Imagine my surprise when I discovered – on my third visit – a distillery in Pitlochry. How it escaped my notice for so long still baffles me, especially considering distilleries usually come standard with sky-piercing pagodas, the distinct fog of malted barley and yeast, and gleaming golden stacks of whisky in all the local stores. The reasons behind how and why Blair Athol distillery was able to hide in plain sight would be revealed in good time. I’m a little perturbed that Google was able to show me a distillery that my own senses could not.
Sensory perception fail.
Pitlochry is a small town on the edge of the highlands, and I blame my Blended Whisky Blindness™ for the way my eyes skipped over the fairly obvious Bell’s sign on my previous visits. It’s right there, just past the low bridge before you get to the main drag. But this isn’t the Bell’s distillery, it’s the Blair Athol Distillery (which is confusing in its own right since the town of Blair Atholl is just ten minutes north of Pitlochry), part of Diageo’s cadre of Scotch whisky distilleries, and, much like my recent piece about Glenturret distillery and The Famous Grouse Experience, Diageo has tagged Blair Athol distillery as the home and heart of Bell’s blended Scotch whisky.
I’m not familiar with Bell’s. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever tasted it so I was a bit disappointed to see the visitor center at Blair Athol distillery done up as an homage to Bell’s blended whisky complete with all-too-common haunting mannequins of important personages direct from the darkest of my whisky-addled nightmares. The legwork I’d done ahead of my visit resulted in a gruff welcome and a slot on the basic tour.
Though overshadowed by the nearby Edradour distillery, Blair Athol is quite attractive with ivy-encrusted buildings and the black, fungus-stained warehouses I find crucial to the setting (not worthy of prosecution). Our small tour wound through the well-kept courtyard and among the distillery’s buildings. Unfortunately, the Scotch industry’s schizophrenic photography policies reared one of its uglier heads and I was unable to take photographs inside any of the distillery buildings (except the visitor center and gift shop).
Perhaps you haven’t heard of Blair Athol single malt whisky. Here’s why: 99.7% of their production goes to blended whiskies. Perhaps most of it (they wouldn’t say) goes to Bell’s, but then Bell’s is a blend of 35 different single malts. The distillery can produce 2.3 million liters/year of newmake spirit on its two wash stills and two spirit stills, so I’d classify it as a moderately-sized distillery. All the whisky going to blends is aged in ex-Bourbon barrels while the remaining 0.3% is aged in Sherry butts and bottled as the distillery’s 12 year old single malt, which is currently available in Diageo’s Flora & Fauna collection. The Flora & Fauna bottlings are UK-exclusive and marketed to highlight Diageo’s lesser-known distilleries – those primarily used to produce whisky for blends.
The brief tour ended in the gift shop where we were led up a staircase to a tasting overlook. It was a pretty setup, though the din of the shop below made it somewhat difficult to hear our tour guide describe the Blair Athol 12 Year Old we were about to taste. I really like Diageo’s Flora & Fauna collection (I took a bottle of the Mortlach home on a previous trip) so I eagerly nosed the half-dram offered to the tour-goers. Soft nutty notes were prominent with a faint Sherry undertone. Bracing. On the palate there was inoffensive barley sugar and a sourness that led into a drying, somewhat bitter finish. I can see how Blair Athol’s malt fits the profile for blenders, but I can’t say I was eager to take home a bottle.
If you’re a Bell’s blended Scotch whisky fan, happen to be staying in Pitlochry, or are a Diageo distillery hunter, Blair Athol distillery makes a sensible stop. The grounds are quite pretty and the visitor center is interesting, but the overall package won’t blow you away. If your time is short in the region and you want to visit a distillery, you’ll have a more enjoyable experience at Edradour distillery just five minutes outside Pitlochry.
Disclosure: My dad and I received complimentary tours of the distillery. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.