What does briny mean, in a tasting note? How do you smell brine? It’s not just the salt… salt alone has no smell. Try pouring a cup of salt into two cups of hot water, let it dissolve, and smell. Nothing. Brine in a tasting note must refer more specifically to the essence of the ocean – or more exactly – the shore. Seaweed, algae, and the many minerals and microflora present in oceanwater contribute to the unmistakable scent and taste of the sea. It may also be more accurate that ‘brine’ smells like ocean air, not ocean water. For me – a childhood memory perhaps – the scent is inextricable from the flavor of fresh, soft saltwater taffy.
The debate has been raging (hyperbole if ever there was) for decades about whether coastal whiskies such as Talisker and Old Pulteney truly smell or taste like the sea air in which they mature. The arguments, largely un-provable, are based on the probable fact that air laden with oceanic compounds enters and interacts with the whisky as the casks “breathe” during their maturation. Thus, whisky aged in the presence of sea air (especially turbulent seas, and where the wind is extreme) will absorb some of that briny character, while casks aged inland will not. This would be arguably the closest whisky gets to wine’s terroir – the influence of the land on the final product. Detractors argue that the effect, if it happens at all, is minuscule and the briny notes are solely the products of suggestion.
I think Old Pulteney has characteristics of brine, so I guess I’m on the side of the terroir-ists (see what I did there?). I also noticed some tart cherries, which might be attributable to the 10% oloroso sherry aging. The rest of the malt is aged in ex-bourbon. The 17-year is not chill-filtered, and is bottled at 46% ABV.
These days you can’t talk about Old Pulteney without discussing whisky writer and author of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, Jim Murray, who in 2012 awarded Old Pulteney 21-year with his “2012 Best Whisky in the World” title. This caused a flurry of sales for the previously sedate line of products, and a flurry of Internet commentary about whether Jim Murray is just stirring up trouble. I don’t have any of the 21, but let’s proceed on the assumption that the 17 is similar enough.
Nose: Yup. Brine. A definite whiff of freshly-trodden seaweed on a windswept shoreline… yes, whisky always makes me wax poetic. Seawater and something citrus: lemon saltwater taffy. Tangy peat – like Highland Park‘s. Tart cherries. The buttery salted caramel and marshmallow malt character is somewhat buried beneath the tartness, but it’s there. Very nicely crafted – statuesque and gruff, but potent and flavorful.
Palate: Soft. Lively tongue burn. Some light barrel char and malty caramelized grains. The tip of my tongue picks up some of those tart lemon/cherry notes. The rest tastes like somewhat standard bourbon-aged single malt.
Finish: Medium long. Principally sweet – caramel again. Driftwood fire smoke. Vanilla saltwater taffy now. Fades with smoked lemon peels. Many writers call it ‘dry’, but I don’t get that.
With Water: Water makes the nose a little too sharp – although it awakens some mild fruitwood smoke notes. The water does a nice job of taming the tongue burn, and spreads out those lemon – now lemon custard – notes across the whole palate. Try without the water first, and then see if it does anything interesting for you.
Overall: Unless those additional four years cause magic to happen, I don’t agree with Jim Murray. It is a tasty, straightforward malt with an excellent tart/briny nose and some interesting smoky notes on the finish. It can’t compete with Islay for peatiness, nor with Highland Park for value (especially after the prices shot up with the Whisky Bible award). If you’re a fan of the briny/tart character and can’t get enough of Highland Park and Clynelish, then this is probably a must-have for your shelf. If not, maybe it’s worth buying a special-occasion bottle to try for yourself to understand what Jim Murray thinks is so wonderful about the distillery.