Old Pulteney unveiled its new collection of single malt Scotch whiskies last year, finally launching it in Malaysia last month. We spoke to their distillery manager, Malcolm Waring, who was in Kuala Lumpur to promote the new expressions.
By Beverley Hon
There’s something to be said about Scotch whisky where the single malt is a distinctive product with a variety and complexity of flavours. What makes Scottish whisky stand out is a combination of nature, a closely regulated manufacturing process and various methods the distilleries in Scotland use. For Old Pulteney’s distillery manager Malcolm Waring though, whisky making is an art.
As someone who has worked his way up the ranks through all areas of the distillery – from maturation warehouses to the mash room and then the stills – Waring is well versed in the operations and processes involved in making fine malt whisky. The 56-year-old has been in the industry for 30 years and now oversees the Pulteney Distillery in Wick, Caithness in the far north of Scotland.
Malcolm Waring, Old Pulteney
In an era of change and rapid progress, many distilleries now include the use of modern technology in their whisky-making production. At Old Pulteney though, little has changed with Waring preferring to retain techniques that are no longer used or which have been forgotten.
“I am a traditionalist. I’m not really into all this modern technology. I’ve been to distilleries where modern practices are used and in all fairness, it’s up to them what they want to do. It’s not what I want to do. I’m really into the old ways of working,” says Waring, who has been at the helm of the Pulteney Distillery for over 12 years.
“A lot of them are geared up to be as efficient as you can and that’s fine. I do that to a point as well, as long as it doesn’t interfere with tradition or affect the final outcome of what I want to produce,” he added.
Part of Waring’s job is to ensure that the malted barley the distillery receives is milled, mashed, fermented, distilled and matured the Old Pulteney way, before being bottled and sold. In short, he has to ensure that everything that leaves the distillery is as they wanted.
Old Pulteney distillery
At the Pulteney distillery, the milling process to grind the weekly 5.1 tonnes of malted barley into grist takes two hours, all done in 25kg batches in the distillery’s traditional, four-roller Porteus mill.
The mashing process then sees the starch in the grist being converted into sugar in a semi-lauter mash tun where the grist is immersed in water and stirred to produce the wort for fermentation. The stainless steel mash tun with a copper canopy is capable of completing 19 mashes per week but Waring prefers a different approach.
The distillery does an average of 14 mashes a week which are split into different fermentation lengths during the fermentation process – six “short fermenters” which take around 70 hours, and eight “long fermenters” which take 110 to 115 hours. The distillery houses seven stainless steel washbacks, with a working capacity of 23,500 litres to handle the fermentation process which leads to a ‘wash’ with an alcohol concentration of 8% to 8.5%.
During the distillation process, this wash is distilled twice – first into low wines and then the final spirit. The wash stills are what impart flavour and character to the spirit and Old Pulteney’s unusually shaped pot stills with particularly large boiling balls are the key to their whiskies having a more fragrant whisky character. The stills are also the inspiration for the brand’s bottle shape.
“The stills have a very, very important job – not just distillation but they also lend flavours and that’s where a lot of it begins. The size and shape of the still, the length of time that you’re going to distil – all that really has an impact on the spirit that you’re going to produce,” explained Waring.
“We run our stills quite slow within the industry, about 3.5 hours to 4 hours so we get a very big, beefy, veggie, full-bodied new make spirit that’s quite oily,” he added.
The vapours from the still are then condensed back into a liquid using a worm tub, a traditional but old and slow method that plays an important part in the final outcome and the new spirit. According to Waring, Old Pulteney is one of 15 distilleries (out of 120 working ones) in Scotland that are still using worm tubs.
Once the new make spirit is ready, it is then matured on site in carefully selected fine oak, ex-bourbon casks in Old Pulteney’s traditional dunnage warehouses.
“Eighty percent of what you’re drinking is derived from the cask. Over time, you get to know what casks bring what into your spirit. What works for me may not necessarily work for another distiller,” explained Waring. “I know what works for us so cask selection is very important because it brings in all the attributes of what we are looking for.”
Old Pulteney is often said to carry a suggestion of Caithness coastal air and Waring, who grew up in Wick, states that his hometown is a special place that “really puts the DNA and the heart into what I’m producing.”
“Wick has microflora that is totally unique (compared to) anywhere else and we’ve got that salty, coastal expression in the whisky as well. For me, it’s a play on where it is within the warehouse. You can fairly quickly get to know how a distillery works but it takes a long, long time to get to know how your warehouses work,” said Waring.
“I’ve matured them (the new spirit makes) in different positions in different warehouses within actually the plant itself, within the distillery itself so it’s a homage to the warehouses of where we are and what they can do and how they can bring a different dimension to it. The unique thing about Old Pulteney is that you still have the heart all the way through it, from the way it’s matured and what it’s matured in, with the different expressions bringing another dimension,” he expounded.
When asked about training in the whisky industry and if the younger generation is interested in working in the whisky production business, Waring shared that he learnt from those who were there before him. He also revealed that the industry recognises that its veterans are getting up there in age and that new blood is needed. Their response has been to offer apprenticeships in Scotland and the United Kingdom.
“I’m very much behind that. We need younger people to command and there is a lot of information and a lot of practices which are going to go if we don’t start bringing in new people. When you make whiskey, you use your senses. You have to have sight, sound, smell and taste to tell if something is wrong. Your computer is not going to do that for you. You need a person to do that,” said Waring.
“What makes good whisky is the people and the place. It has to be. We have to have that human element there and you have to have people who are very passionate in what they do. They have to have an understanding of what they do and that’s it’s not just opening up and closing a valve and heating water up. They really have to understand why we do that. The senses come in, the place comes in, how you look after it, and you can’t ever look at it as being a job,” he added.
“It’s not a job, it’s part of your life. You grow up with it.”