After seeing the Wolf in Thurso, we decided to drive a little North-East and discover a small gin and vodka distillery in Dunnet. Following the A836 from Thurso, we drove through the picturesque Castletown and snapped some pictures at the gravel beach in between the two villages. The small, family run, single still Dunnet Bay distillery, just around the corner of the beach, was in the midst of a massive update, so the place was covered in labels, empty bottles and boxes. For us, this meant we only had time to say hi to their small still “Elizabeth”, and leave them re-organizing the place. As with our short visit to the Orkneys, we like to leave something to come back for, so the distillery and the short drive up the B855 to most northern point of the British mainland Dunnet Head, are on the list to visit when we are back in the area to drive the coastal route to Ullapool.
For now, we headed back to Castletown, where we turned onto the B876 towards Reiss where the road turns into the A99 once more, until we reached Wick, to find the Pulteney distillery. We did not know a lot of this place before going here, only what the marketing and online stories could tell us about boats and the distinctive shapes of the stills reflected in their bottles. But what was so special about it? We have encountered weird stills and setups before on our growing list of distillery visits, and the not knowing is what made us more curious to see it, so we had made an appointment to visit a while back and were awaited by the friendly staff of the visitor centre, eager to answer all our burning questions to share their story.
The small town was once known for its huge herring industry with over 1.000 boats and 7.000 workers in the port, that is now mainly used for docking of cargo and tourist ships. It certainly has seen some history with the distillery dating back to 1826, founded by James Henderson in the midst of the herring boom. As with most of the older distilleries, they used to have their own cooperage and maltings on site, but halfway the twentieth century, after being closed for two decades, these disappeared in favour of the more economical delivery from external parties. The remaining parts of the distillery remained pretty much the same until today, not implementing any computerisation we see around lots of other distilleries. Just like in 1958 when they underwent a major refurbishment, they made use of their 12 week silent period this year to replace the old corten steel washbacks from the 1920’s with six brand new stainless steel versions.
The distillery produces around 1.3 million liters of pure alcohol per year from unpeated malts, a 50/50 mix of Concerto and Chronicle strains, purchased from Bairds in 30 tonne batches, delivered five times every two weeks. These are processed per 5 tonne through the 94 year old four roller Portues mill which takes around an hour to do its job 5 days per week to process all the needed material for production. The mashtun looks to be squeezed in the next room, barely fitting with its stainless steel base, copper dome and copper underback. We do see a computer screen in the corner to manually control the water flows and the draining of the wort to make sure the results have the intended cloudiness. After the tour we are pretty sure this is the only screen we have seen in the whole distillery, the rest seems to be completely manually operated.
The next room we visit holds the five old corten steel washbacks (which have been replaced after our visit with the six stainless versions we already mentioned). Each of the washbacks is filled with the 23.500 litres of wort coming from the mash tun, and when the dried Anchor M-type yeast is added, it takes about 50 hours to ferment. From there the next step in the process is the completely manual operated stillhouse where we find another stainless steel washback and a curious set of stills.
Standing in between them looking outside, we can see the containers housing the worm tubs, and hear the cooling water running. The stills themselves are designed to create a maximum amount of reflux, in expected and unexpected places. The wash still - besides doubling as the home for one of the stillman, has a flat, sawed off top and a humongous boil ball which has almost the same size as the pot itself. A long, downward lye arm starts halfway the short neck, and goes outside with a 45° curve to its own zig-zagging worm tub. About half a washback is filled into this wash still, creating the 20% abv liquid in roughly three hours, after which it is transferred into the even sillier looking spirit still; the base is rather standard, has a small patchworked boiling ball and a tall neck, which continues in a lye arm that almost immediately has a vertical drop of about a meter, continues horizontally into an enormous purifier (which does not seem to have a returning pipe to the still) and comes out on top of the purifier to go outside in its own worm tub. The water used for this cooling has the same source as the water used in production, and comes from Loch Hempriggs around 3 miles away from the distillery situated close to the A99.
From the worm tubs, the spirit travels all the way back to the beginning of the distillery, where the shiny copper spirit safe sits on top of the spirit receiver. No automation here either; the nose of the stillman, combined with the hydrometers and thermometers tell them when to switch the lever and split the spirit from the feints. The heart of the run is captured between the large window of 73-60% creating a fresh, fruity and rich, meaty (think: poultry) spirit in the slow and long run. Next door, the spirit is collected and 60% is casked and stored on-site, where the remaining 40% is tankered away to be casked off-site and sold to be used for blends and independent bottlers. A small portion of the spirit is used in the company’s whisky liquor, which is put together in a small marrying tun, housed in the filling room. Somewhere around 24.000 casks are currently resting in the four warehouses, of which three are dunnage, one is racked.
Done with the tour, we spot a contemporary construction, not exactly blending in with the other buildings. We are told this is independently owned biomass installation not only heating the steam boilers of the distillery, but also delivers heating for about 200 households in the village of Wick. It is very nice to see the otherwise old fashioned distillery, honouring buildings and traditional production, diving into a modern, sustainable energy source.
For us, this distillery is another example not always to go blindly with the marketing information provided but to make the effort when you are in the neighbourhood to visit the distillery, see for yourself and make your own experience. We have not tried many different expressions from the Old Pulteney brand yet, but we are looking forward to sharing some notes soon from the samples we collected after our tour. It was great visiting the Pulteney distillery and have a look around the maze of rooms, the snakepit of piping and the strange looking, but functional equipment, all adding to the flavour of the spirit.
Time for us to get back on the sloping A99, get some lunch at the Laidhay tea room in Dunbeath near Brora on the side of the A9, quickly pop in at the Clynelish distillery, which was sadly closed for maintenance. We did have a quick look in the Brora stillroom and drove a gorgeous trip south on the A9 for our next distillery visit the next day, after a well deserved rest at the Dornoch castle hotel, not without checking out their very well stocked whisky bar.
On our Facebook page we will share some pictures in the coming week, taken at the Brora distillery, and you will receive a sneak peak of the next distillery we are visiting. Check in here on Sunday again to read more about the distillery which tells us about their “Vintage Single Malt Whiskies, timed to perfection”.
Thomas & Ansgar