Blair Athol is situated on the outskirts of Pitlochy in Perthshire and is a popular tourist attraction being conveniently placed on the fringes of the Highlands and the spiritual home of Bell’s. In distillery terms it’s a relatively small producer averaging just 2.8 million litres with approximately 99.7% of this output destined for blended whiskies. Blair Athol has always been prized by blenders for its character, prompting a series of owners including Arthur Bell & Sons to acquire it in 1933.
Today Blair Athol is around 30% of what you taste in Bell’s Scotch whisky and given its popularity worldwide is heavily focused on producing content to support it. This leaves just 0.3% for the single malt market with the most widespread release being the Flora & Fauna 12-year-old bottling, that you can still purchase today generally including the well-stocked distillery shop. Also for 2016, a distillery exclusive was bottled with an outturn of just 3000 bottles and this has proved popular with visitors to the distillery and should sell out sometime in 2017.
The functional tour, which is an ideal introduction to distilleries, highlights the origins of the site that goes back to 1798 originally as a traditional farm distillery, called Aldour, established by John Stewart and Robert Robertson. With the arrival of the Excise Act, Robertson revives the project with an expansion and renames the distillery. Many of the original buildings are still in use today with a central courtyard providing a glimpse of how distilleries would have been in the 1820’s. Other distilleries have lost their character and original charm through modernisation, but Blair Athol thankfully retains much of its past. The main production building today is surprisingly small with the most claustrophobic still room that contains 4 squat, fat, onion shaped stills. During a recent visit in February 2017, one of the stills had been removed and this was accomplished by taking the roof off and extracting the 65-year-old still. Once replaced, the still will be checked and the new make spirit tested to ensure the consistency of character. It’s not an exact science even though the stills are copied down to the most exacting of detail; sometimes it just doesn’t work out as intended. A recent example being at Dalwhinnie where a new still wasn’t making the grade and had to be replaced after minimal service.
If only the walls at Blair Athol could talk with its quaint visual aesthetics and series of owners. The water source still runs through the distillery and it retains a classical Scottish distillery style. Blackened warehouses thanks to the fungus attracted by maturation, follow the curving stream, which is home to a family of otters; hence their appearance on bottlings from the distillery. With Arthur Bell making it a core ingredient of his blend when production restarted in 1949, after a period of modernisation following 16 years of silence thanks to economic conditions and the 2nd World War. The stills were doubled to 4 in 1973 and its remarkable that they have squeezed so many into such a confined space and a dark grains plant added in 1975. The viability of tourism was harnessed in 1992 with the creation of a visitors centre in what used to be the original floor maltings and since then annually more than 30,000 people visit Blair Athol. An interesting aspect of the tour comes in the dunnage warehouse where on display is one of the alleged illicit stills from the origins of the distillery. This was found during work on the distillery site in a hedgerow and is intact, complete with a worm tub.
The distillery shop offers a wide selection featuring the staple Bell’s blend and editions from the Flora & Fauna range and current Diageo releases. Due to being so heavily linked to blends, there’s very little appetite from its owners to establish a single malt presence for Blair Athol, as it wouldn’t be able to support both markets. There was an entry in the Rare Malts range in 2003 and prior to this a tasty 8-year-old during the 1980’s, but for a single malt example you’ll more than likely have to search the independent bottlers. Thankfully Blair Athol receives strong support and appreciation for its fresh heavy style of malt with a nutty quality and in some bottlings a hint of smoke.