Blair Athol Distillery
The Blair Athol distillery is a bit of an oddity. It’s not in Blair Atholl, bottles hardly any of its own spirit, and, while adapted to handle large numbers of visitors, has no appreciable social media presence. To a curious whisky writer, this makes it well worth a visit.
Visitors to Blair Athol need to pay close attention to spelling. The unwary may not notice that its missing “L” distinguishes it from the village of Blair Atholl, some 8 miles up the A9. When it was founded in 1798, it was known as Aldour, after its water source (the Allt Dour Burn). It adopted its current name upon being sold in 1890, although there is no record of why a mangled spelling was chosen.
That Blair Athol bottles hardly any of its own spirit is explained by the distillery’s purchase by Arthur Bell and Sons in 1933: Blair Athol’s whisky quickly became a key ingredient in Bell’s blends. This state of affairs continues to this day, with the Bell’s brand now being owned by Diageo. Less than 1% of the distillery’s whisky is bottled as a single malt under the Blair Athol name. Aside from independent bottlings, Blair Athol is now available only as a 12-year-old as part of Diageo’s Flora and Fauna range or as distillery gift shop exclusive releases. The narrowness of the range and limited quantity released explains the lack of social media presence: what is released is aimed at curious whisky enthusiasts and tourists who find their way into the distillery shop, and Diageo does not seem to have much interest in growing the brand.
A car park set up for multiple coachloads of tourists hints at another of Blair Athol’s quirks: this may be the perfect distillery location for tour groups. Less than an hour and a half north of Edinburgh and just off the A9, Blair Athol (and the village of Pitlochry in which it sits) is firmly on the tourist route. It would be straightforward for a travel firm to include a visit as part of a day trip itinerary. Our guide claimed that Blair Athol was among the most visited distilleries in Scotland, and although I’ve not found any figures to back this up, I can believe it. However, with the brand’s low reach, I suspect most tourists visit it as “a distillery” rather than making a pilgrimage to see where a favourite tipple is produced.
There is a strange charm to how haphazardly Blair Athol has been adapted for visitors. On arrival, one steps into the Mash Tun Bar to be greeted by a giant copper mash tun converted into the bar itself. This was brought down from Clynelish in 2016, and yes, it does sell Clynelish that started life within its copper confines. The first stop on the tour is also well adapted to host large numbers of tourists: the spacious Barley Loft hosts a single (working) mash tun and plenty of space for a description of the whisky production process. There is also an array of whisky production paraphernalia, from old hand carts to the original Porteus Patent Malt Mill.
However, in the next room, the tour transformed: we had suddenly stepped from a tourist attraction into a working distillery. Nothing separated us from the six large washbacks, which we were invited to peer into, but kindly requested not to touch. Moving on to the stillhouse, there was even less space. It seemed crowded for our group of eight, so I struggled to see how a large tour group would fit without bumping into the hot copper of the stills. Distillation was underway: our guide had to frequently stop his explanations as a loud hiss of escaping steam drowned out his words.
It’s worth mentioning that one of Blair Athol’s stills has a prominent, large copper patch: our guide proudly pointed this out. This may seem bizarre as the stills are only a year old. However, this is a repair that has been replicated each time the stills have been replaced, such is the worry about the impact of changing the spirit’s copper contact in any way. Ancient damage is very much influencing the distillery’s current, and future, character.
I was slightly disappointed by Blair Athol’s warehouse: this was sealed off behind glass. However, it looked every part the working warehouse, with unattractive shelving holding casks. Those in sight were quite teasing: bourbon barrels marked 1968 hinted at some of the other treasures hidden away.
The tour finished in the traditional style: a tasting above the gift shop. We were given three whiskies to try: Blair Athol’s 12-year-old and their No Age Statement Distillery Exclusive, a mixture of 100 sherry and bourbon casks, chosen from three potential recipes by the distillery staff. The third whisky was a Linkwood: Blair Athol’s limited range means they’ve had to take a dram from elsewhere for comparison. The £17 for the tour included these samples and a miniature Blair Athol branded Glencairn used for this tasting; drivers could take away their samples to try later.
An additional £120 allowed the visitor to partake in a final stage of the experience: bottling their own single cask, cask strength Blair Athol whisky. This included ritually completing a ledger entry (allegedly for tax purposes) and producing one’s own label. Naturally, I couldn’t resist: the results will follow in a later article.
I found the tour of Blair Athol slightly strange, yet extremely enjoyable. The distillery has a certain charm to it, primarily due to its quirks and the odd decisions its management has had to take. Here we see Diageo’s two strategies at direct odds with each other: using Blair Athol as a principle blending ingredient at the expense of the brand’s own presence, while ensuring that it has the facilities to cope with the large number of visitors its location provides. However, only parts of the distillery seem like a slick tourist experience: it remains foremost a working distillery. Where adaptations couldn’t easily be made, they haven’t been. This enables a visitor to feel like they are surrounded by the process. My only real complaint is that the warehouse wasn’t better incorporated into the tour. Otherwise, Blair Athol is well worth a visit.