Driving north on the whisky truck laden A9 from Glasgow, Stirling, or Edinburgh, you might not realize it, but there are a couple of whisky distilleries along the route to Speyside. In fact two of them are within a couple of miles of each other. Edradour Distillery might be the best known, but Blair Athol is probably consumed more than you know. And it is right on the main drag through Pitlochry.

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highlands blair athol distillery 12 single malt whisky

About the Blair Athol Distillery Tour

This is mostly a distillery built on providing blends (it is the signature spirit in Bell's Blended Whisky) but they do make 3 single malt whiskies here, including a 12, a 23 year old, and a bourbon and sherry cask version. This accounts for only 0.03% of their total whisky allotment.

There is a lot of history here, as they started legally making whisky in 1798. Before that, it was a working farm, but there was probably some illegal distilling going on. But back in those days whisky could be dangerous as it was higher proof, usually not aged, and filled with methanol that could make you go blind (yes that is true!) and then kill you. As I heard on one tour, if you drink it and you go blind, you know to stop before you die! By the way, whisky production was more profitable than farming, thus the decision to change the farm's direction.

While in the warehouse, we saw a barrel marked as 1968. When we asked what it was for, Jennifer mentioned it was for a Johnny Walker Master's Edition whisky to be sold in the US at $25,000 a bottle (yes A BOTTLE!). This to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Johnny Walker.

  • Location: Perth Rd, Pitlochry, UK (Just off the A9 between Stirling and Speyside)
  • Region: Highlands
  • Impression: Worth a stop, if not just to see the Mash Tun Bar (see below). They have an excellent single malt dram to sample after your 45 minute tour.
  • Website: Tour Information (Requires Age Verification)
  • Cost: 9.50£ (you get a discount coupon if you buy some whisky)
  • Samples: They took our group upstairs in a separate building and walked us through a tasting of their 12-year old Blair Athol Single Malt. I had to drive, so they gave me a mini-bottle to pour the dram into for later that evening. 
  • Perks: They gave us a small-Glencairn glass (adequate for your own tastings) and box.
  • Warehouse access: Sort of (you can see through the glass but no angel's share smell)
  • Note: Owned by Diagio (your tour might be free, details in my Scotland podcast episode listen for #7). And the camera policy was a little hard to understand. At first we thought no photos except in one spot, but at the end it sounded like only no photos in one spot. Thus my lack of photos.

 highlands blair athol distillery 02 mini still bar

Takeaways

I had not planned on stopping here, but the building looked interesting. I decided to see what it was all about, but didn't have a reservation and was pressed for time (as I had a Dalwhinnie tour planned within 2 1/2 hours). The tour took about and hour including tasting. Dalwhinnie was 45 minutes away, so I made it on time. They suggest reservations during the busier Summer months.

The beautifully converted Mash Tun Bar which used to be a pot still, but now houses aged whisky in glass bottles. Refurbished and designed by Diageo’s Abercrombie coppersmith in Alloa, Scotland, this is a great way to kill time before your tour.

highlands blair athol distillery 03 warehouse

Stuff I Learned During the Tour

Remember, this is my first distillery stop in Scotland, so I really got my first taste of the difference between the Scotch distilling process and Bourbon.

  • There are a few steps and stairs, so be prepared.
  • Out of 3 million litres produced here a year - 99.7% is sent to be blended into Johnny Walker, J&B, Bell's, etc.
  • For bourbon fans, there are no mash bills in scotch. There is only barley, no corn or rye. The single malt distinction means there is only malted barley and all components of the whisky were from the same distillery. There is such a thing as a blended malt scotch whisky, Johnny Walker Green is an example. This means it is still only malted barley, but the whisky may have come from different distilleries.
  • To see a working distillery, best to go on a weekday. Less noise. No smell.
  • I asked about purifying the water, like limestone does for bourbon. They said they have very soft water in Scotland, unlike England. Comes right from a mountain and doesn't have an iron content to spoil the whisky.
  • Always made in a barrel with Spanish Sherry Casks from the north of Spain. American Bourbon casks for the other (says it is usually lighter in color). 1000£ to 100£ as cost difference since Sherry Casks are more rare. Some use port, wine, etc. but not Blair Athol. 
  • Scotch uses these barrels 3-4 times. They smoke fish with the left over barrels and sell them to gardening centers.
  • They actually don't fill the barrels at the warehouse, but instead have the whisky taken by tanker to the south.
  • 2% Angel's Share loss per year (1% in Dalwhinnie because of elevation) Warmer countries can lose up to 10% per year.
  • Parking is to the right of the distillery.
  • Contradictions: They mentioned not to drink whisky cold, because it has natural oils. They suggest to let your hand surround it under the bowl of the glass. I've heard from other sources not to let your had touch the glass too much because you don't want your hand warming it too much.
  • Also an interesting tip, if your whisky starts smelling too much like alcohol after it sits, just blow over the top of the glass.

highlands blair athol distillery 04 bonded warehouse

While In The Area

  • Jennifer mentioned it was worth a trip to the Pitlochry Visitor's Center to see how they generate electricity at the Pitlochry Dam.
  • The town looks beautiful with lots of stonework. With another distillery and a brewery, it might be a good spot to spend a day (on foot).

Side Trips

  • Scotch whisky has to age a minimum of 3 years before it can be used in a blended whisky.
  • Prohibition and the bourbon cask's availability in Scotland. The law.
  • Jennifer mentioned a movie on Amazon called The Angel's Share if you want a expletive filled but funny film about whisky.

Next stop up the A9: Dalwhinnie Distillery (the highest in Scotland)

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