Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: Scotch That Acts (And Tastes) Its Age

NEW YORK — With the United Nations building looming in the background and busy ships plying the adjacent East River, the whisky maker from Wick, Scotland, was soaking in his first visit to the United States.

"It’s a bit overwhelming," Malcolm Waring, master distiller at Old Pulteney, told me before he unveiled his 17- and 21-year-old whiskies to an invited media crowd at The Water Club on the East Side.

"I expected everything to be big, but it’s so much bigger than I imagined. I’d like to visit a lot of places next time around, and I think there will be some ‘next times."’

The 12-year-old version of Old Pulteney is made in a small distillery that is mainland Scotland’s northernmost such facility, so far north it is on roughly the same latitude as Moscow. It has been sold in the U.S. for a decade, but the 17- and 21-year-old versions that employ both bourbon and sherry cask aging have been available only in Europe.

Waring’s visit was timed to coincide with the annual Whiskey Live industry festivities in New York — when more media attention was possible.

Waring, jacketless and wearing a short-sleeved white shirt, was in sharp contrast to the media crowd, most clad in black or earth tones that are the informal uniforms of such activities. But when he talks about his whisky he’s as smooth as anyone in the room.

"We like to refer to it as a maritime whisky," he said. "It’s part of the history of Wick as home port to what once was a huge herring fishing industry in what otherwise was a very remote, windswept place. We have one of the fishing boats on our labels."

Old Pulteney is one of the lesser known Scotch whiskies among aficionados in the U.S., but it has always been known as a quality distillation. It’s made in closed pot stills, which keeps it from having the strong smoky style of many Scotches. It begins with water that comes from the local source, the River Wick, then is filtered and used to begin the whisky making process.

The Old Pulteney 12-year-old is a warm, smooth very balanced single malt. Sampling it set up the palate very nicely for its older siblings.

Both are aged 90 percent in used bourbon barrels and 10 percent in used sherry barrels before blending.

I noted the 21-year-old was drier and a touch spicier than the 17, and suspected a difference between the types of sherry casks used for each in addition to the ratio of whisky-to-wine barrels. Waring confirmed my suspicions, noting that olorosso casks are used for the 17 and fino for the 21. The 17 year old is aged 90 percent in bourbon barrels and 10 percent in sherry. The 21 year old is aged in 66 percent bourbon and 33 percent sherry. Both are bottled at 92 proof.

The 17 has pronounced notes of caramel and vanilla, as one would expect, but overtones of honey, citrus and apple come through as well. Once cut with a few drops of water, the nose opened quite a lot, releasing floral esters.

The 21 provides what I refer to as "full tongue," a complete experience of all the elements the tongue can detect — sweet, salt, bitter and sour. Caramel, chocolate, honey and a touch of smoke are evident, as are lower tannins than in the 17. The complexity of the flavor range makes it a good after-dinner drink.

All in all, both the 17 and 21 should be well received by Scotch aficionados in the U.S. even at their price point: $79.99 for the 17-year-old, $99.99 for the 21-year-old. The 12-year-old has been selling here at a suggested retail price of $39.99.


© 2007 Hearst Newspapers