Pulteney Distillery stands in Pulteneytown, a planned expansion of the town of Wick built in the early 1800s to accommodate the influx of population caused by the herring boom. It is Scotland's most northerly mainland distillery and, fittingly for a distillery with close associations with the sea, is only a short walk from Wick Harbour. Pulteney is one of only a few Scottish distilleries to be named after a person, Sir William Pulteney, the founder of Pulteneytown.
It is worth clearing up a source of confusion immediately. The correct name of the distillery is Pulteney Distillery, while the correct name of its product is Old Pulteney. This seems to have arisen as a marketing device, but if so it has been consistently applied for a number of decades, to the point where many now refer to the distillery itself as Old Pulteney.
Scotland doesn't have many urban distilleries, and those which do exist tend to have character rather than beauty. Pulteney Distillery fits this pattern. It lacks any of the obvious characteristics of a distillery, such as a pagoda, and as a result its largely grey stone buildings fit nearly invisibly into the grey stone grid pattern of surrounding Pulteneytown. The best way to find the distillery is to follow the brown tourist signs to it from the A99 as it enters Wick from the south. Parking is available in the street that runs along the west side of the distillery, and you enter through an unassuming brown door set in the wall of what could pass for a house.
The signs above and beside the door and the etched image of Old Pulteney's trademark fishing boat on its circular window ensure there is no confusion, however, and once inside you find yourself in an attractive and welcoming reception area and shop decked out in honey coloured wood which contrasts strikingly with the grey of the exterior.
From the reception area you proceed along a corridor decked out like a ship's bridge complete with a ship's wheel at one end, before emerging into the atmospheric visitor centre. Here you can view a series of displays setting out the history of the distillery and the background to the process you are about to see first hand as you wait for your tour (see information about tour times above right).
Distilleries come in many shapes and sizes, and from the outside you get the impression that Pulteney Distillery is quite large. While it may be fairly extensive, however, you quickly begin to realise that the production areas have been shoehorned into buildings scarcely large enough to accommodate them. The result is a surprisingly intimate distillery full of unusual, and often close-up, views of the main parts of the process.
You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process, but your first view of production equipment is of a Porteus mill used for grinding the barley. You move on to a mash tun so tightly confined it is best viewed from above, with light reflecting off its stainless steel lid brightening up the room. We've seen it suggested that the mash tun was previously in use at Oban Distillery: if so its long trip north must have been an eventful one. You then move on to the largest space in the distillery given over to production, which is occupied by the five blue-painted steel washbacks with large wooden lids.
The still room is always at the heart of any distillery, and Pulteney's is by far the most interesting and intriguing part of the tour. The space is very confined so your first surprise is emerging virtually face to face with an alien from a 1950s' science fiction move. Actually, it isn't: what you are looking at is the huge and nearly spherical upper lobe of the wash still. Once you get over this initial surprise, you find that other aspects of the wash still are even more unusual. In particular it doesn't have the normal "swan neck" which tops off most stills. Instead the upper part of the still just terminates with a flat plate, looking for all the world like someone just chopped it off; and instead of a lyne arm leading to a condenser there is simply some copper pipe leading out through the wall of the still house. The story goes that when the still arrived at Pulteney it had a swan neck, but this prevented it fitting into the confined still room so the top was indeed simply chopped off.
The spirit still is rather more conventional in shape, and it does come complete with a swan neck. Beyond this, however, the confined space has again produced some unusual results. The spirit still's lyne arm bends around and back on itself, almost like a piece of a huge trombone, before connecting to an unusually stumpy condenser. The spirit safe is polished brass on a wooden base and confirms again how a purely functional object can, with a little care and a lot of craft, be made to look truly beautiful.
You get the feeling that Pulteney's bonded warehouses use up a fair proportion of the available accommodation on the site and given Wick's distant location it probably makes sense to mature the spirit here for the years it takes to turn into fine Scotch whisky: Old Pulteney can be purchased in bottles which have been aged 12, 17 or 21 years. Maturing the product on site also means it can acquire local character. This is especially distinctive in the case of Old Pulteney, which in the 1970s gave rise to a debate about whether coastal distilleries necessarily produced whiskies with salty flavours. Whether this is always true remains a matter of discussion: but it is certainly the case with the highly rated Scotch whisky produced by Old Pulteney. Your tour will conclude with a tasting back in the visitor centre. Here, too, you can pay to bottle your own Old Pulteney direct from casks laid down, when we visited, 20 or 25 years earlier.
The origins of Pulteney distillery date back to about 1800 when James Henderson established a small distillery in inland Caithness. Increasing demand brought with it transport problems in an area with few roads, and in 1826 Henderson closed his original distillery and opened Pulteney Distillery in the then rapidly growing Pulteneytown, from where it was possible to ship the product to all corners of the UK and beyond. This was a period of huge activity in Wick, especially during the herring season over three months each summer, when the town's normal population of 6,000 increased to 15,000. It was reported that during the these months the town's 47 inns were between them selling 800 gallons of whisky each week, much of it produced locally at Pulteney Distillery.
When Alfred Barnard found his way to Wick during the tour of Scottish distilleries he undertook between 1885 and 1887 he discovered Pulteney Distillery was thriving. At that time it had two malting floors, and kilns in which peat alone was used to dry the malted barley: as at most distilleries, these have long disappeared and malted barley is now bought in. The still room Barnard found was home to three stills, a large wash still and two much smaller and very antiquated spirit stills. Pulteney Distillery closed in 1930. It reopened in 1951, and was then totally renovated by new owners in 1959. Barnard published a drawing of the distillery he visited, but the changes over the intervening period make it difficult to tie in at all closely with the distillery you see here today.