PROHIBITION CONJURES UP Stateside scenes: Atlantic City speakeasies and Mid-Western moonshiners.
It doesn’t bring to mind Scotland. Rather astonishingly, though, a law passed in 1913 allowed Scottish counties to hold their own polls to decide whether they stayed ‘wet’ or went ‘dry’.
Wick, on Scotland’s north-eastern coast, went dry.
Compliance was patchy at best. Willie Thompson, a local man, kept a ‘private’ still to keep himself and his kin in good spirits, so to speak. The revenue officers were wise to his antics but couldn’t catch him in the act.
Indeed, every time they raided his croft, they left empty. As they retreated, Willie would play his bagpipes, seeing them off with an old Jacobethan tune: ‘Will ye not come back again.’ They never did find that still.
Eventually, the town called time on temperance and brought back booze.
Most mercifully, they resurrected Pulteney Distillery. Home to Old Pulteney single malt Scotch whisky, it was a favourite of Wick’s fishermen who went to sea with flasks of spirit fresh off the stills.
Nowadays, matters are somewhat more civilised. Overseeing them is distillery manager Malcolm Waring. He summed up his take on Wick’s prohibition for us by imbibing a (healthily measured) dram of his own whisky and toasting: ‘Up with the temperance, and down with the drink!’.
Wick owes its existence to the herring trade, around which the town grew. Where does whisky fit in?
For anyone who hasn’t made it up to Pulteney Distillery yet, Wick is pretty much as far north as you can go in Scotland.
It’s the most remote, windswept and wonderfully atmospheric town, but a few hundred years ago it was a very different place. From the late eighteenth century onwards, Wick’s herring trade was booming and it was Europe’s biggest fishing port
There were about 2,000 boats and a huge community of fishermen and women based up here. In the early nineteenth century, the powers that be - led by Sir William Pulteney, Governor of the British Fisheries Society - realised that all these people needed somewhere decent to live.
So, the ‘Pulteneytown’ community area was developed in the town to house them. Our distillery was built in the heart of it to offer these hard-working folks a dram at the end of the day.
Then, in 1922, Wick went dry. It must have been the only place in Scotland that voluntarily banned booze?
I always say that the US has nothing on Wick, because our prohibition lasted 12 years longer over here, from 1922 right through to 1947.
The temperance movement had been growing in Wick, largely due to the town’s fishing heritage leading to a very lively pub scene in the nineteenth century. We had more than 40 licensed premises here at one point.
Under the Temperance (Scotland) Act of 1913, Wick voted to become dry, along with a few other Scottish towns. That was it for more than 20 years. All public houses were boarded up and sales of alcohol stopped. The distillery closed as a result in 1930 and it wasn’t until 1951 that we re-opened.
And as for yourself, how did you get into the Scotch trade?
I was brought up in Wick, very near the distillery, but I actually began my working life as a trainee boat-builder. So, there’s maybe a bit of fate at play given I’ve spent the rest of my career making the whisky often billed as The Maritime Malt.
Do you remember your first ever whisky?
To be honest, I don’t.
I’ve been making and enjoying whisky for such a long time and I’ve had some memorable drams over the years.
And while my first dram has been long forgotten, I must have enjoyed it given that I built a career making the stuff.
I can tell you about the last whisky I tried, though: Old Pulteney Bow Wave.
This incredible, one-of-its-kind 45 year old was created for this year's Distillers One of One Auction, hosted by The Worshipful Company of Distillers, with proceeds benefitting the Distillers’ Charity.
It’s our oldest expression to date. I was lucky enough to attend the auction and to see it go under the hammer for £68,750. It's a spectacular whisky, made all the better for knowing every penny will go towards supporting youth charities in Scotland.
Every distiller we know speaks of their ‘house style’ of unaged, new-make spirit. What is yours?
We’re a bit of a misnomer in the trade; the equipment we make whisky with can’t be found in most distilleries.
It’s very close to the original kit that would have been used back in the early days, and includes old-school ‘worm tub’ spirit condensers that most distilleries threw out yonks ago.
Then there’s the design of our stills. They’re not tall and slender, like the ‘swan neck’ stills you’ll see on most distillery tours.
Ours are squat and bulbous, a shape reflected in our bottle design. They limit copper contact with the spirit, allowing it to retain heavier, more ‘muscular’ flavour compounds which are usually stripped away. This is what gives our unaged, ‘new make’ spirit its big beefy, oily, and slightly sulphury character.
As for maturing that raw, unaged spirit, there seems to be split opinion on whether where you store a cask imparts the flavour profile of the whisky within it. What’s your take?
It has a huge influence. Folk love our whisky for its subtle coastal, almost briny profile, and that comes from how we mature our whisky.
Our casks rest just a few hundred yards up from the coast, exposed to the sea air that blows year-round off the North Sea. As oak is porous, the wood breathes it in.
Ask anyone who has visited Wick and they’ll tell you that the word windswept isn’t just for our marketing materials. On most days, you’ll experience an invigorating blast of salty air that, over time, layers itself into our spirit. You’ll find that sea air in every single bottling of ours.
And we presume it is that coastal influence which is behind the ‘Coastal Series’ of releases you’ve been working on?
Correct; we’re continually inspired by the maritime influence of our history, and the limited-edition Coastal Series celebrates that brilliantly. It sees us marrying our spirit with casks from other coastal regions around the world.
The first expression was Old Pulteney Pineau des Charentes, which uses casks that once held this sweet aperitif from the Charente-Maritime region. This year, the Coastal Series brings Old Pulteney Port, with our spirit matured in both Ruby Port Pipes and Ruby Port Barriques, casks seasoned by the iconic, sweet, fortified wine native to Portugal's Douro Valley.
There are four expressions in the series, with each being released annually – and the final whisky in the series launching in 2025.
Even by Scottish standards, Wick is remote. We presume you need a tight-knit group of locals to keep the distillery running?
There’s a way of doing things in Wick which you pick up if you live in somewhere as remote as this.
From the very start here, folk have had to make do with what they have on their doorstep. To train people locally and pull together to succeed.
It's the same story today. We’re a strong, tight knit community and the distillery plays an integral part in our hometown. We’ve also always looked after our local environment, with things like our district heating scheme and programmes to conserve water in the local loch from which we source our water.
And we don’t do all of that for good headlines; we do it because it's the right thing to do. This is our home and we look after it.
For more information, see oldpulteney.com