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) and from time to time it still contains otters but is now mostly home to water voles, dippers and ducks.
Aldour Distillery closed not long after its opening but was resurrected in 1826 as Blair Athol Distillery – possibly after the nearby village of Blair Atholl, but also likely is that it named to secure favour with the Duke of Atholl who at the time owned the land the distillery is 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, refrigerator (for cooling the wort after it leaves the mash tun) and a spirit receiver “all nearly new”. They were producing 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.
The Era of Bell
Blair Athol Distillery did well for a time under Peter Mackenzie & Co. However, it was forced to close in 1932. Fortuitously, Peter Mackenzie & Co found a new owner shortly after in 1933, but Blair Athol Distillery 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 really started to take off. First, under the direction of W. G. Farquharson who was 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 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.
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).
Bells Blair Athol Distillery Tours, Prices and Bookings
For bookings Tel: 01796 482003 or email: [email protected]
All Tour Options includes a £5 discount voucher off the purchase of a 70cl single malt whisky.
Blair Athol Standard Tour – £9.5 – for a guided tour of the distillery followed by a dram of Blair Athol 12-Year-Old Single Malt.
Blair Athol Signature Tour – £16 – for a guided tour of the distillery followed by a dram of Blair Athol 12-Year-Old Single Malt and an additional three Single Malt Whiskies. Available as a public or private tour – advanced booking required for a private tour.
Allt Dour Deluxe Tour – £40 – private tour for connoisseurs – includes a sample of Blair Athol straight from the cask plus an additional four drams from the Diageo collection. Advanced booking required.
Tutored Tasting – £20 – a tutored tasting at the Mash Tun Bar with one of Blair Athol’s guides, who will talk you through 3 different whiskies; 1 dram of Blair Athol Exclusive Bottling plus 2 further drams of either a Single Malt Whisky, a Blended Whisky or a Grain whisky (your choice).
Manager’s Tasting – £75 – a tutored tasting of 5 Blair Athol Single Malts . Two drams of Cask Strength Blair Athol drawn direct from the cask, 1 dram of Blair Athol 12 year old, 1 dram of Blair Athol Exclusive Bottling and a dram of Blair Athol 23 year old. This private tasting must be booked in advance. ( Minimum 2 people ). Includes a Certificate of Completion and a gift box with 4 glasses.
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.