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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Whisky:   OLD PULTENEY 21 years

The Book:  MOBY DICK by Herman Melville

Call me classic.


Amber gold, with a devilish good nose — brimming with a complex, lively mix of caramel, spice, fresh fruit. When the spirit does finally reach the mouth there’s a sensation so warmly sophisticated it makes the taste buds glow. Rich, notes of dark chocolate, with sea-salt heat that slowly fades to a grand, extended finish. This is whisky for all time.  (46% ABV)

It’s an exceptional whisky from what until just months ago was mainland Scotland’s most northern distillery. (That distinction fell into new hands with the opening of Wolfburn Distillery in Thurso.) Located in the coastal town of Wick, the history of Old Pulteney dates back to 1826 with its founding by James Henderson, at the height of the region’s herring boom. (A herring drifter graces the bottle and its box.) Its name comes from Pultneytown, a settlement built to house fishermen at a time when upwards of a thousand herring boats fished out of local harbours.

All those fishermen needed their drink. It is said that in the 1840s the population consumed 2,230 litres (500 gallons) of whisky per day. Not all Old Pulteney to be sure, but it seems there was a tidy profit to be made without incurring much in the way of transportation costs. The townsfolk eventually took a sobering turn for the better, but Old Pulteney soldiered on, through good times and bad. The Depression and a local stint of Prohibition proved too much, however, and in 1930 the distillery shut its doors. For 20 years it stood silent. When it did reopen it was with renewed interest and a boost in cash flow. And in recent years Old Pulteney has hit its stride, its reputation extending far beyond its northern waters. A pinnacle of sorts — depending on your faith in the Whisky Bible — came in 2012, when Jim Murray’s best-selling guide named the 21 year old “World Whisky of the Year”.

Old Pulteney has a unique pair of bulbous, flat-topped stills. The shape of its bottle pays homage to them. The unorthodox still design seems somehow to enhance the character of what the present owners, Inver Distillers, like to call the “Genuine Maritime Malt”. They like to play up its salty air. The 21 year old certainly has it, but a far greater influence is the wood. Part of the spirit is matured in air-dried, ex-bourbon American white oak, the standard wood program at Old Pulteney. Another part, matured again in American oak, uses casks previously filled with Spanish fino sherry. The combination is inspired.

It blends very well with a classic maritime tale, American at that.


Is there a more famous opening line than “Call me Ishmael”? I don’t know of one.

It is interesting to compare the use of the line by the two best illustrators of the book — Rockwell Kent in 1930 and Barry Moser in 1979. Kent takes it as rather inward and reflective, while Moser gives it the full force of the unforgiving ocean. The book has always roused contrasting emotions in readers, perhaps even more now that whaling as an industry is in such disrepute.

Not that Moby Dick needs illustration to enhance its prose. It has to be some of the most memorable in American literature, and no one would dare quarrel with its ability to stand alone on the page.

Moby Dick sold very poorly within Melville’s lifetime, a few more than 3,000 copies. Early reviews on both sides of the Atlantic were often scathing. The genius of the  work went unrecognized until interest in it revived in the early 20th century, well after the author’s death. A book that is now firmly planted in the American canon at first struggled for attention, causing the author to retreat to work in a customs house to make a living for himself and his family. His obituary in the The New York Press read, “Probably, if the truth were known, even his own generation has long thought him dead, so quiet have been the later years of his life.”

Herman Melville was a writer leagues ahead of his time. The unorthodox approach to the story, the marriage of fact and fiction, the unreasoned obsessiveness of the central character (the captain Ahab) proved easy prey for critics. An author’s honourable recourse is to continue writing, which Melville did, to continued disinterest. Within six years his career as a published author had ended. When he died 34 years later, the now much-admired Billy Budd was still in manuscript form.

It goes without saying that Moby Dick is one of the finest sea-faring tales ever written. In 1841-42 Melville had spent 18 months as an ordinary seaman aboard a whaling vessel. As all writers do, he blended his own experience with that of others he had known personally or read about, and enhanced it all with the thrust of his imagination. He drew broader meaning from uncommon events, and did it with intense dedication. His wife noted that at the height of his marathon effort to finish Moby Dick, he would work at his desk all day, not even stopping to eat until late afternoon. It seems he was as madly driven to complete his task as Ahab was to his.

Likely he would have stopped for drink, though I don’t know how strong. If it was whiskey, then it was probably American rye. His character Stubb, second mate aboard the Pequod, makes the sole reference to the spirit in the narrative, exclaiming at the sight of blood spouting from a lanced whale, “Would now, were it old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela!” All were types of rye whiskey common in mid-19th century America. Monongahela, from western Pennsylvania and reddish-brown in color, was particularly prized. (Long gone are the distilleries in these places, American whiskey production shifting to Kentucky and Tennessee.)

Still, I can picture Melville with the salty air of a seafarer’s dram on his lips. Production of Old Pulteney was into its third decade when he penned Moby Dick. After all, his ancestors on his father’s side had crossed the northern seas from Scotland, whisky and the salt-sea air in their blood.


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