Aberfeldy distillery is synonymous with the popular Dewar’s range of Scotch whiskies forming a major component of the Dewar’s 12-year-old and White Label blend. Founded by the Dewar family in 1896 on the site of the former Pitilie brewery and distillery, which closed in 1867. The family had strong ties to the area with John Dewar being born in 1806 on a nearby croft at Shenvail.
As a young man John was introduced to the profession of wine merchants by his cousin Alex MacDonald, who offered him employment before taking on the role of partner. In 1846 John decided to establish his own family business on the High Street in nearby town of Perth after dissolving his ties with the MacDonald’s. By the mid-1800’s he was engaged in the art of blending whisky to satisfy local demand. In this era, local wine merchants and greengrocers were the Tesco’s of their time offering a variety of goods under one roof. Many engaged in single cask bottlings from nearby distilleries, but these were often viewed as being more unpalatable compared to the experience offered by a blended whisky. John was so pleased with his efforts that his surname adorned such bottlings and provided an aura of quality.
Whilst John was instrumental in the success of the family firm, it was his sons that took the brand out of Perth and onto a global platform. He fathered several children and it was John Alexander and his younger brother Thomas Robert who were trained in the family business. Shortly after his passing in 1880, both brothers were established as partners in the firm. By all accounts the brothers were polar opposites with John having a reputation for precision and meticulous planning, whereas Thomas displayed a panache for marketing and attention grabbing stunts that soon became the talk of London and beyond.
One infamous example concerns the annual Brewer’s Exhibition held in Islington, where Thomas making his debut and being the only whisky stand at the venue, decided to employ a Highland piper. The unmistakable sound of the pipes engulfed the venue much to the dismay of the organisers who demanded that they come to an end. Fortunately, Thomas had consulted the rules in advance and had noted that there was no rule prohibiting live music. He was also adept at visiting bars and asking for a dram of Dewar’s whisky in full knowledge that the establishment did not stock the brand; only to send in a salesman the following week.
With sales increasing, the brothers realised that their blends relied on the availability of stock and the best long term approach was to build their own distillery. The former Pitilie brewery and distillery site was acquired and whilst acknowledging a symmetry with their family roots, it also offered a viable hard water source via the Pitilie Burn and most importantly access to a nearby railway line. By the end of 1898, Aberfeldy distillery was in full production with most of its output destined for the newly launched Dewar’s White Label Scotch and easily transported the 25 miles or so to Perth and the company’s blending headquarters.
It is fair to say that the Dewar’s brand and Aberfeldy distillery remain closely associated. Today the distillery plays host to the Dewar’s World of Whisky Experience and formed part of the deal in 1998 when the current owners Bacardi purchased the Dewar’s blending rights and their supporting distilleries. Prior to this the distillery had just been another component in Diageo’s (and their forerunners) massive portfolio of distilleries. For example, it wasn’t until 1991 that Aberfeldy released its first official single malt as part of the Flora & Fauna series.
Bacardi arguably has seen the value in such a historic distillery by investing and upgrading the existing visitor facilities and introducing a biomass plant. Sadly, many of the historic buildings were demolished during the 1960’s and 1970’s as part of an extensive programme of modernisation; a common occurrence across many distilleries during this period. Fortunately, some original features do remain including the iconic Pagoda roof, converted floor maltings and classic stone warehouses. While the visitor experience launched in 2000 remains a worthwhile attraction and features extremely rare footage of the distillery in production in the 1920’s.
Aberfeldy today has four tall elegant stills featuring gentle contours with particular importance given to the rising lyne arm that helps create its character during distillation. The larger wash stills have a capacity of 16,500 litres as opposed to the slightly smaller spirit stills at 15,000 litres and together they produce around 3.4 million litres annually. Other equipment includes a 7-ton stainless steel mash tun with an assortment of wooden and steel washbacks that allow a fermentation time of 70 hours, with 23 mashes carried out per week.
Under the ownership of Bacardi there has been a steady stream of official releases from Aberfeldy. The most notable of these arrived in 2014 when it formed part of the Last Great Malts of Scotland initiative that consisted of the distilleries that had historically provided the whiskies that go into the Dewar’s blend namely Aultmore, Craigellachie, MacDuff and Royal Brackla. The expanded Aberfeldy range features whiskies at 12, 16 and 21 years of age with an 18-year-old for the duty free market. These are all united by the classic characteristics of honey, malt, sweetness, summer fruits and a light waxiness.