By the time I made my way up to Wick, it was late in the day and I was pretty exhausted. The plan for the evening was to get some dinner, do a little writing and catch up on sleep. Sitting at a table in the bar area of a local restaurant, I noticed a dozen Old Pulteney bottles on the shelf behind the bar. Feeling excited that they must have the full range as well as several limited edition bottlings, I started to reconsider the idea of not having a few whiskies after dinner. But closer inspection revealed that every one of those bottles was the flagship 12 year old.
I was staying very close to the distillery though, and decided to take a walk around the place. Along with Springbank, this was the most urban distillery that I’ve set eyes upon. While no people were visible, the front gate was wide open and the place was clearly operating; wonderful smells were abundant. I ventured in just a little ways, to the edge of the courtyard, for a quick preview of the tour that I would have 12 hours later. Back out to the road, I started to go around the outer perimeter of the place, which is essentially a ring of aging warehouses. On an unpaved path around back I came to the rear gate, which was also open. From there I could see what appeared to be the worm tubs, with vapors rising into the cool night air. I went a little further around back but the path faded away and the ground became boggy as the buildings started to look more industrial.
Wick itself is looking a little rough around the edges, at least the small part of the town I saw. There were quite a few buildings with boarded up windows and even some with collapsed roofs. I’ve been told that the town never fully recovered from the collapse of the Herring industry, which happened long ago. There was talk of the renewable energy industry soon breathing some new life into the town, and I did see a few old stone buildings enveloped in scaffolding.
In spite of its exterior surroundings, the Pulteney distillery’s visitor center is modern and well appointed. Our tour group was small, five or six people, and our young guide was somewhat unscripted and a bit opinionated. I found that incredibly refreshing. There were also no restrictions on photography here.
The visitor center is located in the former cooperage, and when we walked out into the courtyard out tour guide directed our view back toward that building, pointing out the squares in the wall where upper floor windows had been filled in. She also made note of a recess in the wall where part of a connected roofline used to be (the shadow just left of the drainpipe in the photo). This is where there used to be an elevated walkway over the entrance, connecting the buildings on either side of it. I believe the old barley lofts were above the cooperage and the building that had been connected to that used to house the malting floors.
While we were in the courtyard, our guide also mentioned the large, industrial looking buildings in the back corner of the distillery complex. This is a wood-chip burning biomass plant which provides heat for the stills as well as 200 area homes.
The distillery, which dates to 1826, hasn’t malted its own barley since 1926 and the configuration of the distilling equipment seems to have changed several times over the years. Today unpeated malt from the Inverness area is supplied by Bairds, with 30 ton deliveries coming 2 to 3 times per week. Dried yeast is used here, partly because the location is too remote for liquid yeast to survive the transit.
A Porteus mill deals with the grain, which then goes on to a five ton copper topped mash tun. Six stainless steel washbacks are quite new; the distillery was closed from May through October of 2016 while they were installed, replacing the cast iron units that took over for the wooden washbacks in 1950. The fermentation time is 60 hours.
The stills here are quite unique. The wash still is flat-topped, and as with Dalmore there’s a story about incorrect measurements being taken before the still was delivered causing them to cut off the top and reconfigure the lyne arm. On the spirit still, the lyne arm quickly turns down, then out into a purifier. It emerges from the top of that and quickly turns out through the back wall. Both stills feature reflux bowls, but the one on the wash still is much larger. When I asked out tour guide about the purifier she replied “Oh, that hasn’t worked in years”.
Next we went outside of the still house to see the worm tubs, confirming what I had seen the night before from outside the back gate. These are the rectangular style, but since they were in action, I couldn’t see the configuration of the copper tube inside (some are squared off circles, others run back and forth).
The distillery currently runs 24 hours per day, 5 days a week. It produces 1.2 million liters of spirit per annum, with 40% of that going out for blending and 60% kept for onsite aging, and to be used as single malt or as an ingredient in their Stroma Malt Whisky Liqueur.
We ended in one of the warehouses, which all together have a capacity of 24,000 casks and are currently holding about 20,000. We also learned that the oldest cask on site dates to 1967 and may soon be bottled as a 50 year old.
Back into the visitor center, those who paid for an upgraded tour sampled the 12 year, 17 year and 21 year Old Pulteney. Standard tour participants were given the choice of the 12 year old or the Stroma Liqueur. I was curious about the latter but if I was only going to taste one thing at the distillery, it would be their whisky. I mentioned to the staff that we get the 12 year at 43% back home while it is 40% in most other places (definitely the UK and Canada). I asked if the higher strength version was exclusive to the US and was eventually told that South Africa gets it was well, but they were unsure if there were any other markets it went to.
Another noteworthy point; there were two casks set up in the shop that visitors could fill bottles from. Both were ex-bourbon casks, one distilled in 2005 and the other in 1997. There were available as 70 cl fills, priced at £80 and £140, respectively. I really wish more distilleries would do this. The only slight improvement they could make here would be to have the option of a smaller format, say 20 cl, for those flying home with limited luggage capacity.
I had spent as much time asking questions and taking pictures as I could without making myself late for the tour that I had scheduled next. From Wick it was a drive of a little over 30 minutes to Thurso, where I had arranged to see the relatively new Wolfburn distillery. Their first spirit ran early in 2013, with the first cask serendipitously filled on Burns night. When it was established, Wolfburn unseated Pulteney at the northernmost distillery on Scotland’s mainland. Last fall I started to see their single malt on store shelves in the US, and wrote this post with a little background information about Wolfburn.
The distillery is open to the public, but currently by appointment only. The tour guide, Charlie Ross, lives nearby and has another part time job, but is very accommodating when scheduling tours. In spite of not having worked in the spirits industry before, he is quite well versed in all things Wolfburn; from local distilling history to the story of the modern distillery’s founding and the technical details of its production process.
Wolfburn was founded by a pair of business partners, who, despite having no previous whisky industry experience, seem to have thus far done everything right, including hiring all of the right people. They set about finding a location that had historical distilling significance which might lend them a name. Of course, available land and an accessible water source would be necessary as well. They found all of that on the outskirts of Thurso. I believe that the part about being farther north than any other distillery on the mainland was just a bonus point.
Even though the last wolf there was killed around 1700, the area still has an association with wolves, hence the nearby stream being named Wolf Burn. Part of the foundation of the original Wolfburn distillery can be found nearby, in spite of it having ceased operations more than 150 years ago. It had been established in 1821 and records show that in 1828 it made 12,000 gallons of spirit, not far behind the 17,000 gallons produced at the Pulteney distillery that year. When exactly it closed is uncertain, but there are newspaper clippings from 1860 showing the distillery’s equipment for sale.
The founders spent time in 2011 and 2012 touring Scotland’s distilleries and working on their business plans before they started looking for a master distiller. Shane Fraser, the man who ultimately took the position, started his whisky career at the age of 16 with Royal Lochnager. He moved on to Oban, before making his way to Glenfarclas, where he spent seven years as their distillery manager. That’s quite an achievement for someone who’s still in their 30’s, and for many that would be the pinnacle of their career. But the opportunity at Wolfburn was unique. The owners’ were offering the chance for whoever they hired to design the new distillery and have complete control of the style of whisky that would be made there. That was enough to lure Shane over from the heart of Speyside.
Iain Kerr was hired on as the assistant distillery manager. Work on the site began in September, 2012 and by the end of January, 2013 the stillhouse and two warehouses were up and running. I asked if the still design was influenced by those of other distilleries and was told that it was really driven by the style of spirit they were aiming for. Apparently Shane and Iain sat down with the owner of Forsyths of Rothes and in a matter of a few hours the three of them had worked out all of the details for the new stills.
The goal was to make a gentle floral spirit, and the means to that end include a long mash (5.5 hours) which produces a clear wort, long fermentation times (ranging from 72 to 92 hours) and a slow distillation (4.5 hours through the wash still). They started off using completely unpeated malt, but began working with peated malt on a limited basis in July of 2014. This is done for six weeks out of the year with a moderate peating level of 10 ppm.
While there are no computers or remotely controlled pieces of distilling equipment, this is very much a modern distillery in respect to its layout. The equipment is arranged logically in the order through which the processes go, and all in one open rectangular space. This is quite a contrast to the older distilleries which tend to be more multi-leveled and more compartmentalized, and often have pieces of equipment located wherever they fit, then plumbed to the rest of the system.
Everything here looks very new, and one of my first questions was whether they had sourced any surplus equipment from existing distilleries. There were indeed a few items which had come from Caperdonich, a Speyside distillery that ran from 1898 to 1902, and again from 1965 to 2002 before it was demolished in 2010. These include the malt bin auger, which moves barley from its holding bins over to the mill, as well as two former wash backs. The stainless steel washbacks have been repurposed, one as a storage tank for process water and the other as a holding vessel for spent lees and pot ale. Another interesting feature is a heat exchanger which uses the outgoing pot ale and spent lees to pre-heat the incoming wash still charge, saving energy.
At some point I asked if they were selling any spirit to blenders or independent bottles. Charlie smiled and laughed slightly, going on to explain that every once in a while he’ll get a similar question midway through a tour only to learn that the “tourist” is actually there on behalf of a blender, broker or bottler. He assured me that Wolfburn is keeping everything they make to be sold as single malt. He went on to tell me that the owners were in the fortunate position to have started with enough capital that they could establish the distillery and continue to operate it for up to four years without generating any revenue. This has also allowed them to avoid selling un-aged spirit or gin as a sideline. The big challenge now is managing to balance investment in future growth against their current profits.
Wolfburn started off at 115,000 liters per annum, running six mashes per week through their three washbacks. The first expansion came at the end of 2015, with the building of a third warehouse, half of which is used as their bottling hall. Then, in May of 2016, they added two production employees and a fourth washback. In theory that could put them up to 153,000 LPA, but they are running 6 to 8 mashes per week right now, so it’s probably closer to 134,000 LPA.
After a little time in one of the warehouses, we moved on to a tasting. I started with the unpeated new make spirit. It’s clean and bright with a fruity nose and floral palate. Next up was the peated new make. It had a nice, rounded peat profile. It seemed a bit more phenolic than expected for 10 ppm, but I’m sure a little time in the cask will temper that.
Next up were the two standard bottlings that are currently being offered; Aurora and Northland. They are both made from unpeated spirit which has been aged a little over 3 years and bottled at 46% without chill filtration. Aurora is a marriage of whisky aged in 1st fill bourbon barrels and sherry hogsheads. It’s balanced and rounded, with well integrated flavors. This one certainly seems older than its age. Northland was aged in 2nd fill quarter casks, which previously held peated whisky (we can safely presume that was Laphroaig). The subtle peat smoke on the nose comes through nicely on the palate. This one does, however, show it’s youthfulness a little more readily. I’d love to see where it goes with another year or two in the cask.
Then came the real treat; a cask sample from a sherry hogshead which had been aged for between 38 and 39 months and was at 58-59% abv. In spite of the intensity of its cask strength, this one was very well behaved with absolutely lovely sherry character. It could easily be passed off as a much older whisky. After a few sips I told Charlie about the casks that were set up at Pulteney from which visitors could fill bottles. I continued on to say that if such a program were in place for this cask, I would absolutely have bought a bottle.
I really enjoyed the Pulteney tour so the bar was set high for the day, but Wolfburn met and exceeded my expectations. I’ll likely buy a bottle of Aurora when I get home, and I can say with confidence that this is a distillery to watch in the coming years.