Precision guess work

Posted 21 October 2019 by Matt / In Old Pulteney
The Dramble reviews OId Pulteney Limited Edition 1990 Vintage

Bottle Name: Old Pulteney Limited Edition 1990 Vintage

ABV: 46%
Distillery: Old Pulteney
Region: Highlands Age: 23

I don’t ascribe to the adage that X% of whisky’s flavour is derived from the cask. You’ll regularly see producers trying to pin-point a precise percentage of flavour that’s derived from the wood. It ties into their narrative. It provides a simple takeaway factoid. But, at its heart, this assertion is plucked straight from the arse of random guesswork. A quick look on the Interwebs tells you that this figure is estimated to be anywhere between 50% to 80%.

There’s no hard science to prove anything, and indeed, when it comes to talking about flavour, you’re immediately talking about palates and personal tastes – something that it’s possible to generalise about, but not to attribute percentages to. Nevertheless, folks seem more than happy to take wild estimates as to the percentage of flavour a cask imparts.

The reality is much more straight-forward (and ergo vague)  - stealing a line from Mark Reynier: ‘100% of whisky’s flavour is influenced by its time in wood.’

Wood is a multifaceted natural compound – it ‘breathes’, it filters, it delivers extractives and its state can be altered through degrees of charring and the storage of precursor liquids – all of which change the chemistry of the cask. The style, size and quality of the wood will of course influence its eventual flavours – the difference between a 1st fill and a 4th fill – the variances between a wet sherry butt and a slightly dried out port pipe. All of these combinations make for non-linear journeys and interactions with wood and spirit which can be predicted, but never pre-known.

The percentage of chemical compounds in both the wood and the eventual whisky, can of course be measured and mapped. But this is not the same as flavour. Flavour has a range, but its perception, its contemplation and its description comes down to personal taste and the individuality of olfactory systems.

It’s just not helpful to be attributing percentages of flavour to the wood. In doing so, particularly at the higher end (80% etc) you’re dumbing down all the other processes which go before maturation – the importance of raw ingredients, of yeast and wash creation, of the distillation itself. These are far from homogenised. Some distilleries simply make better spirit than others – suggesting that somehow this unevenness is largely irrelevant when compared to that of the wood does little service to what makes whisky such an interesting spirit to explore.

Now, granted, there are time when whiskies do feel like all of their flavours are derived from the cask – big over-done 1st fill ex-bourbon is a modern trait of the whisky industry and can result in a swathe of spirit all tasting largely similarly. However, this is a facet of the style of whisky that is currently being produced - if you repeatedly hit it over the head with a vanilla stick, that’s what you’re likely to get. But, spend some time tasting the range of new make spirits from across the diversity of distilleries and you’ll immediately note the huge flavour differences which are present – flavours which for the most part are transferred into the eventual whisky once it’s completed its maturation. And the better ones, at least to my mind, are the spirits where the character has been retained throughout the process – not lost behind a wall of cask influence.

Old Pulteney whilst being inherently unpeated as a spirit has released a few expressions dabbling in the smokier side of things though the use of casks which had previously held peated liquid. The 1989 Limited Edition Vintage, which we reviewed back in July 2017 (has it really been that long?!?) went on to win the ‘World’s Best Single Malt Whisky at the 2016 World Whisky Awards. The net result of this was a doubling of the asking price at auctions from its original RRP of around £130 – and then of course there was the twin pack re-issue of the 1989 Vintage alongside the discontinued 21 year old in mid-2018 – a cash-in limited release with an asking price of £600 – which I guess wasn’t as unreasonable as I think it is, as it sold out in a flash. Humans are strange and unfathomable creatures.

The Limited Edition 1990 Vintage was released before its gong-winning 1989 cousin – back in 2014. It’s both younger, at 23 years old age, and also slightly differently composed, being made up of both American ex-bourbon casks and Spanish ex-sherry casks which previous held heavily peated whisky. It also should not be confused with the more recently released 1990 26 year old Vintage bottled for Heathrow World Duty Free – though this too is ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, ex-peaty cask in origin. So, it’s likely that some people will get confused. The expression is described as ‘lightly peated’ – the ‘heavily peated’ precursor casks merely influencing the OP spirit, but completely transforming it into a smoky beast. It’s delivered at 46% ABV.

The word on the street at the time of release was that the casks could quite possibly have come from Laphroaig – there were a selection of similarly timed experimental peaty expressions from Balblair – both distilleries are part of Inverhouse Distillers – so this link seems quite possible. Nowadays of course, using ex-Laphroaig casks to impart smoky flavours is plat du jour across the industry – especially for younger releases where there’s youthfulness to try to hide.

The 1990 Vintage didn’t win the World Whisky Awards, and it shows in its current asking price – you’ll find this for less than its £130 RRP at auction as of writing. Yes, that’s not a typo *less*. Whilst this sounds nonsensical (and in many ways it is), it’s likely down almost entirely to the award success of the 1989 Vintage. There can be only one.

Nose: Fruits first – cooking apples, comice pears and candied lemon peels alongside honeydew melon, and gooseberries. All freshly picked and naturally sweet. Then, salt crust pastry, salted bread and rock pools – a bakery meats coastalness. Running throughout, a ‘green’ smoke – part sweet, but peaty fruitiness, part burnt olive oil and set campfires. It’s ever-presence, but far from dominant. Reduction adds lemon oils and chopped almonds, whilst really amping up the maritime aspects – chalk, granite and pebbles.

Taste: The arrival delivers weight and texture – and oily morass of orange peels, under ripe pineapple, dried mango and grapefruit tartness. Smoke levels are much higher on the palate than the nose – smouldering driftwood, camphor and menthol – but they’re still restrained – this is a whisky influenced by ex-peaty casks, not a peaty whisky. Honey, vanilla and a scattering of red berries emerges in the mid-palate, reinforced by growing pepperiness, anise and chalky coastalness. Water drops the oily arrival down to mere silkiness – a –re-exertion of the ex-bourbon cask resulting in much more creaminess. It adds notes of tangerines and slightly polished tropical fruits – two decades of maturation is much more apparent now.

Finish: Long with creamy vanilla, lemon balm and a pang of salinity.

Old Pulteney Limited Edition 1990 Vintage is as unexpected as its 1989 Vintage cousin - the typical distillery characteristics of salinity, apple and sweet honey are present and correct, but they’ve been wrapped up in appreciable, but largely sympathetic peat smoke. This helps amplify the spirit’s natural coastalness with plenty of sharp minerality, but it comes at the expense of the natural creaminess of the spirit, which only really resurfaces when diluted. Two decades+ of maturation have resulted in natural fruitiness and complexity, but, there are times when I’m left wondering what this whisky would be like sans the additional peaty cask influence.

Score: 86/100

Master of Malt
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