Blair Athol is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, founded in 1798 by John
Stewart and Robert Robertson near the charming town of Pitlochry in the Midlands.
The young Blair Athol distillery was closed again not long afterwards, however.
The Blair Athol distillery was revived again by John Robertson in 1825 or 1826.
It ran continuously for a decade after that. A string of different owners followed
in rapid succession; first Alexander Conacher & Co., then John Conacher & Co,
Peter Fraser & Co., Elizabeth Conacher and P. McKenzie & Co Distillers Limited.
The Blair Athol distillery was finally closed in 1932, before being
purchased in 1933 by the whisky company Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd.
Although Arthur Bell owned the Blair Athol distillery, they didn't
actually use it until it was fully rebuilt in 1949.
Not much happened for more than two decades, but in 1973
two more stills were added to the existing two. Two more
decades later (in 1992) Blair Athol added a visitor centre.
In 1998 Blair Athol's owners United Distillers (UD, part of the well-known Guiness Group) and
International Distillers and Vintners (IDV, part of the Grand Metropolitan Group) merged into
a new whisky industry giant; Diageo (officially known as United Distillers and Vintners / UDV.
The UDV/Diageo spirits conglomerate owns almost 30 Scotch malt whisky distilleries.
Four malt maniacs visited Blair Athol in the summer 2003. It was in fact the very first Scotch
malt whisky distillery that I visited myself. You can read more about our visit to Blair Athol in
my Liquid Log. Entry #140. It has some background information about this Midlands distillery.
Diageo hasn't opened up all its distilleries to visitors - but Blair Athol is 'hospitable'.
The tour of the distillery is excellent; very relaxed yet informative. The surroundings are just
stunning and the distillery grounds are quite beautifully laid out around a gently curving stream.
The buildings are covered in vines and/or that typical black fungus that seems to like whisky
almost as much as we ‘malt maniacs’ do. That fungus looks charming on a distillery, but I can
certainly understand how the owners of slowly blackening homes nearby feel differently.
After leaving Blair Athol in 2003, the goodwill from that visit stuck with me for at least five years.
However, by that time the aforementioned black fungus popped up in the news again. This time, as the topic of
damage claims from the owners of houses near Diageo distilleries. Instead of using a small part of their vast
profits to compensate the people stuck with the consequences, Diageo ‘lawyered up’. When I write this update,
Diageo and the SWA have been able to keep the claimants buried in paperwork and appeals for a over a decade.
Every news report about this harsh reality of the modern whisky industry ate away at the fuzzy feelings I once had...
So, my ‘perspective’ on the Blair Athol distillery
and Diageo has changed a bit over the years.
While Blair Athol looks fantastic from inside the
distillery, things are not quite as romantic if you
step back and look at the bigger picture. .
That being said, Pitlochry is still a fantastic
destination for Scotch whisky fans - and most
other types of tourists as well.
The scenery is beautiful and the charming
little Edradour distillery is nearby as well.
So... if you’re looking for a holiday destination in the Midlands you could do far worse than Pitlochry...
1) In the third millennium it became increasingly difficult to find bottlings
of the Blair Athol malt whisky. Apart from the semi-official Flora & Fauna
release of 12 years old, proper official bottlings are quite hard to find.
There are no recent OB's that I know of - unless you count an overproof
version that became available exclusively at the distillery around 2010.
That being said, Bells used to release semi-official bottlings in the 1980s.
One other 'semi official' bottling was a 27yo bottling from 1975 in the
'UD Rare Malts' range by Diageo .
2) Some PR people figured that blended whiskies needed a 'spiritual home'.
Blair Athol distillery is considered to be the 'spiritual home' of Diageo's famous Bell's blend. It supposedly also contained Caol Ila, Dufftown, Glenkinchie and Inchgower - and loads of cheap grain whisky of course...
6) The visitor centre at the Blair Athol distillery attracts around 40,000 visitors each year.
3) Most of the Blair Athol malt whisky (at least 90%) is destined for Bell's and other blends.
This malt whisky has been matured almost exclusively in ex-bourbon casks - and often little more than 3 years.
Meanwhile, the whisky that will be used for single malts often comes from sherry casks.
7) Blair Athol is located in Pitlochry - about half a mile south of the centre of the charming little town.
In fact, it's a perfect stop on any trip through the Midlands of Scotland, because the Edradour distillery can be
found nearby as well. In the unlikely event that you experience one of Scotland's short spells of nice weather, a
walk from Pitlochry to Edradour through the hills surrounding the village is a very pleasant experience indeed.
The distance is about five miles, so even at a very leisurely pace it should take you no more than two hours.
If you're touring through the Midlands by bike or car, the Aberfeldy distillery isn't that far away either.
4) Around the start of the new millennium the production capacity of the Blair Athol distillery was 2,000,000 litres
of pure alcohol per year. After Diageo started to push their Bell's blend, production at Blair Athol was increased
to 2,500,000 litres of alcohol per year.
5) The distillery that was originally founded on the location of Blair Athol was called 'Aldour' - named after the
nearby Allt Dour burn that still provides the distillery with its water today. The Gaelic name of the stream means
'burn of the otter' - hence the picture of an otter on the label of the Flora & Fauna bottlings of Blair Athol.
8) There are many ways to spell ‘Blair Athol’ wrong - like ‘Blairathol’ for example.
But not all spellings that look odd are erroneous - in the past the name Blair Atholl was on many labels.
2005 - The 'Bells Special Reserve' vatted malt whisky
is launched; a blend of different Scotch malt whiskies.
2003 - A 27yo 1975 bottling of Blair Athol is released in the
semi-official UD Rare Malts series - and some of the malt
maniacs visit the distillery on their Scotland tour.
2010 - The Blair Athol distillery is partly refurbished; the eight old washbacks (four of them made from wood,
four from steel) are replaced by six brand new washbacks - all made out of steel this time.
2015 - The distillery now operates seven days a week, producing 2,800,000 litres of alcohol per year.
2009 - The 12yo 'Flora & Fauna' expression has been the
only semi-official bottling of the Blair Athol malt whisky for
many years, but in or around 2009 Diageo introduced some
cask strength "distillery only" bottlings. Not just of Blair
Athol, mind you - expressions from distilleries like Lagavulin
and Talisker were released as well. Prices are still rising,
but malt whisky fans have more choices than ever before.
Blair Athol NAS (55.8%, OB, Distillery only bottling, bottled 2010)
Nose: Furniture polish. Hint of sellery? A little odd. Grows a little more mainstream; sweeter with fruitier notes.
It gradually moves in a more flowery & perfumy direction, but never goes to extremes. Sweeter with water.
Taste: Very odd start, like an herb liqueur. Some liquorice and aniseed, a bit like Pernod. Bittersweet finish.
Score: 77 points - the alcoholic burn on the palate of this whisky distracts initially, but that evaporates.
Blair Athol 1998/2009 (46%, Berry Brothers & Rudd, cask #2157)
Nose: Smells very young - not like an 11yo. Dry and slightly farmy. Peaches. Hint of cassis? Some spices.
Needs a few minutes to open up, but when it does it becomes an unassuming but very pleasant dram.
Taste: Smooth and very sweet start. Odd fruits. Dry centre and finish. A decent amount of tannins.
Score: 80 points - with the artificial sweetness on the palate it tastes a little like a finished whisky.
I gave the score of 80 points in the MM Awards so I couldn't change it; otherwise I would have raised it to 82.
Blair Athol 15yo 1990/2006 (61,4%, Blackadder Raw Cask, First fill bodega sherry C#7161, 483 Bts.)
Nose: Quite subtle at first. Rubber. A sherried profile, but I wouldn't call it 'suphury'.
A splash of water dulled the nose at first, but after a minute some extra layers emerged.
Taste: Big, sweet and fruity on the palate - and quite hot. Clear and present tannins.
Too bad there's something perfumy or soapy on the palate keeping it from the 90's.
Score: 88 points - which means I nominated it for a silver medal in the Malt Maniacs Awards 2006.
Blair Athol 11yo 1989/2000 (58.1%, Cadenhead's Authentic, Bourbon Hogshead, 324 bottles)
Nose: Transparant and dry. Hint of peat? Not as powerful as I expected, to tell you the truth.
There was an explosion of character with five drops of water, but ten more drops killed it.
Taste: Easily drinkable at an otherwise painbtstripping 58.1%. Very pleasant complexity.
A fruity sweetness that remains entertaining for a long time. Yeah, I like this!
Score: 82 points - definitely a recommendable dram from the charming Blair Athol distillery.
Blair Athol 16yo 1990/2006 (50%, Douglas Laing OMC, DL REF 923, Distilled 05/'90, Bottled 12/'06)
Nose: Old book store - a hint of antiquity. Then fruitier notes emerge. And then some more.
A very rich fruit cake. Hint of Menthos sweets. Lovely! It doesn't have a lot of 'staying power' though...
Taste: Not as obviously sweet as the nose at first, but then sweetness emerges in the background.
Score: 82 points - quite subtle in the nose but with lots of development in the first few minutes.
Blair Athol 13yo 1989/2002 (58.8%, Cadenhead's Authentic, Bourbon, 240 bottles, 06/2002)
Nose: Sweet and spicy at first. Honey sweetness. Very pleasant, but not a lot of depth.
Light organics. Androgynous. It seems the high proof overwhelms any subtleties here.
Taste: Straight, it's sweetish with a faint coffee sensation. Greasy finish - like oatmeal?
Easily drinkable at C/S. Pleasant mouth feel. Not a lot of change after adding some water.
Score: 79 points - a good malt, but like many other Cadenhead's it may be just a bit too strong.
A very high proof can mask flaws in a malt, but it can also overpower the finer nuances.
Blair Athol 18yo 1977 (50.4%, James McArthur, Bottled +/- 1995)
Nose: The nose was light, sweet and spicy. Mocca. This appealed to me right away.
It opens up further over time, developing some herbal and oily notes. Very pleasant indeed.
Taste: It had a spicy bite on the palate and feels quite 'hot' at 50% - more so than I expected.
Woody and chewy (tannins) with some liquorice - I love that. A tad dry and bitter in the finish.
Score: 82 points - a recommendable Blair Athol malt whisky that loses just one or two points in the finish.
Blair Athol 12yo (43%, Flora & Fauna, Bottled +/- 1996, code LLIA0001274, 70cl)
Nose: Very 'flavoury', with a growing sweetness. This one needs a minute to open up.
Smoky. Ginger? Red wine? Sweet and sour? A great nose - an excellent and elusive whisky.
Taste: Sweet and fruity. A soft start slowly develops into a prolonged explosion.
Nothing really wrong here, but not special enough to warrant a score in the 80's.
Score: 79 points - hold the water, though... This Blair Athol is best drank straight.
Blair Athol 12yo (43%, Flora & Fauna, Bottled early 1990's)
Nose: Heavily sherried. Roasted nuts. Smoke. organics. Quite serious and much 'bigger' than recent releases.
Taste: Fruity and sherried. Roasted nuts again, and the same seriousness I found in the nose. Very good.
Score: 85 points - it definitely scores a little higher on my malt-o-meter than more recent Blair Athol bottlings.
In fact, this expression may have been my personal favourite 'Flora & Fauna' bottling.
Blair Athol 'Over 8yo' (70 Proof, Bells OB, Black Label, Bottled Early 1980's)
Nose: Rich and fruity. Lemon? Developing spices. Organics. A faint but pleasant hint of peat.
Sadly, it drops dead after a minute - it loses quite a few points here after a promising start.
Taste: It felt a tad gritty on the palate with maybe a faint trace of peat. I didn't expect that...
Quite potent with gentle tannins and a dry finish. Another 'antique' malt with quite a bit of peat.
Score: 79 points - I couldn't go for 'recoomendable, even on the Scottish soil of Glasgow.
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Blair Athol malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Blair Athol I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Blair Athol.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.