Old Pulteney Navigator

Sheltering in place has put me in a funk that makes me more likely to knock back cocktails than appreciate good whisky. Really, this week’s review is appropriate for that. My first thought after tasting Old Pulteney Navigator was “This is a dram for someone who’s looking to punish themselves.” Now, that sounds overly judgy so maybe let’s rephrase that as “a dram for someone who’s had a hard day. Or week. Or 75 days in a row.” I’ve said before that Old Pulteney is not for everybody. It’s not quite as much of an “acquired taste” as highly-peated Islay scotches like Laphroaig, but it’s also so full of odd, salty, grimy flavors that it’s hard to put it in the same category as a pristine Glenmorangie or Balvenie.

Navigator has some (I’m not in a charitable mood) marketing drivel about yacht races or some such. It’s really an NAS (no age stated) vatting of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. At least the whisky is bottled at a perfect 46% ABV without chill-filtration or added coloring (aka “craft presentation”). OK, I hear you saying, it’s a craft NAS single malt, so I can expect to pay a little less than the age-stated entry level bottling, right? Nope. Wrong. Voted off the island. This is around $10-$15 more than the 12-year. Bah, I say. Bah.

Nose: Industrial oils and solvents with briny, meaty peat and tarry molasses. Not even a little sweet. Of course, I say that and then a rest in the glass adds some brown sugar.

Palate: Medium body. A robust tongue burn (more than expected for 46%) is followed by sludgy seaweed, muddy peat (without the smoke), and engine grease. At last there is a very slight sweetness in the form of dark treacle or molasses, and some slight fig notes that only appear after a rest in the glass. (Ah! There’s the sherry. I guess.)

Finish: Long. The molasses appears first, finally showing some brown sugar instead of just vegetal tar. Some mouth-drying oaky tannins that are surprisingly not bitter. The whole thing lingers, intact, for quite awhile.

With Water: A few drops of water add a little nose tickle and round out the small amount of sweetness in the aroma. The body is thinner, but the palate flavors are more likable and even has a new, tart lime note that pairs well with the rum-y flavors. I definitely suggest trying this without and then with some water.

Overall: It’s certainly maritime in that it smells like something slathered on a hull to make it seaworthy. I kid. Sort of. There is an intrusion of peat but absolutely no smoke, which makes it smell and taste earthy but without evoking Islay’s style of smoky peat. The overall effect is brooding and difficult, and that so-called partial sherry cask aging is thoroughly in the background. I’m not sure I could enjoy this regularly, although I appreciate the complexity and the stubborn rum-like lack of affability.

In my own personal notes I graded it the same as Old Pulteney 12, which is cheaper and has an age statement. That’s all you need to know, I think.

ScotchNoob™ Mark:

About The Distillery

Using water rising from the stone in Caithness, a barren rocky coastline in Scotland’s far Northern Highlands, Old Pulteney was built in 1827 to supply local herring fishermen with a few drams to warm them up after (or during?) their windy work. The distillery uses the town water supply, which is pumped from the Loch of Yarrows to the south. The distillery’s stills are unusual, with large boil-bulbs and lyne arms that twist as they descend sharply into worms. Old Pulteney lies at the center of the debate about salty character in whisky, as its maritime influence is undeniable. Its coastal warehouses, constantly battered by the brine-laden gusty winds of the northern Atlantic, certainly smell of the sea. Those warehouses hold a small percentage of Old Pulteney aging in sherry casks, but the majority rests in ex-bourbon. The spirit is filled into distinctive bottles with a bulb in the neck that evokes the shape of the site’s stills.
Old Pulteney Navigator
46% ABV
ScotchNoob™ Mark:
Price Range: $45 - $60
Acquired: (30ml sample bottle) Master of Malt.

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  • Thank you Mark. This is one of my favorite reviews of yours, and I read em all. Your ambivalence at an oddball flavor profile captures several of my whiskey experiences – much to say about the notes and layers, but who the hell knows if the experience was actually ‘good’ or ‘bad’, let alone recommendable to others. Thank you for continuing to do what you do!