Stock management is neither easy, nor a precise science. Casks are ordered, filled and laid down based around a wide range of assumptions - some of which will only come into focus decades in the future. Unless you’ve got near endless warehousing and extraordinary production capacity, everything is by necessity a compromise – how much liquid can you producing to maintain the consistency of your existing range for X number of year? What selection of casks are required, how are they judged to be of the appropriate quality – and when? Whisky production is educated guesswork for a possible future, and in many instances, no one would have predicted the shape the industry twenty years ago.
In the case of Old Pulteney, stock shortages were cited as the reason for the switch from 17 and 21 year old expressions to new 15 and 18 year old replacements. Decisions about the cask management (particularly around oloroso and fino sherry) for the now defunct bottlings would have been taking place constantly – well over two decades ago. Since winning several awards (including a nod from the man in the hat in 2012), OP 21 was on limited allocation for many territories….over the years demand for the two expressions (and whisky in general) has soared, placing pressure on the volumes of casks with the particularly characteristics necessary for these two bottles. But, there’s only so much you can do with 6 washbacks and 2 stills.
OP’s owner Inver House has looked at the wider whisky market and judged a need to reposition several of their distilleries for the future. A more expensive future. As real as stock issues are, here they’ve being utilised as an opportunity to ramp up pricing – in some cases considerably. Inver House’s distilleries were arguably behind the curve - offering better liquid for better prices than many of their competitors for a number of years. But, sadly, I now feel the opposite is true. The further into Inver House’s renewal exercise we go, the more I feel that things might well have been pushed too far. In the case of Old Pulteney, despite some grumbling, it seems that the revamp might have actually let customers off lightly - relatively. Younger whisky at a higher price is nothing compared to the unreasonableness of the recently announced Balblair 25 year – preposterously offered at £500 - some 300% more expensive than their older 1991 Vintage. A granite-level hard pass for me.
But, for Old Pulteney, there are positives here too – all other things being equal, the OP core range should now be with us for some time into the future – consistency and stock management (hopefully) going hand in hand. Regardless of thoughts of past expressions and comparisons to them (which rarely ends well), the distillery has a new range with which to reach out to a wider market - *and* the levels of stock which to be able to support growth. No distillery in their right mind wants to end up like their colleagues in Japan – totally in vogue, but totally out of aged stock, resulting in future planning that could see interest move elsewhere as quickly as the liquid has.
Today, we look at the new zenith of the Old Pulteney range – the 18 year old. It is composed of 2nd fill ex-bourbon casks finished in 1st fill Spanish oak oloroso sherry casks. It’s bottled at 46% and will set you back £112 from Master of Malt.
Nose: Malt is up first – plenty of breads and loaves, with a good smearing of orange marmalade across the top. A scattering of red berries is joined by rocky and citric minerality – limestone cliffs with a side order of a margarita. Running throughout, gentle spicing – cinnamon and a perceptible Pulteney-esque lick of salt. Water takes things in a bakery direction – chocolate cookies, oven-fresh biscuits and rolled marzipan – it also unlocks a hint of maturity with gentle lemony polish.
Taste: Nicely textured – creams and light oils – again commencing with overarching maltiness. Baked loaves, sponge cake and ginger biscuits move into table seasoning (salt and pepper) before transposing towards the oloroso finish – raisins and sultanas with chocolate and cinnamon. The back-palate is more cask-driven – hessian, nutmeg and oaked dryness alongside mentholated oranges, shale and slate. Reduction emphases a greater fruit constituency – tinned peaches and mangos sweetened with honey, but deepened with charred cask ends.
Finish: Medium to long and favouring wood and spices – salt, pepper and lime with more charred oak.
Old Pulteney 18 is entirely pleasant liquid – it is well composed and generally well balanced. But there’s not a huge amount of intrigue to unpick here. The ex-bourbon and sherry finish perform exactly as you’d expect – no less, but, disappointingly, no more. The end result feels less opulent and indulgent than either of the two now defunct age-statement releases, and as such, I can’t help but feel a little disenchanted given the new price point. As an near life-long OP fan I feel like I’m getting less, for more.