"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Pulteney Distillery, Wick

Having visited the most northerly distillery in Scotland at Highland Park we now visit the most northerly on the Scottish mainland.  Pulteney Distillery is in Wick in Caithness, a port town that was once one of the major herring fishing towns of Scotland, like Campbeltown had been on the west coast, with anything up to 1,000 boats stationed there during the season.  The area known as Pulteneytown was built by the British Fisheries Society in the early 1800s on the south side of the bay and has been administered as part of Wick since 1902.

Wick harbour with an easterly wind - not sure I'd be parking my bus there mate! 
Barnard travelled to Wick by train from Scrabster and he mentions some of the coastal features of Caithness.  John o’ Groats, Duncan’s Bay Head (sic) – the actual north-eastern point of the mainland, Holborn Head by Scrabster, sea stacks and other features that line the coast of Caithness are all described and present a stunning image of ruggedness, in contrast to the “tame and bleak inland scenery…with scarcely a tree visible for many miles”.  You would be forgiven for thinking he had never left Orkney, so similar is the landscape presented.

Pulteney Distillery was built in the area of Wick called Upper Pulteney Town, a more residential area away from the lower town by the harbour.  The distillery name doesn’t include the commonly associated word ‘Old’ which is reserved only for the whisky produced here.  The buildings are still arranged in the quadrangular form that Barnard witnessed although some changes have been made to accommodate modern practices and transport, and to add new warehouses.

Entrance to Pulteney Courtyard
The distillery was established in 1826 by James Henderson whose family were still in charge when Barnard visited.  Henderson had closed his previous smaller inland distillery in 1823 after 30 years there and the new distillery was built close to the sea to provide ease of transport of goods both in and out, the road south then being undeveloped and increasing demand for the whisky requiring better transport arrangements.

Pulteney workforce under the entrance archway
Barnard entered through a covered archway which has now gone.  It can be seen here above the workmen in an undated photo in the distillery offices and also in the etching in Barnard.  Along with a significant redevelopment of the site in 1950/51 the whole archway had to be removed to accommodate modern tankers and delivery lorries.

Bottle your own Pulteney whisky
Beside this archway was the old cooperage that has now been turned into the visitor centre where I was met by Tanya for a tour.  There were two other guests on the tour, a friendly couple who run the Blaue Maus bar on the island of Amrum off the north coast of Germany, and we will meet them again later at another place.  There are some interesting displays in the centre and you can fill your own bottle of Old Pulteney here as well.  After introductions and the obligatory video we headed out to the courtyard where Barnard had also begun his tour.


There were originally three barley lofts and two malting floors on the right of the quad and Barnard also mentions Kilns heated by peat at the end of this building, although he doesn’t state how many.  The distillery picture above shows two pagodas in this location and these and the maltings beyond have since all been redeveloped into warehouses that now stretch back to the corner of the road at the top of the picture.  The barley is now brought in from Baird’s maltings and is unpeated.

Pulteney Mash Tun
We began our tour proper in the mill house where old malt elevators are still in place and an old dresser above the mill.  The old Mash Tun was 12 feet by 5 feet and the current tun is a similar width but now with a deep bed which empties at a slower pace and receives four waters per mash.  It is a semi-lauter style and has some lovely pine cladding round the outside which I have not seen done anywhere else.

5 of the 6 cast iron washbacks
Barnard observed four washbacks at 27,000 litres each and there are now six holding 23,500 each.  The current backs are cast iron with a stainless steel lining and there are five in the tun room and one in the still house where a third still once stood.  Until 1950 the backs were made of wood and the current backs were installed then.  The fermentation is a mid-range 50 hours and produces an 8.5% abv wash.


Wash Still

Wash Still Lyne Arm
Now to the still house where the current stills have some very interesting features.  Barnard saw one wash still at 18,000 litres and two spirit stills at just half that size, of an “old smuggler’s kettle pattern” and heated by furnaces, all very standard for his time.  The current stills are a wash at 21,707 litres and spirit at 17,343 litres, both steam heated, but it is their shape that makes them unusual.

The top of the wash still is flat and the near horizontal lyne arm projects from a point around a metre below the top before taking a turn and going through the wall to the outside worm tank.  The story attached to this is that the still was too tall to fit the house so they cut the top off and rearranged the lyne arm to fit!  The wash still also has a very large reflux bowl which has been likened to a diving suit of old.  The spirit still has a smaller reflux bowl and its short lyne arm goes through a few convoluted turns and a purifier before reaching the worm tank.

Spirit Still with washback no.6 behind
Barnard recorded worm tanks and a large water wheel behind the still house.  Worm tanks are still used but the water wheel no longer sits on the lade that had been designed, along with Pulteneytown, by Thomas Telford.  The lade still brings the main distillery water from the Loch of Hempriggs three miles to the south.

Pulteney Lade and Worm Tanks
In 1886 there were 11 bonded warehouses holding a total of 3,000 casks, one of which was newly built with three floors to hold 454,000 litres, with an annual production of 364,000 litres.  There are now four major warehouses holding 24,000 casks, three of them dunnage and we visited the impressive Warehouse no.3 which was a racking store 8 casks high and holding 10,000 casks.

Warehouse No.3
All their whisky is matured on site and production is currently around 1.3m litres although capacity is significantly higher.  The whisky is casked at a higher than average 68% and they use mainly bourbon casks with only around 1% sherry casks.  Most are first and second fill for the 12, 17 and 21 yo OBs.  The shape of the Old Pulteney bottle neck is a design based on the shape of those unique stills.

For a while whisky wasn’t produced here at all.  For 25 years from 1922-47 Wick was a ‘dry’ town under the 1913 Temperance Act of Scotland, almost twice as long as prohibition in America!  The impact on the distillery was significant and after changing hands a few times in the 1920s it was closed from 1928-51.  Reopening after renovations it was then owned by Robert Cumming who already owned Balblair Distillery further down the coast.  It was taken over by Hiram Walker in 1955 and by current owners Inver House Distillers in 1995.  They have continued to expand the single malt bottling which now takes around 50% of production volume.

The Old Pulteney Range - 12, 17, 21 and 30yo
 We finished our tour back at the visitor centre where Tanya pointed out those earlier photographs and my thanks to her also for answering my questions and to everyone for delaying in the courtyard while we tried to work out where the buildings in the Barnard etching once stood.  My driving schedule didn’t allow for a tasting but I have been working through a bottle of the 17yo after enjoying it at Whisky Fringe last year, the maritime heritage to this town carrying through to the bottle with a touch of sea breeze mingling nicely with sweet vanilla and coconut notes and a long delightful finish.

After visiting the distillery I tried to find some of the local landmarks mentioned by Barnard, including the castle known as the ‘Auld Man o’ Wick’ and a large sea stack called the ‘Brough’.  However, the signposts around town were a bit vague and I had to give up and head to my next destination at Brora.  On route I also tried to find the Whaligoe waterfall and the precipitous steps cut into the cliff nearby, but despite driving through the village in both directions and walking through twice there were no sign posts for the feature.  There are a number of cairns and Brochs here that are signposted so I have good reason to return some day.