Old Pulteney was established by James Henderson as a coastal distillery in the thriving location of Pulteneytown in 1826. Situated on the south side of the River Wick, the settlement was founded in 1808 to cope with the mass migration instigated by the Highland Clearances and thrived until the early 1900’s when its size determined that the populations on opposite sides of the river should unite under the Wick name. The name itself is from the Norse word Vik that translates as bay and also raises the question of why the distillery hasn’t pillaged such a history?
The unification was no mean feat as until the early 1800’s crossing the river was a hazardous journey and during this time it was the largest herring port in Europe. This meant an influx of goods, services, money and rival fishing boats with crews’ eager to spend their earnings on alcohol. Historical accounts of riots in Wick and its general lawlessness are noted often calling for the army to intervene and disperse the crowds. Alcohol was often the trigger and in 1922 following the Temperance Act, residents of the town voted to ban alcohol with no licenses being granted. The ban was not lifted until 1947 and prior to this many would travel to Thurso to enjoy a drink, or opportunists would engage in bootlegging activities that harked back to a bygone era.
The distillery stands on its original site amidst a normal fishing village setting. It remained with the Henderson family until 1920 when the distillery was purchased by Dundee firm James Watson. This short period of ownership ended in 1923 when Buchanan-Dewar purchased Pulteney to assist with their blending requirements. This parent company was acquired by the Distillers Company Limited in 1925 including the distillery. Unsurprisingly given the general apathy towards alcohol that was fuelling problems within the town and its subsequent banning alongside its geographical remoteness, the distillery was mothballed in 1930. Whilst life continued and alcohol eventually returned to Wick, the distillery itself did not return to production until 1950 after being acquired by solicitor Robert Cumming.
Again, a short period of ownership followed with a subsidiary firm to Hirman Walker & Sons taking over in 1955 and bringing the financial clout to instigate investment into the aging site that resulted in a sizeable refurbishment and how we see Old Pulteney today. However due to the size of the site the stills remain 2 in number and the mashtun almost touches the walls of the room, meaning a tight squeeze for any visitors, even today. Eventually, the ownership moved onto Inver House distillers, which is today owned by the current owners in the form of Thai Beverages.
Old Pulteney retains its two uniquely shaped stills with one being an oversized onion shape and makes good use of its worm tubs. Together they produce nearly 1.8 million litres annually as greater emphasis is put into establishing Pulteney as a single malt, with over half of production going towards this market. The distillery tour showcases the history of the town and its unique setting. The space limitations are obvious but so is its character and the famous coastal salty influence assisted by maturation on site. Pulteney has been marketed as a maritime whisky with that slight nautical taste transporting you to a rugged coastal setting.
In recent years several awards have been received and the core range is built around several age statements with the 12-year-old being a gentle introduction. Beyond this there have been several No Age Statement editions for the travel market with varying degrees of success. More worthwhile are the limited age expressions including a 1989 vintage and a 35-year-old. Bottlings until recently from the independent sector were extremely rare, but of late there have been a handful of releases to expand your appreciation of this unique distillery.