Blair Anthol Distillery
Blair Athol is one of the most visited distilleries in Scotland. The reason for this is its location. Situated less than a minute off the A9 road, the main route to Speyside and the Highlands, it’s an obvious stop-off for tourists and whisky fans alike. However, if you don’t happen to be driving along the A9, this is a distillery which shouldn’t be ignored. It shouldn’t just be an add-on to a distillery trip to elsewhere. If it were at the end of a road to nowhere, Blair Athol would be a destination distillery.
Distilling is fascinating to learn about at any time of year, however the best time of year to visit Blair Athol is definitely autumn. The front of the distillery is covered in Virginia Creeper, which for a couple of weeks in October becomes a sea of red. So vivid are the colors, it looks like you are viewing a Photoshopped image while standing there in real life.
The distillery was originally called Aldour and was founded by John Steward and Robert Robertson in 1798. The distillery draws its water from the Allt Dour burn (burn of the otter), which springs from Ben Vrackie (meaning the speckled hill). The distillery was not very successful and shortly after opening, the distillery was closed and not reopened until 1825 when it was expanded and renamed Blair Anthol under the ownership of John Robertson. In 1882 the distillery was bought by Edinburgh blenders, Peter Mackenzie and company, and the distillery closed its doors again in 1932 and was mothballed. Pater Mackenzie and Company was bought by Arthur Bell and Sons in 1933, but they didn’t reopen the distillery until 1949, having rebuilt it. It was expanded in 1970 with two stills being added to the existing two. At this time, Bells Extra Special blended whisky was the UK’s best-selling brand. To this day, the majority of the whisky from Blair Athol is used in blending and is a main constituent of Bells. The distillery and Bells are now owned by Diageo Plc.
There is only one official regular expression of Blair Athol, a twelve year old, although many independent bottlers have released single malts from the distillery. Some of my favorites, which are still available, have been from Signatory, including a 1988 twenty-seven-year-old, a twenty-two-year-old from Berry Brothers and Rudd, a nine-year-old expression from Gordon and MacPhail, distilled in 2006 and bottled in 2015, and from the newly bought and reinvigorated Milroy’s of Soho in London, a fabulous twenty-eight-year-old. All of these show off the distilleries boisterous, rich character and are an incredibly good value. The reason for only one official release, which is part of the Flora and Fauna range, is simply because the malt whisky is needed as a part of some very well-known blends including Johnnie Walker and Bells.
The distillery holds other treats to see. There is a viewing gallery in one of the warehouses where you can see an excellent example of casks being stored in racking rather than dunnage warehouse style. There is also an old pump that shows how many distilleries fill their whisky casks there.
Blair Athol is not a very big distillery, if produces about two and a half million litres of pure alcohol per year, using two ash stills with a capacity of 13,000 litres and two spirit stills with a 11,500-litre capacity. The stills are pear like in shape, with no reflux, giving the whisky its bold Highland character. They also have a Semi-Lauter mash tun with a capacity of eight tonnes and four Oregon pine washbacks which came from Mortlach distillery in the 1980’s.
Blair Athol is one of only a handful of distilleries originally built in the 1700s and still open today. It has over 35,000 visitors each year because of its convenient location in Pitlochry and is worth booking ahead in the summer months if you would like a full tour. The town of Pitlochry has plenty other points of interest should you be visiting with others who don’t quite hold the same interest in whisky. At night there is the enchanted forest experience where the local forests have been elaborately illuminated. There is the famous fish ladder which was constructed between 1947 and 1952 allowing the salmon to continue their journey up stream. The River Tummel was dammed, which flooded the old Pitlochry Highland games field which is now Loch Faskally. The fish ladder has thirty-four pools, and each pool has an opening below the water level to let the fish pass on to the next pool. There are three larger pools for the fish to rest and one of these has a viewing window for visitors to see the salmon. Next to the theatre is the Explorers Gardens, which tells the story of the Scottish plan hunters. The Gardens cover six acres and have an incredibly diverse collection of plants and shrubs. A little outside of town is the Queen’s View, which has one of the most spectacular views in Scotland.
First held on the 10th of September in 1852 were the Pitlochry Highland Games, now held annually on the second Saturday in September. These are traditional Highland games with participants coming from all over the world. In bad weather there are two museums worth visiting. The Athol country life museum and the Athol Palace Museum. Just a few miles further north in Blair Athol, there is Athol castle. Home to the only private army in Europe and rich in history, this castle is certainly worth a visit.
With so much to see and do in Pitlochry, it is a perfect place to stop off during a visit to Scotland and the distilleries, but I would strongly suggest giving more time to Pitlochry and the Blair Athol distillery than one might feel is needed. It might have only one single malt to offer the palate but has a wealth of history in an incredible setting to keep a traveler happy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Colin is a presenter on The Three Drinkers TV series on Amazon Prime, chairman of the Circle of Wine Writers and a Keeper of the Quaich . After starting his career at The Scotsman, he has worked at The Times and FT before becoming the founding editor of Whisky Quarterly. He is now the whisky editor for Club Oenologique magazine, and is an international wine and spirits judge, including judgi ng for the International Wine and Spirits Competition. Colin Is also a liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Distillers. Jennifer was thrilled for the opportunity to merge her communications background with her passion for wine in accepting a position as Acker’s Director of Marketing & Communications in 2021. Wine is intriguing to Jennifer in large part because there’s always something new to master, and she’s currently busy learning the auction side of the business as part of the team at Acker. When she’s not holding a wine glass, Jennifer is lifting a barbell or planning her next travel adventure.