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Amber Lights: Why the late Donny B led the way to Old Pulteney

Old Pulteney is known as a maritime whisky because of the distillery’s location.

I was introduced to Old Pulteney back in the 1970s by the late Donny B MacLeod, that large genial Hebridean whose affable manner enchanted millions of BBC viewers until his early death in 1984.

It was his favourite malt when few people had heard of it.

For years I puzzled how a Caithness whisky distillery should be named after Britain’s shortest-in-office Prime Minister, (February 10-12, 1746) but some delving provided answers.

The unlucky premier, Lord William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, died in 1764, and his ample estate passed to his cousin Frances Pulteney, who had married William Johnstone, an advocate from Dumfries.

He changed his surname to Pulteney, became 5th Baronet and ascended to high office.
Visionary and ambitious, and reputed to be the richest man in Britain, he recruited Thomas Telford, also from Dumfries, to build roads and canals in Britain but particularly in Scotland.

Pulteney also became head of the British Fisheries Society and in 1808 he asked Telford to design and build Britain’s biggest herring port south of the river at Wick, duly named Pulteneytown.

When James Henderson opened a distillery there in 1826, he named it Pulteney, the whisky more recently being called Old Pulteney.

It stayed in the Henderson family until 1920, had three owners in the 1920s but was closed from 1930 to 1951. It was re-opened by Banff solicitor Robert “Bertie” Cumming, who also reopened Balblair. He sold it in 1955 to Canada’s Hiram Walker & Sons, who rebuilt it in 1959.

It eventually joined the Inver House line-up, now part of Thaibev, who
also operate Balblair, An Cnoc and Speyburn.

The distillery in Huddart Street lies –like Islay’s coastal distilleries – near the sea. Many describe its whisky as “salty” and “maritime”.

Process water comes from Loch Hempriggs, the malt is unpeated and the spirit is matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks.

The 12-year-old is widely found, older expressions (18 and 25-year-old) are available and in recent years some have won high acclaim, including Malt of the Year.

Any time I drink it, I toast the memory of Donny B, the man who introduced me to it all those decades ago.


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