Scotch Whisky Distillers of To-day: Pulteney

Pulteney Distillery, Wick. Proprietors: James and George Stodart, Ltd.

By Ross Wilson, M.A.

Since its acquisition in September, 1955, by Hiram Walker and Sons (Scotland) Ltd., Pulteney Highland malt whisky distillery has been practically rebuilt and equipped with modern plant. First installed on its present site in 1826 after years of distilling by the founder further inland, Pulteney is the farthest north of any distillery on the mainland of Scotland. It is not more than 20 miles from John o'Groats. Wick is, of course, a seaport town. Its name is of Scandinavian origin and signifies an opening, or a bay. It is from that that Wick derives its chief importance as the great emporium of the herring fishery of Scotland.

Robert Louis Stevenson went to Wick late in the last century to get engineering experience from the building of a breakwater and has left us his impressions of the town, which, he wrote, " lives for herring. A strange sight it is to see (of an afternoon) the heights of Pulteney blackened by seaward-looking fishers, as when a city crowds to a review— or, as when bees have swarmed, the ground is horrible with lumps and clusters; and a strange, and a beautiful sight to see the fleet put silently out against a rising moon, the sealine rough as a wood with sails, and ever and again and one after another, a boat flitting swiftly by the silver disk. This mass of fishers, this great fleet of boats, is out of all proportion to the town itself; and the oars are manned and the nets hauled by immigrants from the Long Island (as we call the outer Hebrides), who come for that season only, and depart again, if ' the take' be poor, leaving debts behind them. On a bad year the end of the herring fishery is therefore an exciting time; fights are common, riots often possible; an apple knocked from a child's hand was once the signal for something like a war; and even when I was there a gunboat lay in the bay to assist the authorities.

" To contrary interests, it should be observed, the curse of Babel is here added: the Lewis men are Gaelic speakers, those of Caithness have adopted English; an odd circumstance if you reflect that both must be largely Norsemen by descent."

A pity R. S. L. was not alive to visit the town and record his impressions after it voted itself " dry." It certainly adds to the uniqueness of the whole that a pot still distillery should operate most actively in a " dry " town ! The town itself is divided by the Wick river, and that part on the south side, where is the distillery, is called Pulteney Town. Also on the south side of the bay stands the ruin of Auldwick Castle, said to have been built before the twelfth century— " the Auld Man o' Wick " is the more usual name still —while 20 miles away to the north is John o' Groats. Near " the Auld Man o' Wick" is one of the most remarkable stacks—isolated pillars of rock for which the coast of Caithness is fam.ous—of the coastline, called The Brough. This immense oval-shaped rock is about 300 feet high and 600 feet long, is perforated from end to end, and the passage is so large and the water in it so deep that a boat can easily pass through it in fine weather, while the interior is lit by a large space in the centre with an opening through the top. In all, the scenery is magnificently rugged and impressive, though inland from the coast it is bleak, with scarcely a tree visible for miles.

Pulteney is also one of the oldest distilleries in the north, although it has been vastly and thoroughly reequipped with the very latest aids to distilling. It was founded in 1826, after the reform and rationalisation of the distilling laws in 1823 which practically ended illicit distillation, by a Mr. James Henderson who had earlier had a small pot still distillery further inland for nearly 30 years. Thus it could be claimed that the Henderson family firm were distillers from the beginning of the nineteenth century. It remained in the hands of the family until the sorting out of the whole industry after World War I when it was taken over, in 1920, by James Watson and Co., Ltd., of Dundee, and in 1923 was acquired by John Dewar and Sons Ltd. It was closed down in 1926, as Scotch Whisky and the nation, indeed the world, entered a difficult phase, and did not resume production until the freeing of the distilling industry from the shackles of war and postwar governmental restrictions in 1951. It was then owned by Mr. R. Cumming, of Banff, from whom the present proprietors acquired it in 1955. Since then, improvement and enlargement have been the order of the day until now it can claim to be one of the most advanced and up-to-date pot still distilleries in the Highlands of Scotland.

Founder Henderson made his move to the present site by the sea, not solely because of the reform of the distilling laws, but because of increasing demand for, and popularity of the whisky he made. There was not then the current practice of blending malt and grain whiskies the patent still which produces grain whisky had not been invented—and although there might be mixtures of different malt whiskies sold, more often they were retailed as individual single malt whiskies. So Mr. Henderson, when he found demand for his whisky increasing so much moved nearer the coast as the simplest method of meeting that demand. No railway then existed, and the port of Wick provided the only means of transport to the south, to Leith, the east coast and London. Although later taken up by the blenders. to blend with grain whisky, Pulteney malt whisky also persisted in sales as a single malt whisky throughout provincial towns in Scotland and England until quite late in the last century. The distillery's nearness to the sea also helps in the disposal of the effluents from the distillery, always a major problem to those who have not this convenience. In the founder's day it had not become the problem it is today, but by the end of that century Pulteney was producing over 80,000 gallons of whisky a year and had it remained on its original inland site the problem would have become really serious. Similarly, nearness to the sea and the port of Wick meant that barley could be shipped in usually of the best Aberdeenshire quality as well as being later brought by road and rail transport. The existence of Loch Hempriegs in the vicinity meant, too, that water could easily be brought to the plant.

For many years, until the great re-equipment year of 1959, the barley brought in was stored on arrival in three large lofts capable of taking 2,000 quarters at one time. The steeps where the barley was soaked to initiate malting, or artificial germination on the malting floor, numbered two and were each capable of taking 25 quarters at a time. The wet barley used to be spread out on the two floors measuring 15 feet long by 20 feet wide and allowed to sprout at around 70 deg F., being periodically turned over to control the heat and allow the air unhindered access to the pile. The sprouted barley, now replete with the desired enzymes cytase and diastase, was then dried in the kiln over a slow-burning peat fire. Founder Henderson and his descendants used only peat for that drying, but even before the kiln was demolished in 1959 coke was also being used to round off the drying operation, as public taste was turning away from too much peatiness in the resulting spirit.

It is just at this stage of operations that the impact of the new ownership of 1955 and the insistence on the latest aids to distilling strikes the visitor today. It was in 1959 that the firm demolished the maltings and the kiln, its necessary adjunct. Since then, as with Glenburgie and Miltonduff distilleries, the task of making the malt has been taken off the shoulders of the distillery and the malt now comes direct from an associate company which concentrates solely on the production and provision of the malt to the plants. That associate company is Robert Kilgour and Co., Ltd., of Kirkcaldy, by the Firth of Forth and in the ancient Kingdom of Fife. The malt is sent in bags to Wick by rail transport and is taken to the distillery by motor lorry.

The malt used to spend some 48 hours in the kiln absorbing the tang of the peat, the scent of the Scottish countryside. That no longer delays the distillery, but the malt has still. of course. to be received and today there exist at Pulteney the very latest in intake and storage equipment to handle the malt. There are three malt deposits, each capable of containing 1,600 bushels. Similarly, for the next ordeal to which the erstwhile barley has to undergo there is now the latest in equipment. That ordeal is dressing and grinding and it is now performed in a Porteous four-roll malt mill and malt dressing plant. This deals with 48 bushels an hour to provide the broken malt for the next phase.

That phase, where the antagonist is hot water, separately and specially heated in large copper heaters, takes place in the most up-to-date mashing plant. The mash tun is some 14+ feet in diameter and some 51. feet in depth, complete with arms which revolve, literally, in every direction at once within the vessel. Four times is that mashing operation performed, with hot waters of increasingly high temperatures. That high temperature enables, nay encourages, the enzymes to complete their task of turning the starch in the barley-malt to suear and then themselves dissolve the resultant saccharine material. After each mashing, lasting some 8+ hours, the liquid, now distinguished by the name of worts, is drained off through the perforated bottom of the tun and the husks of the original malt to the underback beneath the tun. This underback, again the most modern available. can hold 400 gallons and from there the selected worts pass at once to the latest in cooling plant where they are refrigerated to avoid the possibility of false fermentations. In all, some 2,270 bushels of malt are mashed every week at Pulteney and the distillery now mashes some 12,000 quarters of malt a year.

Once more we encounter fresh evidence of the improvements and re-equipment accomplished at Pulteney under the present owners. The fermenting vessels, or washbacks, to which the worts are consigned to be dismembered by the yeast in the process of guided fermentation are now of stainless steel and number four, each being of the size to take 5,600 gallons of wash. As the entire distillery is now powered by electric motors, these provide also the power which operates the switchers which flick back the rising head on the turbulent fermenting wort as the carbon dioxide is driven off into the air to leave behind a week alcoholic solution now };nown as wash. The wash goes to the wash charger: the vessel charges the still, hence the name.

With the stills we meet once again the intervention of the latest and best. In one sense, the stills, of which there are two—one for each of the two distillations needed have changed little over the years. When Pulteney settled down as a popular and recognised distillery, the wash still adopted was capable of holding for distillation some 4,000 gallons. Today it can take 4.700 gallons of wash, or as near as makes no difference. No, the march of progress lies in the fact that instead of the roaring coal fire under the still it is today heated by steam. 1959 was the year of change, as we might expect. In that year, the body of the original still was renewed and steam heating was installed. This gives a more easily controllable temperature and aids in maintaining cleanliness in the premises, for the boiler for heating and providing the steam which vapourises the alcohol in the wash is oil fired. This method of applying the heat needed to effect the distillation has been established in other distilleries of the group and has been found eminently satisfactory. As the alcohol in the still boils at a lower temperature than its encasing liquid. mostly water, it vapourises ahead of most of that water, passes through the head of the still into the worm and is then condensed back into liquid form as the worm passes through its worm tub of cold water.

The burnt ale, or remains left behind as unwanted in the still, poses a problem in disposition to the inland distillery. Pulteney being by the sea does not encounter the same problem. The primary distillate, or low wines, is distilled again to get at the heart of the matter Again in the case of the second still, sometimes called a low wines still from the nature of the product it receives, or a spirit still from the nature of the product it yields, again presents us with this double image of stability and progress. It takes roughly the same quantity of low wines as formerly, some 2,800 gallons, but is, like the wash still, now steam-heated. The body of the original still was renewed in 1959 when the change to the present method of heating was adopted. The first runnings of this slower and more careful distillation are tested in the spirit safe as they come over in the form of a clear, almost sparkling liquid until the preliminary and unwanted higher alcohols have finished, and then the distiller feels he has got to the heart of John Barleycorn and switches the head of the tube from which the spirits are running so as to allow them to flow into the spirits receiver of some 1,700 gallons capacity. Again, guided by experience, he watches closely as the tails, another assortment of unwanted alcohols, are about to come over. They are then switched to join the discarded first runnings, the foreshots. These are later fed into the next charge to be put in the low wines still. Although modern in the sense of being steam-heated with the steam provided by oil firing, the stills are most traditional in every other manner. They are of the oldest pattern known, and it may be recalled that founder Henderson was distilling whisky nearly 30 years before the reform of the legislation governing distilling, and when stills of less than 40 gallons capacity were both possible and permissible.

The spirit received is around 125 degrees proof and water is called in again, this time to reduce its strength to 111 degrees. It has been found by practical experience that that is the most suitable strength at which to lay down the whisky for the years necessary to gain the appropriate maturity. On making, the spirit is a sharp, slightly fiery liquid, though not without its appeal. After some years in the bonded warehouse, it has the suave character this age demands in all things.

That period of " resting " to mature is specially catered for at Pulteney. Even as long ago as the middle 1880's, the distillery had 11 bonded warehouses capable of storing in all some 3,000 casks and one of them alone could hold 100,000 gallons on its three floors.

Today, with demand for Pulteney at an all time high, with the re-equipment of the distillery carried out, with some 262,000 proof gallons of whisky being made each season, there are five large warehouses covering five acres which are capable of storing no less than 1,800,000 proof gallons ! At the time of writing, that accommodation is very nearly all taken up: there are some 1,400,000 proof gallons in bond and by the end of the season there will be more, no doubt, despite withdrawals from bond as the Pulteney malt whisky goes to join its confreres in some of the world's best blends. The warehouses have modern and distinctive features, perhaps the most in accord with latest developments of the age being one of the four new warehouses where the casks of spirit are racked nine high. This is a most striking change from former times when the casks rested two or thee high stacked on each other.

On the last occasion of The Record's visiting Pulteney, what was then described as " an outstanding modern appliance" was noted: a miniature fire engine as provided by James Watson. That firm had the most disastrous experience of fire at its Dundee warehouses and the comment was then made: " One can think of many distilleries in isolated positions that might well be equipped in the same manner and maintain their own 'fire brigades'." Much time has passed since then, and today Pulteney can claim to have the latest in fire precautions and related equipment.

The manager is Mr. Alex. Cruickshank, who is a native of Huntly, Aberdeenshire, a son, it may be said, of whisky-land itself.

It was in 1930 that Hiram Walker, Gooderham and Worts Ltd., purchased a 60 per cent interest in James and George Stodart Ltd. , and it was the " first venture in the Scotch Whisky Trade," as chairman Harry C. Hatch remarked in 1938. By 1936, minority interests of the company, and others, were secured. Like "the Auld Man o' Wick" the company has never looked back and serves as a beacon in its field.

© Pulteney Distillery, Ross Wilson

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