Back to Wick! Indeed, there’s very little left for us to say about this place, as we’ve covered Old Pulteney very well indeed over the years on Malt, and Justine visited it last year for a splendid behind-the-scenes look. In short, we like Old Pulteney, and if we ever published our secretly-talked-about Distillery League Table, it’d be up in the top half, somewhere.
But my curiosity today lies with vintages used in whisky. Now, I’m not going to kick off and say that distilleries shouldn’t use vintages. I know some folk think that because we’re questioning elements of the whisky industry and how it’s promoted, we somehow hate whisky.
As many in the community drink oak milk lattes and hug avocados at the weekends, to merely say, “hang on, something doesn’t quite add up here” when confronted with an idiotic press release, is deemed to be on the same moral plane as a spokesperson for Donald Trump. I’m not sure why: we’re just looking for ever-better quality in exchange for the ever-growing piles of £20-notes we throw at producers.
It’s because we love whisky that we’re extra critical. We pick things apart because we give a shit. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t poke the various beasts. We wouldn’t challenge what is being said. And it may seem remarkable to think this, but every single bottle of whisky simply can’t be magical unicorn piss…
*Nurse administers sedatives.*
Now, where was I? Oh yes. Vintages. I think they are another bit of information that’s useful to the consumer. They speak of when a particular distillation took place. It’s another number on the bottle, a point of reference; people can buy presents based on nice events that happened in that particular year.
The thread I wanted to pick at is, well, the vintage as used generally the whisky industry. By and large, it’s different than the wine industry and, I think, it takes the poorer route. For wine, vintages refer to the ingredients used to make the wine: it is the year when the grapes were harvested.
That opens up all kinds of points of curiosity. What was the weather like that year? What influenced the grapes to make them a certain way in that year? Was the year kind for winemakers, or were there diseases for example? What factors influenced the rarity of a grape?
So wouldn’t that be good to know for the barley? That would be slightly more confusing for the whisky industry as there’s precedent for the distilling year to be the vintage – and that means the barley would have been grown the previous year. You’d have two dates on the bottle. But either way, wouldn’t it be great to know that the industry cared about barley, how it was grown, where it was grown, and what the influencing factors were in making that barley’s spirit taste the way it does in any given year?
Not only are those details interesting to me, but it’s a far more engaging story than ‘we just whizzed it through the stills in that year’. It would require whisky producers to not only tell us where they got their barley (possibly England, or even mainland Europe), but to know the other details: who grew it, how it was grown, and so on.
Then tell me what wood it went into. Then tell me for how long. And then tell me what the vatting was for that bottling. I want it all, damn you, because I’m thirsty for knowledge. But I’m also being slightly playful, as I know that 99% of distilleries wouldn’t be able to tell you any of the information about the raw ingredients: because they simply don’t know it.
Which is why I think it’s the poorer route to wine vintages. And I say this, because I love whisky, and I hope that we can start to move the conversation onto the things that matter and not what utter tripe is written in press releases.
Two vintages, then! 2006 and 1990, from a very good distillery. The former costs about £55, the latter about £300. Years apart in age, worlds apart in price.
Old Pulteney Vintage 2006 – Review
Colour: pale gold.
On the nose: very heavy on the vanilla and toffee notes. Honey with citrus. Bright and zingy. Slightly herbal, green tea. Lemon curd. Creamy, too. Peaches.
In the mouth: a very nice oily spirit – what runs through the stills is clearly good – but the cask has barely had much influence. Olive oil, light citrus honey, mead and pears. Green tea. Malted milk biscuits. Lime marmalade. Black pepper and cinnamon towards the finish. There’s a lot of this sort of flavour about in Scotch whisky, but it’s very well expressed.
Old Pulteney Vintage 1990 – Review
Colour: deep copper.
On the nose: funky! Now that’s interesting. Some fantastic dried fruits – cranberries, sultanas, quite sharp too. Also a wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon kind of note, with black fruits, tobacco and black tea. Strawberry jam. Heather honey. Cherries now. Golden syrup sponge cake.
In the mouth: Bonkers, but I love it: the smokiness is just a suggestion, the warmth from a cigar; nutmeg, oranges, heather honey, cranberries, blackcurrants. That is outrageous fun. Nicely oily too, and the dried fruits become just a fraction more cloying towards the herbal, honeyed finish.
Only one real winner here, but they’re two whiskies on opposites ends of the spectrum. One is light, nothing really different to a thousand other Scotch whiskies. (Normally you’d hear me kicking off about knackered old bourbon casks, but these are first-fill so I’m not sure why this didn’t tickle my fancy.)
The other is brilliant, heavy, robust, interesting and full of character. If the money’s there in your bank account, you know what to do.
Note: full disclosure, I was sent these two whiskies as samples – along with, curiously, three pairs of bamboo socks – on behalf of the distillery.
I’m still wearing the socks, which are a solid 8/10.