Down to the sea with Scotch

An Old Pulteney round-the-world crewmember in New York City recently. Who wouldn’t want to share a Scotch with him?

When James Henderson began making whisky in Wick, Scotland in 1826, his was the northernmost distillery in that nation and there was not a road in or out of town. All commerce and travel took place via the North Sea in boats of every shape and size. Food, fuel, clothing and durable goods were shipped into Wick. Grain arrived by boat and was brought to the distillery, mashed, fermented, distilled and then barrel-aged, at which point it was bottled and what was not consumed locally, was loaded back onto boats. It was a harsh maritime environment with virtually everyone completely dependent on the sea.

To celebrate the seafaring history of their single malt Scotch, Old Pulteney has entered a boat in the longest boat race in the world. This is the ninth edition of the 40,000-mile Clipper Round the World race, featuring a dozen 70-foot yachts. The race began at London’s Tower Bridge Sept. 1, 2013, and will finish this month. The yachts are competing for bragging rights in sailing skills, determination and downright ruggedness of the crew. For some stretches, they sail 30 days straight without sighting land. Still, there are short layovers in several major cities of the world. I recently had the chance to take a New York Harbor sailing cruise aboard the Old Pulteney vessel, skippered by Patrick Van der Zijden from the Netherlands.

To add to the pageantry of this race, Old Pulteney recently created a single malt Scotch called Navigator. Some of the spirit is matured in barrels that had previously aged sherry, and some is matured in barrels that had previously aged bourbon. The resultant blend is worthy of this oceanic adventure and when Van der Zijden arrived in New York there was plenty of Old Pulteney Navigator on board.

There are single malt Scotch whiskies from the lowland region of Scotland that have a smoky, peaty quality of various intensities. Some have a hint of this smokiness that lingers on the tongue. Others are so peaty it’s almost like licking an ashtray. Most of the lowland single malt Scotches fall somewhere in between. I enjoy the lowland Scotches that show a restrained smokiness for accent, not dominance. But I love the freshness and fruitiness of the highland single malts, with most of the flavor contributed by the oak barrels, the amount of time spent in the barrels and the influence and flavors contributed by the previous occupant of the barrel, which might have been port, sherry, wine or some other spirit.

Navigator is a wonderful addition to the lineup of Old Pulteney Scotches already available. At dinner we tasted several Old Pulteney Scotches, including the 12-, the 17-, the 21- and the 30-year-olds. The Navigator is honey blond and showed a lovely sweetness of restrained caramel, tart apples, oranges, honey and vanilla with a zippy spicy finish. If you’re new to Scotch drinking, add a small ice cube or a couple of drops of water to allow the Scotch to release its flavors and open up.

Two things happen when Scotch is allowed to remain in the oak barrels for longer periods of time. More flavors and textures are extracted from the wood and the taste can roll and morph in the glass, giving it a symphonic and ever-changing profile and pleasure as you drink. Additionally the price will increase, sometimes exponentially.

Old Pulteney’s 12-year-old exudes an earthiness tempered by citrus and a hint of salinity. The 17-year-old offers apple and pear flavors with some vanilla and butterscotch and a beautiful melding of oak flavors. The 21-year-old is smoky with fresh fruit and dried apricot and a long, satisfying finish. And the 30-year-old is soft and elegant, with well-integrated flavors and a wonderful smoothness.  It shows citrus and floral flavors with a sweet, balanced oaky finish.

Don’t be intimidated by single malt Scotch. It’s a complex and delicious spirit with distilleries offering single malts all over the flavor profile. The key is to try some and narrow your preferences until you have a favorite or two, or 10. Scotch can pair beautifully with most meals, and can also be a wonderful happy hour or post-dinner treat.

Check out Old Pulteney ( The best Scotch you’ve never heard of.

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