How do you define spirit character? Is it a particular style, flavour or texture, or merely a consistency that is built up over time? Likewise, at what point does buggering around with ingredients and processes, regimes alter that character to a point where it’s DNA feels lost? Distillery identity changes – with updates to production and repairs over time, through new personnel, with distillers and blenders altering recipes to put their stamp on history. It also, through necessity, needs to adapt and change with the prevailing trends in the market. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
The relaunch of the Old Pulteney core range in mid-2018 came as little surprise. The demise of the well-regarded 17 and 21 year olds, left a crater-sized hole in the distillery’s line up – a selection of well-aged, but costly travel retail releases failing to sate demand for more standard, accessible fare. The new 15 and 18 year old (which The Dramble will be reviewing in the future) were widely expected, but they were also joined by an unanticipated new bottling – Old Pulteney Huddart.
Old Pulteney are no strangers to experimenting with smoke – though the distillery doesn’t used peated spirit currently, previous expressions have toyed with the use of ex-peated casks – the 1990 and 1989 Vintages released a few years back being prime examples – both of which are now quite desirable, but at the same time well worth seeking out. Huddart, named after the street that the Wick-based distillery is located on is the latest release from OP to attempt to meld the distillery’s naturally coastal ex-bourbon style with peaty precursor casks. It clearly draws from the success of the limited release Vintages, providing yet further evidence that producers feel that in the modern market, smoke is a selling point.
The bottling is an NAS release composed of ex-bourbon casks that have been subjected to a finishing period (unspecified) in barrels that previously held peated whisky from anCnoc (Knockdhu distillery is part of the Inverhouse stable, so that type of symbiosis makes perfect sense). The anConc peaty range is an ongoing series issued across retail and travel retail which has a fairly broad selection of PPMs – anywhere from 8 up to 40 in 2018’s core range ‘Peatheart’ expression. Huddart’s level of peat influence is unknown – though from my tasting notes, I’d guess that it’s either from the lower end of the spectrum, or that the finishing period was incredible brief (of both). The bottle is commonly available and clocks in at £43.80 from Master of Malt with an ABV of 46%.
Nose: Toffee apples and sharp lemons provide a base on which maritime-forward notes of smooth beach pebbles, limestone and sea breeze can sit. The promised smoke is feint, frail and almost a murmur – a dosed beach fire from days past. Running throughout, honey lockets (with a mentholated aspect), light herbalness of olive oil and some cured fish – gravlax. The OP character is certainly present – less overtly salty, but still firmly coastal. Reduction reveals underlying maltiness and cereals, whilst adding just a touch more prominence to the peated element – scorched soils – it’s still very much on the down low though.
Taste: The arrival delivers sharp coastalness with shingle, limestone and chalky minerality – but, again, a lot less quarty saltiness that you’d find in say the 12 year old. Lemon is upfront, demi-sweet and joined by straight-forward ex-bourbon flavours of vanilla toffee and coconut. These cask constituents also bring spice – touches of pepper and ginger along for the ride. Smoke is nearly imperceptible – indeed to my taste, there’s more burnt/charred cask heads than there is outright peat influence. In the background, aromas of cut grass and sunflowers – both pleasant and garden-fresh. Water isn’t needed here, but does open things up to more sweetness – sugar-coated apples, greater ginger spicing and a more defined oaky back-palate.
Finish: Medium, somewhat creamy with meringue and coconut, somewhat drying with ex-bourbon wood. In the dying moments, a cooling mint freshness.
Huddart takes the coastal character of Old Pulteney and transposes it – outright saltiness is replaced by a more generic coastal quality. It’s still certainly maritime, but it’s murkier and less chiselled – a shame as there’s a reason that salt is used as a universal flavour improver when it comes to seasoning. Nevertheless, the overall composition works and is agreeable enough. No, my main disappointment with Huddart comes from its peat finish – I’ve no objections to subtlety, but here the smoke influence is positively ghost-like. Previous OP peat-influenced expressions have taken precursor casks and sympathetically woven their inherent qualities into distillery’s DNA over time – Huddart feels like an ex-peated cask has been wafted in the general direction of the spirit for little more than an afternoon. There’s something there, but its understated to such an extent that I’d sooner spend time with the more explicitly salty (and ego characterful) 12 year old.