Back in November, the Toronto Whisky Society was invited to an event with International Beverage Holdings and Woodman Spirits, held at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, and TOModera and I were the privileged pair who got to attend. In case you don’t know (and didn’t follow those links), International Beverage Holdings is a company that owns many alcoholic beverage brands and manufacturers, including 5 distilleries in Scotland, and Woodman is an agent that brings whiskies into the LCBO on behalf of InterBev and others. The RCMI is quite a neat facility, and one I plan to go back to and check out in greater detail. I highly recommend checking it out if you like military history. Having previously held an event with Woodman Spirits and InterBev in 2017, we were invited to this media event to meet Malcolm Waring, hear some stories and try some fantastic whiskies.
The event started with an introduction to International Beverages by Gordon Stevenson, who also led the tasting we held in June. Gordon gave an overview of the five distilleries in InterBev’s portfolio: Balblair, Pulteney, Knockdhu, Speyburn and Balmenach. We started with a whisky I’d reviewed previously: Catto’s 12. The backstory of this blend is that in 1861, James Catto of Aberdeen owned a grocery store and began sourcing and blending his own whisky for sale (and export via cruise ship), and is generally considered one of the pioneers of blended scotch whisky. InterBev came to own the Catto brand, and today it is a blend using whiskies from all 5 Interbev Distilleries, including a range of casks and at least 35% malt. It has won a number of gold and double gold medals in its category, and the high malt content was apparent when tasting it.
The next dram we tried was Balblair 2005. Having thoroughly enjoyed the 1997 and 1990 vintages Gordon introduced at our last event, it was exciting to try some younger spirit to see how it stacked up. Balblair is the oldest distillery in the highlands and is gaelic for battlefield. Balblair is unique in that they only do vintage releases, as opposed to age stated or NAS bottlings. They release the barrels from a particular vintage in batches depending on when they’re ready, as determined by John MacDonald, the distillery manager. This particular batch was bottled in 2016, and was aged in re-charred ex-bourbon barrels. Here are my thoughts:
- Nose: citrus, bitter oak, salty, chocolate, oak
- Palate: creamy, very malty, lots of spice, chocolate, very oaky, some bitterness, salty, tropical fruit. More minerality and creamier with some water.
- Finish: long, citrusy, bitter oak.
- Score: 85
After the Balblair, Gordon ceded the floor to Malcolm Waring, current distillery manager of Pulteney distillery and 30-year veteran at InterBev. He started his career on the shop floor and worked his way up, working the stills, the mash tuns, the warehouse and fermenters. Eventually he became an assistant manager, and moved around the company, covering vacancies at the other InterBev distilleries, including 6 years at Knockdhu, which is where the next two bottles we tried were from.
The Knockdhu distillery (Gaelic for ‘Dark Hill”) is on the edge of Speyside and opened in 1894. It went through periods of mothballing and re-opening, and in its recent history, the single malts are branded anCnoc (meaning “The Hill”), so as not to be confused with spirits from Knockandu distillery. At Knockdhu, they have very tall stills resulting in a more delicate, floral spirit. They also use the same tubs for wort and spirits and 6 wooden washbacks with a very long fermentation period at lower temperatures than most other distilleries. The first anCnoc that we tried was the 12 year old, which is aged in American oak and which I’ve reviewed previously.
After the 12, we tried the Rascan, a recent release in a line of limited release peated bottlings that get back to the original style produced at Knockdhu. This lineup is named after the various tools used to collect peat historically, and Rascan was a tool used to break up topsoil to reach the peat below. Originally, Knockdhu used peat from approximately 2 miles away and had their own maltings. Today this is outsourced, as most distilleries do, but they have very specific specifications with their supplier, to ensure the peat doesn’t overpower the Knockdhu spirit. As I’ve already reviewed Rascan, I didn’t take notes at the lunch and just enjoyed the stories and the whisky.
Malcolm then began to talk about Pulteney, where he has spent most of his career, and where he has been distillery since 2006. The Pulteney distillery is in Wick, and in case we didn’t know where Wick was Malcolm gave directions: “Just follow the signs to nowhere until you get to ‘where the hell am I?’ and that’s Wick” This humour was laden throughout the stories he told, and in between the laughs he shared some interesting insights into the town and distillery.
The town of Wick is a small northern coastal settlement with about 4000 permanent residents plus migrant workers. It’s historically a fishing town that specialized in herring production. Despite the small number of residents, there are 41 bars in the area, and resident William Johnston saw an opportunity to hydrate the fishermen who frequented them. In 1826, he build the Pulteney distillery, named after his wife Francis Pulteney, and typically they’d be drinking spirit straight off the still. For years, the fishermen would go out to sea, come back with their catch, sell the fish and head to the bar to drink away their earnings. The ensuing rowdiness led to a temperance movement in the town, and eventually it came to a vote in 1922 that was held during happy hour. The result was 25 years of prohibition, and the Pulteney distillery shutting down in 1926 after producing in a dry town for a few years. After prohibition was repealed in 1947, the distillery re-opened in 1951 and has been operating since.
The distillery has 7 washbacks, a long fermentation time of 112 hours, and use dried yeast that gives a soft strawberry note. They also are known for their uniquely shaped pot stills, with a flat top, bulbous neck and no swan, leading to lots of reflux. Their bottles are designed to imitate the shape of these stills. Another unique aspect of their production is they don’t reduce the spirit’s strength before barrelling. They get their barrels from 3 suppliers in the US (JD, Maker’s Mark and Buffalo Trace), have 5 warehouses and 3 dunnage racks.
Pulteney is very important to the town of Wick in terms of employment and revenue, but also gives back to the local community in a number of ways. They built a biomass generator that produces sustainable energy and heats 250 homes and the local hospital. They use local resources whenever possible, and also sponsor the local pipe band, football club and more.
We had the opportunity to try four drams from Pulteney, starting with the 12 year old which is comprised of mostly first fill American ex-bourbon barrels. Again, I’ve reviewed it in the past, so I didn’t take notes on this one. The next was the non-age-stated Navigator, which includes both ex-bourbon casks and some European/Spanish oak casks seasoned in Spain for two years with Spanish oloroso. I found it had a lot of depth for an NAS whisky and was quite enjoyable.
- Nose: light citrus, some earth, nutty and grassy
- Palate: mineral, citrus, earth, light tobacco, grassy, oranges. A strong perfumey note, some brine and salt, spices, oak red fruit, malt
- Finish: long, briney, earth, mineralty, vegetal
- Score: 86
Next we moved to the heavy hitters, first trying the new Old Pulteney 25 year, which replaces the outgoing 21 year. The 25 is aged in american oak and then undergoes a second maturation of 3+ years (Malcolm doesn’t like to use the term finishing when it’s that long of a time period) in Spanish oak that previously held oloroso. It is aged in warehouse #6 where the Kiln used to be. It has very damp walls and leads to an incredibly earthy maritime dram. My overall impression was that it’s fantastic. The flavours don’t compete and complement each other well. Tons of depth. This will be a tempting celebration bottle to look for.
- Nose: leathery, oak, dark chocolate, spices, cloves, apples, tobacco
- Palate: fruit, spice, citrus, brine, nutty, tobacco, leather, minerals, earth, cloves, mahogany, oak, rich chocolate. Wow. That’s something else.
- Finish: long, fruit, sherry, brine, quite dry, vegetal
- Score: 90
The final dram of the day was the second vintage release from Pulteney, the 1983. It was bottled just shortly before Malcolm came across the pond, giving it an age of 34 years. This beauty is essentially an older version of the 25 and underwent the same type of double maturation and re-racking into the same warehouse. It rivals some of the best I’ve had. Absolutely delicious!
- Nose: oak, red fruit, dried fruit, raisins, tobacco, brine, salty, dark chocolate, sweet. Quite similar to the 25 on the nose.
- Palate: spicy, pepper, cloves, demarara sugar, chocolate, oak, red fruit, cinnamon, nutty, oak tart, tobacco. Damn. That is gorgeous.
- Finish: incredibly long, spicy, dry, red fruit, oak tobacco smoke, some sweetness.
- Score: 93
An incredible tasting and lunch event with Malcolm, Gordon and the Woodman team. We are so thankful for the invite and look forward to seeing these on shelves and incorporating them into our tastings in the future for the larger group!