Blair Athol Distillery stands at the southern end Pitlochry, on the uphill side of the road just as you drive into this bustling town from the main A9. It is worth noting immediately that the distillery is not, as you might imagine from the name, in the slightly differently spelled village of Blair Atholl, six miles to the north west.
What you find is an extremely attractive complex of grey stone buildings, many adorned in summer and autumn by Virginia creeper: indeed, the site is so attractive that the distillery has become a popular venue for functions and weddings. You also find a very good and highly informative distillery tour backed up by an excellent exhibition in the visitor reception area, exhibits at intervals around the tour, and a large and well stocked shop and tasting area.
Combine this with helpful and knowledgable staff and the end result is a thoroughly worthwhile experience, whether you have never been to a distillery before or have visited many. It is sufficiently like other malt whisky distilleries to provide an excellent introduction to the craft more widely: yet sufficiently individual and charming to be worth adding to even the largest of personal collections.
In many ways a visit to Blair Athol Distillery exceeds expectations. Its physical attractions are largely concealed by the face it presents to the main road, so come as a complete surprise. And because 98% of its output goes into blended whiskies, primarily Bell's, the distillery name is seldom seen on the labels of bottles, and so is much less well known than perhaps it ought to be. It does produce its own 12 year old single malt, but this is a relative rarity.
A tour of Blair Athol Distillery provides a welcome reminder that the malt whisky produced for blends such as Bell's is produced with as much care and craft, and on a comparable scale, as the better known products of other distilleries destined in larger proportion to become single malt whiskies. Your tour starts in the large visitor centre, which combines a reception and gathering area for tours with an informative and well presented exhibition covering the history of the distillery itself and of distilling more widely, and the story of Bell's Scotch Whisky.
Alfred Barnard, a visitor to the distillery in 1886, commented on the presence of two granaries, two malt floors and a kiln. In common with most other distilleries, Blair Athol no longer has its own maltings, using instead malted barley produced at the Glen Ord maltings in Muir of Ord.
The tour does view the source of another key raw material, the water from the "Allt Dour" or the "Burn of the Otter" which rises on nearby Ben Vrackie. You then pick up the process at the stage where the malted barley arrives on the premises. The attractive red Porteous malt mill on show is no longer in use, but the impressive nearby mash tun most certainly is. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
At the time of our visit, in March 2010, the next stage in the process took place in four magnificent old Oregon pine washbacks and four more unusual white-painted square steel washbacks. A refit later in the year was due to replace them all with a set of stainless steel washbacks, a change which might seem a shame to traditionalists, but would certainly make cleaning out the washbacks between brews more straightforward.
The heart of any distillery is the still room, and at Blair Athol there are two pairs of stills, each comprising a wash still and a spirit still. The condensers are, unusually, inside the still room rather than on an outside wall of the building, and an interesting change from normal practice (for those really into the detail) is the absence of red and blue pipework and fittings to distinguish between the wash stills and the spirit stills. The attractive spirit safe was originally made at the Banffshire Copper Works in Dufftown.
The tour then moves on to see the process of filling casks with the newly distilled spirit, and concludes in a viewing area in one of the bonded warehouses, where the spirit very slowly becomes Scotch whisky: a process that takes a legal minimum of three years. A visit to the excellent and spacious shop and tasting area concludes the tour.
There is ample evidence of widespread distilling taking place in the Pitlochry area back to the early 1700s and probably earlier. The first distillery on the site of Blair Athol was founded in 1798 as "Aldour", based on a corruption of the name of the stream from which it took its water.
This first distillery appears to have failed quite quickly because the very high excise duties at the time made legal distillers uncompetitive with illegal distillers. A more enlightened tax regime was introduced in 1823, and a new distillery was founded on the site by a Mr Conachar in 1826. By 1886 it covered 2.5 acres and was producing 60,000 gallons of "Highland Malt" each year.
The distillery closed in 1932, and was taken over by Arthur Bell & Sons the following year. Blair Athol Distillery returned to production following a rebuild in 1949. A second pair of stills was installed in 1970. Today Blair Athol is owned by the leading drinks company Diageo and can produce some 10,000 gallons of spirit each week. The distillery has operated as a visitor attraction since the late 1980s and receives over 30,000 visitors each year.