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 voles, dippers, 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.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
£14.00 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
£35.00 per person for a guided tour of the distillery followed by a tutored tasting of six cask strength whiskies drawn straight from the cask including a Blair Athol Exclusive Bottling, and a free gift to take home and enjoy. Tour duration 75 minutes. Click here to book the Blair Athol Allt Dour Tour online.
Manager’s Tasting Experience
£65.00 per person – limited to small groups on select days, the Manager's Tasting Experience features an in-depth story tour of Blair Athol and an unforgettable curated tasting of six whiskies straight from the casks, including two Old and Rare whiskies and Blair Athol Exclusive Bottlings. Tour duration 90 minutes. Click here to book the Blair Athol Manager's Tasting 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.
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.