The Pulteney distillery is the most northerly mainland distillery in Scotland. Located close to the harbour in the Highland fishing town of Wick, it lies just 15 miles south of John O'Groats – the northernmost point on the UK mainland. Pulteney is currently owned by Inver House Distillers, which are a part of the larger Thai Beverages group, and was founded in 1826 by James Henderson. It was named after Sir William Johnstone Pulteney, who was the biggest name in the herring fishing industry at the time.
Wick, or Pulteneytown as it was then known, was one of the major herring ports with over 1000 boats in its harbour at peak times and Henderson decided to open a distillery to give the fishermen a constant supply of whisky. It was located near to the harbour as the town was only accessible by sea in the 1820s. Sadly now, there were only about five or six boats in the harbour as we drove passed. The Pulteney distillery remains one of the few to be named after a person and its whisky is marketed as Old Pulteney or ‘the maritime malt’.
Up on arriving in the town of Wick, you cannot help but notice that almost everything seems grey, even on a lovely late autumn afternoon with the sun setting. This is due to the local dark slate-coloured stone that is used to construct nearly all of the town’s buildings. The Pulteney distillery is constructed in the same way and sits in a central location overlooking the harbour and the town. Both factors tend to make the initial impression of Pulteney that it is not the most picturesque of distilleries – there are no green trees or sweeping countryside in the background, no photogenic pagoda or pomp and circumstance for tourists – just grey buildings … in a street. However, we were to see and learn that what Pulteney lacks in the looks department, it makes up for everywhere else.
Our tour and subsequent whisky tasting session were hosted by Malcolm Waring, the Pulteney Distillery Manager (pictured, left). He started his whisky career at Pulteney over 20 years ago and has worked at all of Inver House’s distilleries, with the exception of Speyburn, working his way up through the ranks. He then went full circle and returned to Pulteney to become Distillery Manager in 2006. Throughout the tour and tasting Malcolm told us many facts about the distillery, which is clearly close to his heart, and we have tried to include as many of these below. We also discovered that he is learning to play the bagpipes and has started his own pig farm!
We begin in the entrance to the visitor centre, which has a homely feel and contains a small gift shop. The distillery receives approximately 4,500 visitors a year and they run a regular tour for £4 per person, plus Master Class and Whisky Connoisseur tours for £15 and £30 respectively . From here we go through a narrow hallway, which was adorned with maritime related paraphernalia (portholes on the wall, a wooden boat steering wheel etc) and play on the ‘maritime malt’ theme. The main part of the visitor centre is housed in an area that used to house the distillery kiln and cooperage. A basic exhibition shows old photographs, pieces of old equipment and explains each part of the whisky making process with text and easy to follow diagrams. The language of the exhibition is concise and perfect for a whisky beginner.
Malcolm gives us some interesting facts before we move on – the distillery is built on the site of an old quarry, it employs just 11 staff (eight distillery shift workers including himself, two in the shop and one in the office) and that the whisky is also know as ‘the manzanilla of the north’ because of its saltiness which is similar to that found in manzanilla sherry. We cross the central courtyard and go in to the mill room, which houses a 90 years old Porteus mill. This amazing and ancient piece of equipment mills down 5 tonnes of malted barley every two and a half hours. It gets through a staggering 160 tonnes in a 12 day cycle. Each tonne of milled barley (or grist) will produce 410 litres of alcohol spirit. The malted barley used has no peat included, although the distillery did use heavily peated malt and produce a robust, smoky style of whisky prior to 1959.
Next is the mash room, which can be described in one word – tiny! The mash tun (pictured, left)fills the room and you have to squeeze around the sides of it to look in or move on. Malcolm explained that the mash tun is due to be replaced in two years time and that they would have to take the roof off to get this old one out and the new one in! He also told us that Pulteney use a four water cycle when mashing their grist and this involves adding water at four different temperatures – 68.5°C then 72°C, 85°C and 87°C - to try and extract the most soluble sugars possible. The capacity of the mash tun is 15,700 litres.
After the claustrophobic mash room, we are taken through to the larger washback room where the fermentation process takes place. There are six washback tanks, each with a capacity of 23,500 litres, but true to Pulteney’s quirky nature the story doesn’t end there. Five are made from Corten steel, which is a rarely used material for washbacks these days (in fact, only Glen Scotia in Campbeltown still has them) and the other is stainless steel. Add to this that the five steel washbacks are in one room with the sixth stainless steel one is located in the still house and you start to get the idea of Pulteney’s unconventional layout.
In a further quirk, we discover that the distillery is one of only four in Scotland to use dried yeast for fermentation, rather than liquid yeast cultures – Malcolm naming Auchentoshan, Bruichladdich and Highland Park as the others. This yeast is purchased from South Africa. The impact of this is that Pulteney has a longer fermentation time than most, as it takes an additional two hours for the yeast to rehydrate and ‘get going’. This is done by adding the dried yeast pellets to warm water at 36°C. The total time for fermentation is 52 hours and each washback contains liquid at different stages of the fermentation process.
This place is a rabbit warren - we double back on ourselves through a narrow passageway and emerge in to what must be one of the smallest and most idiosyncratic still rooms in the industry. The initial response from us was "is this it?" but plenty of interest was soon revealed. The Pulteney still room has one pair of stills (one wash still and one spirit still), which are based on originals from the 1920s, and that sixth stainless steel fermentation washback crammed in the far corner. Both stills have unconventional elements to them, including the large bulbous parts below the neck (the unique design of Old Pulteney’s whisky bottles are influenced by this shape). This unusually large bulb shape helps to give their spirit its distinctive oily, heavy character.
The wash still (pictured, above left) holds 21,000 litres of fermented wash. However, the most interesting thing is that the top of the neck has been crudely sliced off and a makeshift lyne arm welded to the side. The reason for this is rumoured to be that the measurements for a new still were confused and when it was delivered, it didn’t fit … so they hacked the top off and repositioned the lyne arm! They have kept the same design of still ever since the 1920s. The spirit still (pictured, above centre) is smaller, with a capacity of 17,000 litres and it too has a bizarre feature – a lyne arm that resembles a u-bend on a toilet and is unlike anything else in the industry. This is due to the purifier attached to it – when this was fitted, there wasn’t enough space to keep the lyne arm straight without smashing through the outer wall of the building. So, they adapted the lyne arm. We like and admire this type of ingenuity!
Both of the stills run in to their own wormtubs, which are located on the outer wall of the still room (pictured, above right). These are huge water tanks in which coiled copper piping sits - as the spirit vapours travel down the lyne arm from the still, they travel through the coiled pipe and the cold water helps to condense the vapour back to a liquid. This was the traditional method for condensation but has now been largely replaced by modern condensing units at most distilleries. This made it very interesting to see and further enhanced the sense that Pulteney is very much a traditional distillery that has always made its whisky the same way. The last thing to see here was the padlocked spirit safe (pictured, left), which dates back to 1920, and it sits on top of the cast iron spirit receiver of the same age.
The final part of the tour takes us to one of the warehouses across the road, via the cask filling area. Here they undertake minor cask repairs before filling them with newly made spirit. At Pulteney they fill to cask at an alcoholic strength between 68-69% ABV. Today's ABV is 68.6%. Only spirit destined to become Old Pulteney single malt (approximately 2,000 casks a year at present) is stored and matured within their five warehouses on site. Another 1,000 or so casks are produced for the blending market. They currently have 25,000 casks maturing on site, which equates to 3.6 million litres of whisky. Most are in ex-bourbon casks, although some are in casks of various varieties of sherry. The most amazing thing about standing in that warehouse is that you can taste a tangy saltiness in the air - no wonder that Old Pulteney whiskies have that distinct saltiness as one of their main characteristics!
We moved on to taste the current range, plus a couple of special treats, with Malcolm back in the visitor centre. To read our tasting notes - click here. We would like to thank Malcolm for his hospitality and his fascinating insight in to this traditional yet idiosyncratic whisky distillery. Next time someone tells you “once you’ve seen one distillery, you’ve seen them all haven’t you?”, tell them to visit Pulteney and then ask if they have the same opinion!