg. If you don’t have such currency then it’s no deal and to quote a reality television star you’re fired.
After some discussion and research we settled on a reasonable value of £1000, but this didn’t dissuade us from breaking the seal. The cork admittedly had dried out – despite excellent storage conditions – and snapped of course, which is a common obstacle nowadays. Certainly a hazard we’re well versed in overcoming with the necessary tools appearing on the scene to fix the problem. A wee dram was poured whilst we let the whisky open up after a confined existence of nearly 45 years.
True whisky enthusiasts are generous souls. They do not focus on the financial value of their bottles. The enjoyment harvested through opening and experiencing is almost priceless. We’re in danger of placing many of these unicorn whiskies on a pedestal that in reality leaves them out of reach of almost every single onlooker. Following my Glasgow Rare & Old Show article, a common strand of feedback was that the show promotes a sense of elitism with the ticket price, venue, 1cl pours etc. A divide is starting to form.
On a lesser scale take the recent rounds of the auction challenge tastings I’ve been delivering versus Justine in Edinburgh. Many of my selections were purchased years ago at auction. Prices have risen and the most human characteristic would be to drop these back into the auction merry go round – have you noticed a sizeable amount of these bottles just bounce from auction to auction? Instead, when deciding our budget we stick with the price paid whether it was last month or 5 years ago. The joy and satisfaction come from opening and sharing.
Whisky is about enjoyment more than anything else. Eventually, whether it’s the old bottle ageing effect or evaporation, something will get to your fill levels, moisture or another hazard will taint your packaging. Best enjoy these things whilst they are in the prime of their life. Fight the temptation and stampede for the latest release only to see around half of the outturn appear at auction sites in the coming months. Keep whisky where it should be; namely in a glass and not as a trophy or Instagram prop.
Consulting the online resource that is Whiskybase reveals only 2 Old Pulteney releases to showcase 1973 as their year of distillation. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society being the only other option in town, but sadly no actual details about its contents or user reviews. This Old Pulteney however is a different kettle of fish. It appears in more collections but few have been opened. Various member ratings put this into the stratospheric realm of 91.8 as a score. We’ll not debate the nonsensical 0-100 points scale or its more familiar 80-95 adopted by most industry types too frightened to rock the boat with the suggestion of change. For the record the last exceptional Old Pulteney I sat down with was also from Gordon & MacPhail distilled in 1984, bottled at 30 years of age for Mackay’s Hotel in Wick; it was rather special.
With any old distillate I like to place the situation at the distillery into context. The floor maltings had departed in 1958 and this whisky was distilled during the period of Allied Breweries tenure. Old Pulteney was strongly supported by Gordon & MacPhail who bottled a semi-official 8 year old whilst most of its output went towards blends. What I don’t know is whether this cask was matured on site at Wick, or if Gordon & MacPhail moved it at some stage to their own Speyside complex. Certainly, if there’s a lack of saltiness then this could be a reason, or a dominant cask. As one of Scotland’s leading independent bottlers, Gordon & MacPhail enjoys a privileged position of being able to keep some of its casks at distilleries to ensure their character is not influenced or led astray.
Settled for the evening, Andy and I began a long exploration of this bottle that took in about two thirds of its contents in an evening. Proof that it was excellent company at least.
Gordon & MacPhail 1973 Old Pulteney Private Collection – review
On the nose: a rich treacle, dark chocolate covered raisins, figs, cloves and spent tobacco. There’s a delicate seasoning with cracked black pepper and a touch of sea salt but it’s fleeting. Cinnamon bark, dried reeds, cola cubes and an orange freshness. Vanilla yes, but nothing forceful, soy sauce follows along with a charred barbeque rub with Muscovado sugar, coffee beans, fennel seeds and beef tomato.
In the mouth: utter elegance. It’s a slow worker with those initial joyous flavours of chocolate, plump raisins, maple syrup and then the arrival lift revealing subtle fruits with blood oranges and toffee apples. There’s a noticeable savoury aspect married with a burst of sweetness before a slight drying finish that lingers for a prolonged period with traces of coffee and cinnamon balls – leaving you gasping for more.
Well, firstly the negatives as I wouldn’t add any water to this whisky being bottled at 45% it’s perfect for drinking. The cask emphasis has been sanded down a little and the Pulteney influence somewhat overshadowed. Darker than several of those infamous Kariuzawa’s – potentially made using the same strain of barley – the end result is in a word, memorable. If you purchase one bottle at auction this year, then make it this Old Pulteney and to hell with the rest or any onlookers.