We think of Prohibition as a distinctly American phenomenon, but the long arm of temperance once reached into unexpected corners of the world. The Prohibition Party was founded in Scotland in
1901, and by 1913 was influential enough to help pass the Temperance Act. That legislation gave small local areas the right to hold a referendum on the sale of alcohol in their districts. On May 28, 1922, such a referendum took place in the town of Wick, and the citizens voted to outlaw booze.
The results were devastating. Old Pulteney, the northernmost distillery in Scotland, was one of the cornerstones of Wick’s prosperity. It had been established in 1826 by James Henderson and named for Sir William Johnstone Pulteney, the richest man in Britain, who wanted to transform a sleepy village of several hundred inhabitants into an industrial metropolis. He created the town’s substantial harbor, which led to a boom in herring fishery and the establishment of nearby Pulteneytown. By 1930 the party was over. The herring trade had dried up, Pulteney himself was long dead, and the distillery was closed. Wick must have been a festive place to spend the Depression.
In 1947 the inhabitants of Wick came to their senses, or at least were overcome by thirst. Prohibition was repealed and Old Pulteney reopened in 1951. It is currently owned by Inver House and produces an acclaimed range of Highland Malts—most notably the 21 Year Old, named World Whisky of the Year in 2012 by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Given its port location and the influence of the saline air on the whisky, it has once again reclaimed its reputation as “the Maritime Malt.”
The 12 Year Old ($45) is the cornerstone of Old Pulteney’s production. It has a deep, brilliant copper color and a nose with aromas of toffee, baking spices and hints of vegetation. The whisky is softer than expected
on the palate, with a distinct salty quality balanced by caramel flavors and pepper notes; strong tones of menthol emerge in the mid palate, and the finish is moderately long and pleasantly gritty. A teaspoon of water rounds it out nicely and lends the spirit a generous edge.
The Navigator single malt ($55) has a floral nose redolent of sea air and citrus. Citrus dominates in the mouth as well, with flavors of orange zest and hints of chocolate enhancing a clean, spicy palate. The finish is long and resonant, with salty overtones and spice notes reverberating. Brighter and more focused than the 12 Year, it also amplifies with a touch of water.
Old Pulteney makes a malt whisky liqueur called Stroma ($35, 70 proof/35% alcohol), named for a windswept isle located off the rugged Caithness coast. The nose mixes salt, spice, dried apricots and candied fruits. It is viscous and honeyed in the mouth, with a rich sweetness nicely balanced by a blend of malt whiskies. The long finish offers echoes of ginger and tropical fruit. If you always wanted to drink Scotch but were deterred by the earthiness and intensity of the spirit, this one’s for you.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.