The World Whiskies Awards is an annual competition that recognizes the “best” of everything in the whisky industry. Awards are given to winners of many different categories from World’s Best Bourbon to World’s Best Single Grain to World’s Best Single Cask Whisky. The most prestigious award, however, is that of “World’s Best Single Malt”.
Personally, I don’t believe there is a best whisky in the world. How could there be? I do, however, believe certain competitions such as this are good for the industry. Not only do they help introduce “very good” whisky to the public, they have a keen ability to boost sales for the winning distilleries. In an industry as competitive as this, winning such an award can change everything and I think it’s important that the people behind the whisky receive proper recognition for their hard work.
On March 17, 2016, The Pulteney distillery in the small town of Wick, Scotland, celebrated its greatest triumph in over 190 years of existence. It’s new limited release Old Pulteney 1989 Vintage was awarded “World’s Best Single Malt” at the 2016 World Whiskies Awards. For a distillery that does not have the same financial muscle that many of its competitors do, this award gave Pulteney every reason to celebrate.
That night I was not in attendance at the awards ceremony in London. I happened to be 6 hours behind, in the States, sitting in my car parked outside of my local whisky retailer. You see, I had learned from previous years that whichever whisky wins this award would soon become impossible to find. I was not about to miss out this year. This year would be different. I was officially an up and coming whisky Instagram blogger (or something like that) and was determined to purchase the winning whisky so that I could share it with all of you. With my Twitter feed prepped on my mobile phone and the websites of every possible UK retailer cued up on my iPad, my whisky-buying battle station was fully prepared.
Old Pulteney 1989 Vintage was distilled in, you guessed it, 1989 and bottled in 2015. It has spent a full 26 years maturing in second-fill bourbon casks that subsequently held a heavily peated malt. Peat or more specifically, “smoke”, is rarely infused into a spirit this way. The common practice is to literally throw peat logs on top of a fire to smoke the barley after it’s malted, before distillation. Will this change the experience in any way? We will find out. The whisky is naturally colored, un-chillfiltered and bottled at 46% ABV. So without further ado, let’s dive into it!
NOSE: A light, crisp aroma of ripe pear, honeysuckle and freshly cut grass. Bright floral notes intertwine beautifully with rich vanilla and citrus. This is a classic Highland aroma if there is one. But wait, a thick veil of peat brings the rugged coastline of Scotland into the glass as well. Light smoke, brine and a faint seabreeze add even more complexity to this 26-year old spirit. The smoke is light but it certainly lingers. Stunning nose if I do say so myself. But also very unique.
PALATE: Wow! A thick and oily texture coats the mouth with a rich profile of warm oak, lemon zest and dry hops. Its surprisingly vibrant given the full 26 years of maturation. The flavors are absolutely bursting in this one: honey, some smoked ham, a light, coastal brine and a hint of saltiness. Oh wow! What a unique combination. The coastal notes come and go as they please and it’s the traditional Highland characteristics that round out the experience. The finish is rather long as the oil cling to the palate to the very end. What a whisky.
CONCLUSION: Overall, a truly dynamic whisky. The first time I tried this whisky I couldn’t quite figure it out. In all honesty, it was difficult to go into that first tasting with a purely objective mindset. Let’s be honest, the crown of “World’s Best Single Malt” weighs heavily on the newcomer. But having since reached level terms with the Old Pulteney 1989 Vintage, I now have a deeper understanding of what it is. In my opinion, the Old Pulteney 1989 Vintage represents two worlds: the crisp, fruity flavors of the Scottish Highlands and the smoked, coastal flavors of the Islands. Both worlds are at their very best, I repeat AT THEIR VERY BEST, in this whisky and the fact that they are constantly fighting with each other for attention makes for a polarizing tasting experience.
So, is it deserving of the award? That’s tough to tell. I can see why it won and I can also see why some may disagree with that decision. It’s not a “luxury whisky” in the traditional sense, which is what I think a lot of people expect when they hear “World’s Best Single Malt”. Nor is it whisky in vogue like the previous winner, Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique. This Old Pulteney is a lovely 26 year old spirit who refuses to grow up. A real dynamic whisky with subtle complexity. It may be lacking the “romance” that some of the previous winners had but even so, this is one of the best whiskies I’ve had this year.