The fundamental nature of maturing whisky – deliberately but unhurriedly over the years – reinforces a near monolithic link to the past. This can be positively appreciated by exploring processes and practices from decades past, or from experiencing bottlings now defunct that capture a particular moment. Time doesn’t stand still, and nor does whisky. But, all too often I’m seeing the past manifest itself in a binary belief that things were always better before – a view that in some instances may well be true, but one which will only lead to perpetual disappointment – and higher secondary market prices for the things which once were.
The announcement of bottle discontinuations crystallises this rosy retrospection – an innate desire to compare the new to the old and invariably conclude that the replacement is either a substandard substitute or representative of a larger shift in a distillery’s business plan and outlook. Both assertions might be accurate, but it’s a rational folly to always compare to the past – particularly for whisky enthusiasts. It’s impossible to review anything without a benchmark – though if you scout around the sea of whisky blogs, you’ll consistently see people doing so – “this is the first peated whisky I’ve ever tried – here’s my deep and meaningful assessment.” But, at the same time, whilst using our experience as a grounding is essential, sticking rigidly to it will only lead to prejudicial comparisons – and developing grumpy old man syndrome.
Old Pulteney 15 year old was released last year to in essence replace the discontinued 17 year old. Both come from the heart of the OP core range, but I still say ‘in essence’, because in reality the two are very different whiskies. The much loved (including by me) 17 year old launched back in 2004, was predominantly composed of ex-bourbon matured spirit with the addition of whiskies from both oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks. The new 15 year old is matured in 2nd fill American oak and ex-bourbon casks and then further matured in 1st fill Spanish oak ex-oloroso sherry butts – I.E. it’s been finished in sherry rather than created as a marriage of individually matured casks. A comparison between the 15 and 17 is inevitable – especially when you consider their similar price point of around £70. However, it’s not necessarily a totally fair comparison – at their heart, they’re essentially different compositions.
Whilst the bottle shape with its distinctive boil bubble remains the same, the label has received an update – a sort of modern old-fashionedness – at a glance presenting the buyer with more information, but in actuality offering less. Likewise, the marketing appears to have shifted towards SEO keyword stuffing – ‘balance’ or a derivation of the word is utilised four times in barely 100 words on the 15 year old’s website product listing. Not quite subliminal, but certainly heading in that direction - look into the eyes, not around the eyes.
Nose: Relatively fresh and crisp with apple tarts, dried oranges and an assortment of confectionary and burnt pan sugars. Vanilla cream, and malt loaf sits with a scattering of raisins, sultans and evident dry nutty oloroso. In the background, musty dunnage, furniture polish, and a reassuring lick of salinity. The addition of water primarily highlights the cask – sappy oak – and adds some underlying oatiness, coffee beans and a smear of waxy grease.
Taste: Bright, coastal and with a stronger wood influence. Sherry is up first – demi-sweet with chocolate orange, toffee sauce and dried nuts. Gummy sweets (Haribo Tangfastic) provide some zing and sit with a growing spice intensity – pepper and ginger effervescing from the front to the back of the mouth. Reduction needs to be handled with care – this drowns easily – but with just the right application, it allays the cask and spicing and presents a more explicit sherry-driven berry fruit combination which works rather nicely.
Finish: Medium in length and combining creaminess with bitterness – latte coffee alongside steeped drying tea.
Old Pulteney 15 year old is really rather tasty, marrying fresh and crisp aromas and flavours with just enough sherry and just enough coast. It is a contemporary composition designed for a modern generation of whisky drinkers – solid but predictable, wood-forward, but yes, despite the heavy-handed marketing blurb, it is indeed balanced. I don’t like it as much as the 17 year old – it’s simply less characterful and more generic – but, I would still posit that that this new expression is a very different beast and will quite possibly, over time, have wider appeal.
Comparing the past to the present can often be a relationship killer. Especially if we hold a particular fondness for now bygone bottlings. But, how we assess and portray evolution often boils down to a glass half empty/full attitude. In this instance, I’ve decided to express the latter, but take the former - I’m fortunate to have enough stock of Old Pulteney 17 year old to dig into my affections every once in a while.