When I visited Blair Athol distillery, I was sick as a dog: sneezing, sniffling, slightly feverish. I’d also just started driving on the opposite side of the road that morning, and after a few harrowing hours navigating the twisty, windy A822 (the scenic route—lovely but tortuous) between Doune and Pitlochry, I was feeling pretty exhausted.
So I didn’t appreciate the distillery tour as much as I would have otherwise. And alas, Blair Athol’s silent season is in the winter, when its water source is frozen over—so the distillery was in full production and we weren’t allowed to take photos or even visit the mash house or still house. That’s why most of the photos in this post depict quaint ivy-covered walls.
Indeed, Blair Athol is a lovely distillery, for all that it’s one of those takes-all-comers that accommodates massive coaches full of German and Japanese tourists. Luckily for me and Crystal, our tour was one of the last of the day, and it was just us, so we could ask lots of nerdy questions without annoying anyone but the guide (who was, incidentally, lovely and more than happy to indulge our geekery).
Blair Athol was legally founded in 1708 as Aldour, although as with many distilleries, it’s likely there was illegal production going on long before that. The site used to be a farm, also called Allt Dour, which means “River of the Otter”—hence the sweet wee critter on the Flora & Fauna label, the sole core Blair Athol single malt release. As the visitors’ center and lots of branding around the facility makes obvious, Blair Athol is the primary single malt used in the Bell’s blend. I reckon that’s why the tour buses come—like pilgrims to a shrine.
In 1825, the name changed to Blair Athol. Just over a century later, in 1932, the distillery was mothballed (anyone know why?), but in 1949, Arthur Bell & Sons restored it, after acquiring it in 1933. These days, Blair Athol makes more than 3 million liters of spirit every year and 99 percent of it goes into blends, primarily Bell’s. The Flora & Fauna single malt is sold only in the UK, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway, but it’s well worth seeking out, full of rich sweetness with a well-balanced dryness.
The water from the Allt Dour comes straight down off Ben Vrackie and is only filtered for particulate matter, but not purified, since the farmers around the source don’t use any pesticides. Oddly, after distilling, Blair Athol’s spirit is trucked off-site for filling into casks. Then some—though certainly not all—casks are brought back to be stored in three on-site warehouses that hold 5,000 casks apiece. When they’re ready for bottling, off they go to Leven, where owner Diageo has a massive bottling plant.
Since so little Blair Athol is sold as single malt, our tasting was limited to the signature 12 year old F&F and a special Blair Athol Cask Strength. This one incorporated 14-, 15- and 16-year-old casks but has no age statement. Its like the 12 year old on steroids, with a nose redolent of cherries and hay. The palate has dried cherries and dried apricots, dark chocolate, and orange peel, with a long lingering finish. In 2012 when it was first released, a bottle cost £55. Now it’s up to £80 and if I could have justified the expense, I’d have paid it. Blair Athol makes a delicious single malt, and I highly recommend it.