Last week, I wrote about the experience of visiting the Blair Athol Distillery. A mainstay of Diageo’s portfolio of blends, only around 1% of the whisky from this distillery ends up in a bottle with a Blair Athol label. There are two possible reasons for this: either the whisky is so terrible that it’s good for nothing else, or it’s heavenly nectar too good for the blenders to give up. There is only one way to find out: a horizontal tasting.
Unfortunately, the Blair Athol range is extremely limited. Outside the distillery, it can only be found as the Aged 12 Years expression, which is part of Diageo’s Flora and Fauna range. While there is a 23-Year-Old expression, it seems to be mostly sold out online or priced over £350. It’s not what I’d call accessible. This leaves me only two other options to form the line-up: the Distillery Exclusive Bottling and the Bottle Your Own expression, another distillery-only option.
There is good news for those who want to try more of the distillery’s offerings but don’t fancy a trip up to Aberfeldy: a host of independently bottled Blair Athol expressions are available. The variety of companies offering a bottle of this whisky is quite impressive. Diageo seems to have been very amenable to the prospect of selling on casks. However, I’m not going to examine any of these – the range of options is simply too vast. So, to the whiskies.
Colouring and chill filtration were not declared for any of these whiskies. However, research shows that the Aged 12 Years has been chill-filtered and has been coloured. I’ve not found a consensus on the Distillery Exclusive Bottling or Bottle Your Own, but I would be surprised if the distillery had done either to the latter.
Blair Athol Aged 12 Years
43% ABV. Wood not declared.
£46 (Master of Malt)
Nose: Grapes, dried apricots, pepper, and orange zest. The initial fruitiness hides some oak and ash notes, a definite nuttiness, and some butter toffee.
Palate: Delightfully sweet, with raisin and orange coming to the fore. There’s a little sherry coming through: there’s a bit of Christmas pudding to this whisky. It’s not overpowering though, instead balanced by cinnamon, white pepper, ripe green apple, oak, toffee, and cereal.
Finish: A lingering sweetness and warmth as toffee, pepper, and cinnamon slowly fade.
Opinion: A lot is going on here for what is effectively the entry-level Blair Athol. There’s a surprising depth to the nose and palate, giving a lot for the drinker to explore. Overall, the whisky is a little on the sweet side, so it won’t be for everyone. However, its complexity and balance are good for its price point: this is worth looking out for, especially if you haven’t tried a Blair Athol before.
Blair Athol Distillery Exclusive Bottling Batch 1
48% ABV. No Age Statement. Wood not declared.
£80 (Blair Athol Distillery Shop)
Nose: Again, there is a sweet start to the nose, with toffee, burnt caramel, demerara sugar, and a very slight apple hint. This is joined by raisins and sultanas, cream soda, cinnamon, aniseed, and toasted oak.
Palate: Red apple, vanilla, and golden syrup. There’s a slight earthiness, which blends into treacle and oaky notes. Dark fruits and blackberry join this as it transforms into the finish.
Finish: A medium finish balancing sweet vanilla and bitter blackberry.
Opinion: This is a more balanced sweetness and full of interesting flavours. As a distillery exclusive, this is a worthy offering. The staff at the distillery chose this particular recipe out of three presented to them, and you can see why: this is a good demonstration of Blair Athol’s depth. I can’t help but feel that this is priced for the tourists visiting the distillery, though: £80 for a NAS with very little disclosure of wood or process is a touch high.
Blair Athol Bottle Your Own Batch 2021/002
56.1% ABV. 11 Years Old. Wood is not listed, but apparently it is a recharged red wine barrel.
£120 (Blair Athol Distillery Shop)
Nose: Maple syrup, plum, and boozy raisins. It has fruity, sweet, and sherry notes in equal balance. There’s banana, apple, and papaya, which is matched by vanilla and butterscotch, which in turn is matched by boozy raisins and Christmas pudding.
Palate: Initially, there are light, sweet flavours: maple syrup, pecan, peanut brittle, honey. These are then drowned out in a rich, warm wave of flavour: there’s dark plum and cherry, a definite oakiness, and dark chocolate. Warmth comes through strongly as pepper and chilli powder. The mouthfeel is rich, velvety, and warming.
Finish: A long finish of oak, dark fruits, dark chocolate, and chilli.
Opinion: This has everything I ask for in a cask strength. This is a rich, complex whisky. The transition from sweetness to rich, spicy flavours on the palate is delightful. Although the display makes this appear to be a single cask whisky, this is not the case: this is from a vatting of recharged red wine casks, with the cask on the bottling stand being regularly refilled. However, this does not take away from the experience or the quality of the whisky. And, ultimately, I have to accept that I have paid for both a whisky and an experience here. In this case, the experience enhances an already great whisky, justifying the high price.
Blair Athol produces some enjoyable whiskies. I can see why it’s prized by blenders: the sweet and fruity aromas and flavours it offers have made it a go-to in creating a swathe of other Diageo offerings.
Trying a broader range of Blair Athol whiskies does make me a little disappointed in Diageo’s decision to prioritise its blended products. The Blair Athol range is a bit of an afterthought to the company, produced only so enthusiasts (and visiting tourists) can see what the distillery is truly capable of. With no real push to grow the brand, it’s likely to remain a hidden gem.
The Aged 12 Years is a good representation of what the Blair Athol distillery could offer. However, if anyone finds themselves near Pitlochry, it’s worth dropping by the distillery shop to see how good a Blair Athol whisky can be.