Updated 12 May 2022

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Blair Athol Distillery | Home of Bells Blended Scotch

Established in 1798, Blair Athol Distillery is one of the oldest working distilleries in Scotland. Located just off the A9, only 2 hours from Edinburgh and Glasgow, and open 362 days a year, Blair Athol Distillery is also a very popular tourist destination.

Bell's Blair Athol Distillery History

Blair Athol Distillery is one of the oldest legal distilling sites in Scotland. The distillery was established by John Stewart and Robert Robertson as a farm distillery in 1798 under the name ‘Aldour Distillery’ – after the Gaelic ‘Alt Dour’ meaning ‘Burn of the Otter’. The distillery buildings surround the Kinnaird Burn, which has a salmon gate (to permit the passage of the spawning fish). The stream still contains otters from time to time but is now mainly home to water volesdippers, and ducks.

Aldour Distillery closed not long after its opening. In 1826 the distillery was resurrected and renamed Blair Athol by John Robertson – possibly after the nearby Blair Atholl village - though likely after the Duke of Atholl, to secure his favour. At that time, he owned the land the distillery was on.

In 1886 Blair Athol Distillery was acquired by Peter Mackenzie + Co, and Alfred Barnard visited not long after they had taken over and completed considerable improvements to the distillery. Barnard notes two large granaries, each with concrete steeps, two malt floors and a kiln. The distillery obtained peat from Orkney, and the water supply was straight from Ben Vrackie. He also notes two copper stills, an iron mash tun and underback, a refrigerator (for cooling the wort after it leaves the mash tun) and a spirit receiver “all nearly new”. They produced 1,500 gallons (6,819 litres) of spirit a week and an annual output of 60,000 gallons (272,765 litres). Five bonded warehouses were able to hold 80,000-100,000 gallons of whisky.

Blair Athol Distillery

Blair Athol Distillery

The Era of Bell

Blair Athol Distillery did reasonably well under Peter Mackenzie & Co; however, the distillery closed again in 1932 (possibly due to the depression)[ref]. Arthur Bell and Sons acquired the distillery in 1933, but Blair Athol would lie dormant until 1949. The distillery needed an upgrade, and in the meantime, the new owners had other interests. They were building up their brand of blended whiskies, and when they acquired Peter Mackenzie and Co, the acquisition came with the Dufftown Distillery. In 1936 they would also purchase Inchgower distillery.

What had started in a small grocery store had turned into a distilling house of considerable size. Created by Arthur Bell Snr in the 1850s, his sons (Arthur Kinmont Bell and Robert Duff Bell) would eventually join him, and they traded as ‘Arthur Bell & Sons’ from 1895. Prohibition in the united states from 1933 saw a boom in demand, but it wasn’t until after the Bell Brothers died (both in 1942) that Bell’s started to take off. First, under the direction of W. G. Farquharson, the managing director of Bell’s until 1968 and then chairman until 1973. Then under Raymond Miquel, who took over as managing director in 1968 and became chairman after Farquharson’s death in 1973. Miquel, in particular, is noted for his role in revising Bell’s – he slashed costs and significantly improved productivity. (3)

Throughout the 1970s, Bell’s was the number one selling blended whisky in Scotland and controlled 35% of the UK market.
To meet demand, in 1973, Bell’s increased the number of stills at Blair Athol to four, then built Pittyvaich distillery in 1975 as a sister distillery to Dufftown. With the addition of Pittyvaich and the implementation of Miquel’s other efficiencies, total production at Bell’s distilleries went from 4.75 million litres per annum to 13.44 million litres (4). Bell’s would also acquire Bladnoch Distillery in 1983.

Blair Athol Distillery - Arthur Bell rose bush and a Stillman's Tesla (charging!).

Blair Athol Distillery - Arthur Bell rose bush and a Stillman's Tesla (charging!).

From Guinness to Diageo

Guinness successfully launched a hostile takeover of Bell’s in 1985. Guinness then went on to take over DCL, and eventually, Diageo was formed and became the present owners of Blair Athol Distillery.

Blair Athol Distillery is now at the heart of the current Bell’s blend. Bell’s is made up of several Diageo owned distillery whiskies: predominantly Blair Athol, with varying levels of Caol Ila, Inchgower, Dufftown and Glenkinchie.

Where Is Bell's Blair Athol Distillery

Blair Athol Distillery is in the town of Pitlochry, off the A9 and under 2 hours drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow (56.6982678,-3.721905).

Buses and trains run from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Pitlochry – see travelinescotland.com for more information. The distillery is a short 20-minute walk (0.9 miles / 1.4 km) from the Pitlochry train station, although buses are available to Aldour (240-metre walk).

screen shot of Google map for Blair Athol Distillery

Bells Blair Athol Distillery Tours, Prices and Bookings

Advanced booking for all tours and experiences is essential; due to COVID-19, Blair Athol are reviewing booking requests in line with government guidance and capacities before confirming bookings. Bookings are available online, or by telephoning +44 01796 482003 or emailing blair.athol@malts.com. Children under the age of 8 are not permitted on tours. Children over the age of eight are welcome with a valid ticket and a limit of two children per group.

Blair Athol Signature Tour

£17.00 per person for a guided tour of the distillery followed by a tutored tasting of three whiskies including a Blair Athol Exclusive Bottling, and a free gift. Tour duration 45 minutes. Click here to book the Blair Athol Signature Tour online.

Blair Athol Allt Dour Tour - Our Pick

£40.00 per person for a guided tour of the distillery followed by a tutored tasting of six whiskies, including one drawn straight from the cask and a Blair Athol Exclusive Bottling. Also includes a free gift to take home and enjoy. Tour duration 75 minutes. Click here to book the Blair Athol Allt Dour Tour online.

Blair Athol Cask & Cocktail Experience

£80.00 per person – limited to small groups on select days, this is a tour and tasting experience designed for the aficionado of extraordinary whiskies. Taste five (5) drams, including an old and rare Cask strength and Distillery Exclusive Bottlings, followed by a cocktail in the beautiful Mash Tun Bar which will be created to suit your flavour preferences. Tour duration 120 minutes. Click here to book the Blair Athol Cask & Cocktail Experience online.

Useful Visitor Information

As with all Diageo distilleries, photos are also not allowed in production areas, which is most of the distillery. No, it’s not because they think you’ll try and steal their ideas or equipment design! Ethanol is highly flammable, and electronic equipment poses a potential source of ignition. As such, they’ve implemented a policy on all their sites – no electronic devices to be in use in production areas, or where ethanol is likely to be in higher concentrations (like warehouses).

For healthy and safety reasons, the distillery does not permit children under eight years old in the production areas.

Accommodation

The closest town to Blair Athol Distillery is Pitlochry, which has many hotels and other accommodation options.

We stayed at an AirBnB 45 minutes drive away in Glen Lyon – just past Aberfeldy. Glen Lyon is a stunning part of Scotland, and our single room bothy with kitchen and ensuite bathroom was perfect for two. The same host also rents out the house next door, suitable for families or those wanting more space.

The following hotels are known for their whisky selections:

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picture of a beautifully made bed at McKay's hotel pitlochry

Newly refurbished contemporary hotels rooms with a Scottish twist and Highland Soap Co toiletries to indulge in. Rooms vary in style and size in keeping with the Hotel's Victorian architecture, and all have views of the treetops of Perthshire. McKays Townhouse across the road has rooms that are away from the hustle of the hotel and live music. The bar has an excellent selection of whisky.

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orange toned bedroom at the Old Mill Inn Pitlochry

The Old Mill Inn is a family owned & run VisitScotland 4-star Gold Inn in the heart of Pitlochry. The bar at The Old Mill Inn has been named the friendliest in Tayside and Perth and you will find a great place to relax with a whisky or two during the week and a place to party at weekends with Live Music every Friday & Saturday night.

Bell's Blair Athol Distillery Photo Gallery

The Kinnaird Burn runs through Blair Athol Distillery

The Kinnaird Burn runs through Blair Athol Distillery

Blair Athol Distillery Warehouses

Blair Athol Distillery Warehouses

The old malt mill at Blair Athol Distillery of Porteus Patent variety

The old malt mill at Blair Athol Distillery of Porteus Patent variety

Inside the steel mash tun at Blair Athol Distillery

Inside the steel mash tun at Blair Athol Distillery

Timber clad steel mash tun at Blair Athol Distillery

Timber clad steel mash tun at Blair Athol Distillery

Steel Mash Tun at Blair Athol Distillery

Steel Mash Tun at Blair Athol Distillery

Fermenting wort at Blair Athol Distillery. Blair Athol uses a creamed yeast and produces a cloudy wort.

Fermenting wort at Blair Athol Distillery. Blair Athol uses a creamed yeast and produces a cloudy wort.

Two of the six steel washbacks at Blair Athol Distillery

Two of the six steel washbacks at Blair Athol Distillery

The tun room at Blair Athol Distillery contains several pieces of historic equipment

The tun room at Blair Athol Distillery contains several pieces of historic equipment

The beautiful trees outside the Blair Athol warehouses - a Weeping Willow and Copper Beech

The beautiful trees outside the Blair Athol warehouses - a Weeping Willow and Copper Beech

References & Further Reading

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picture of the front cover of book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard

One of Amanda's favourite books. Around 1885, Alfred Barnard was secretary of Harper's Weekly Gazette, a journal dedicated to the wine and spirit trade. In order to provide his readers with the history and descriptions of the whisky-making process, Barnard decided to visit all distilleries in Scotland, England and Ireland. Accompanied by friends, he visited and sketched over 150 distilleries. This is a wonderful step back in time and a must have book for a whisky history geek. 

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About the author

Amanda

Amanda is an Australian-born photographer, digital nomad and whisky lover. Her passion for travel and whisky lead her to Islay, where she fell in love with an Ileach (an Islay native). Amanda and Roddy now share their Spirited Adventures.

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