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Blair Athol

When I was not setting, turning, spinning and polka-ing during the Celtic Society’s jaunt to Pitlochry, we had just enough time to visit a distillery. We – or at least I – would have contrived some way of fitting Blair Athol in irrespectively.

My previous visit to the home of Bell’s blended whisky was irritating in the extreme. I had discovered that morning that I could expect little more than a video and a dram at the distillery due to maintenance. I rocked up at the reception and exhibition area, got bored, and decided I had better set off for Edradour if I wanted to make it to Brechin before nightfall. I remember it as a smart plant, with an eager burn washing between the buildings.

Blair Athol Distillery, the home of Bell's.

Perth Road, Pitlochry, PH16 5LY, 01796 482003. Diageo. http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/blairathol/

APPEARANCE AND LOCATION:      ****      The distillery sits beneath the railway line, halfway up the braes that lead in to Pitlochry with the River Tummel at its foot. Beautiful stone buildings house the distillery, which sits within a courtyard. The burn which flows through it provides an extra scenic dimension.

TOURS PROVIDED:

‘Blair Athol Tour’: £6. See ‘My Tour’ below.

‘Flora and Fauna Tour’: £12.50. A  tour of the distillery with a chance to taste the Blair Athol 12yo and two other expressions from the Flora and Fauna range. Mortlach 16yo and Linkwood 12yo are my recommendations.

‘Allt Dour Deluxe Tour’: £25. The distillery tour plus Blair Athol 12yo, Cask Strength distillery-exclusive and four other malts.

DISTILLERY-EXCLUSIVE BOTTLINGS:      A cask-strength, Sherry-matured Blair Athol. 55.8% vol. and £55. I managed to wangle myself a dram of this and found it much lighter than the standard 12yo with more of an insistent creaminess and first. Delicate floral notes could be detected before planed oak took over. The palate was prickly and nutty with a good dose of vanilla but water didn’t help at all. A strange dram, and I would personally go for the standard bottling.

My Tour – 23/01/2012

The Blair Athol reception and exhibition area.

THE RUNNING COMMENTARY:      **

THE PROCESS AND EQUIPMENT:      **

Notes:      The tour commences from the courtyard, climbing up a series of steps into the old floor maltings, which now house the mashtun. Two waters only are required to extract the sugars from the grist, which are drained efficiently back down the hill to the four stainless steel washbacks. A short ferment (50 hours) produces the nutty characteristics required, and from there it is on to the stillhouse. Four tall and proud stills sit in the corners of the room, belching heat and a heavy, intriguing spirit. Standing by the ISRs, I could detect old gym crash mats and biscuit. From there it is across the bridge into the filling store for a cooper recruitment drive (there aren’t enough of them, apparently) and into the warehouse. The tour concludes on the balcony of the shop, with a dram.

GENEROSITY:       (Only the one dram is available as part of the standard tour. Asking nicely is the way to do it.)

VALUE FOR MONEY:        *

SCORE:     5/10*s

The shop.

COMMENT:      What hasn’t already been said about a Diageo distillery tour? I was part of a larger group – many first-time whisky drinkers – who said to me later that the ‘patter’ came across as somewhat formulaic and that they didn’t entirely trust some of the claims made. Having done more than 50 distillery tours, I suppose I have become inured to the ‘patter’ but I found our guide to be clear, informative and friendly. To address those odd ‘claims’, though. I only raised an eyebrow when discussions about blending began in the warehouse, the suggestion was that the blender fiddles around with ex-Bourbon casks because colour is more easily managed. There was some discussion of the vanilla elements ex-Bourbon casks lend to a spirit but the focus returned to colour as a reason for master blenders maturing their whisky in these casks. The warehouse itself was something of a disappointment, separated as we were from the sleeping casks in a sealed viewing chamber. No aroma could penetrate, and I feel many missed out on the mystery and magic of those oak-spirit scents, allowing them to guess at the gentle dynamism at work in a dunnage warehouse. The entire distillery, it must be said, was a little denuded of smell. The washbacks were ventilated, the mashtun airlocked, too. For the home of a major blended brand like Bell’s, I found the decor to be a little mundane and thin. It certainly could not hold a torch to the Famous Grouse Experience or Dewar’s World of Whisky. The blend-single malt focus was appropriate, however, and it was made very clear at the beginning that Blair Athol was an element of Bell’s, and was not the producer of it. We are living in different economic times to when I undertook my Odyssey, and I suppose that £6 is what one must now expect to pay for a distillery tour. As such I feel the expense is justified because Blair Athol and its product are undeniably charming. But if you have the means of getting to Edradour above Pitlochry, I would say that was a better bet.

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Pitlochry to Braemar

Pitlochry to Kinnaird Castle, 61 miles

As I mentioned in the previous post, my attempts to tour Blair Athol were thwarted. The first I heard about it was when I was shopping for supplies in Robertsons (my kind of grocer: half of shop for fine whisky, the rest for everything else you might need to live on.) It seems their silent season had been brought forward and I’m afraid you won’t be able to tour the distillery until July. The man recommended I head along anyway, because they werew still offering an explanation of the process and a free dram.

I got there but everything was largely shut up. The man in the office said he could call the guides but I didn’t think it was really worth my while to be told about a distillery I was in. I’m all about the showing! The basics are £5 entry, with an exhibition for Bell’s whisky and a dram of the 12YO at the end. 

I headed for Edradour, then, and it is such a beautiful distillery (see tour review below). The sun was out, a fresh breeze was blowing and you feel totally removed from everything. It is your quintessential farm distillery with oodles of character.

That done all I had to do was cover the, as I thought it, 50 miles to Kinnaird Castle outside Brechin, where my aunt is a tenant and had succeeded in securing a room for me in the castle itself which are normally rented out by holiday-makers. So what better motivator was there than great food, my own room and bed, and above all someone familiar?

The route was an exceptionally picturesque one, heading north out of Pitlochry onto seemingly the roof of Perthshire with suitably strained breathing. The sun was strong and ever-present again. I passed many little communities, encountering very few cars. It wasn’t until I joined the road to Blairgowrie that the road deteriorated and the traffic worsened.

My Mum, always with half a mind on my stomach, had found a nice stop on my sparsely-populated course. I pulled up at the Old Cross Inn just within Blairgowrie and as I was getting myself sorted out a man appeared. He asked if he could help and I said I was after a drink and some food. He said that unfortunately the chef was away and the kitchen was closed. Obviously he took pity on my sighs of dismay and generally ragged appearance. “I can put the fryer on and do you a bowl of chips.” It ended up a bowl of chips, a pint of Coke and a cheese and ham toastie. I enjoyed my chat with Liam, for that is his name, just as much. Your hospitality will not be soon forgotten.

So taken was I with the charm of such encounters that upon leaving I neglected to secure my backpack to the rack. A massive honk from a truck behind me told me as much. It was in the middle of the road. Lesson learned, and reflecting on how life is instances of good and bad luck, I carried on to Brechin.

I’d said in my phone call to my aunt that I’d arrive by 5PM. Kirriemuir only just went by at 4.45PM. The road out of Forfar, connecting with the one to Montrose and Brechin, seemed to go on forever. 55 miles came and went on my odometer. I began to notice familiar views, however, and I took the turn off to Farnell knowing I was home.

The food was extraordinary, the room palatial and the bath lovely and hot. The company, though, was what I began pining for even before I left the next morning.

***

Kinnaird Castle to Fettercairn, 15 miles

A very necessary shorter day, this one. Had the itinerary been any more severe, I might not have left at all. Why leave such comfort for more stress, exhaustion and strangeness? I didn’t answer this inward enquiry, just saddled up and left.

Before Glencadam which my aunt had arranged for me, I wanted to check my brakes. The descent into Pitlochry the day before had reminded me that brakes wear out, and having that happen coming down a Cairngorm would not be advantageous. The man in Tayside Cycles reassured me that they had bags of life left.

After my Glencadam tour (see below) it was a very short – and pleasant – ride to Fettercairn. I had been promised by my Dad, who works in Aberdeen and stays in Fettercairn when he does so, that the treatment to be had with Mike and Denise at Kishmul, my B&B for the night, was second to none. The road on which it sits was divine, and the atmosphere of the place so very tranquil. I’d already got some excellent photos of the distillery against the mountains and the daffodil crops but went for a walk to get a closer look.

I had my lunch beneath a majestic monkey puzzle tree, watching the light breeze tickle the early cherry blossom on the tree just in the distillery yard. After a cup of tea and some carrot cake at ‘the arch’ (no capital letter), and asking at the Ramsey Arms for public computer access (no chance) I returned to the distillery for my tour. For the second time that day I was accompanied solely by the guide and what a nice tour it was. Being part of the same group as the wonderful Dalmore made the trip to the shop especially interesting. I shall post up my review of the tour later.

After dinner at the Ramsey Arms (super scrummy) I retired for the night, but not before checking out my route to Aviemore on my maps. I knew that the following three days would be tough, and that if I survived them then my continuation of the tour would be with some momentum, the worst being, for now, over. Obviously those three days which had troubled me so greatly in mental preparation will now look very different. The first of them, however, went ahead (almost) as planned.

***

Fettercairn to Braemar, 54 miles

Denise, as promised, set me up as best she could with a stonkingly excellent breakfast. I’m not sure that’s an official adverb but it ought to be when associated with that kind of food. She had also taken my request for a packed lunch (just a couple of sandwiches) and gone to whole new levels of accommodation. There were three sandwiches, a banana, apple and two chocolate bars. Without such a sack of vittels, I don’t think I would have made it.

Cairn o’ Mount is a famous hill in the area, often closed in winter. I wish it had been closed on Friday. Long, and unreasonably steep in parts. I’d like to brag and say I didn’t get off and push. That’s true, but only because to have done so would have been far more dangerous than simply carrying on. The gradient was so severe and the camber of the road in the final bend before the merciful parking area so inhospitable, I had to ignore my screaming legs bursting lungs and incoherent thoughts and just push on. I rolled into the car park and let the wall at its perimeter stop me. I have never been quite that destroyed.

The view south and east from the parking area on Cairn o' Mount.

The view south and east from the parking area on Cairn o' Mount.

I carried on after a few minutes, the view from the top sea and farmland on one side, the snow-capped Cairngorms on the other.

Royal Deeside: simply spectacular. Murderous to cycle through, however.

Royal Deeside: simply spectacular. Murderous to cycle through, however.

Until Aboyne the road did nothing but writhe up and down. There were many hobby cyclists out for a spin, and from either direction they all looked as if they would rather be mowing the lawn. The wind was what did for me. As I continued to head west, so it continued to gust at me. This only became a physical problem after I finally made it to Royal Lochnagar. Despite the sandwiches and banana I had finished with the distillery cat before the exemplary tour (more details later), I came out deeply tired. The nine miles to Braemar were some of the longest I had ever attempted. The road followed the banks of the Dee, so was fortunately flat, but was essentially long straight sections, with a cheeky bend at the end which I prayed would reveal the town, but instead promised more trees.

My knees had been registering some complaints intermittently all day, and now it was the re turn of my face. My lips felt rather raw, so I stopped to apply some well-known petroleum jelly. My fingers came away covered in blood. I was bleeding, and a lot. Mercifully, finally, I wobbled into Braemar. The hostel was at the other end of the town, of course, and I rasped up the steep drive to the front door. Abandoning the bike, I went to find the reception. It was busy, so I checked my appearance in a car window. I looked like I’d been in a fight. Congealed blood came from my nose, my face was ashen white and unsightly build ups of goodness-only-knows were at the corners of my mouth. Had I been in a fight? I felt like I had, only I was mssing the adrenaline. As I said to my parents, surprisingly matter-of-factly, when they phoned, I was at zero. Languishing at the bottom of the barrel, utterly spent, is not as unpleasant as many people make out. My exhaustion shielded me from many haunting realisations. I had a shower, then an enormous pizza from the Hungry Highlander and was in terrific spirits. I’d encountered my first real set-back. This tour felt like it was my own at last, after I had no option but to make the pragmatic decision to change the route. It was almost a relief to be so run-down, liberating that it truly was my decision to sacrifice my grand plans for the sake of the whole experience I can still have. Yes, I wanted to do a full tour. But these things happen when one is on the road.

Unfortunately, I could not maintain such equanimity into this morning. It dawned grey, cold and snowing so had yesterday been a normal day, I probably would still have had to call off my trip to Aviemore. Coming to terms with my fatigue and the imperfect nature of my journey, however, I couldn’t see any of the pluses anymore, hence the post of earlier today. My aim is to get to next Sunday (for my Speyside distances are largely quite modest) and then see how I am. I’m keen to be moving again, and Diane at Tomintoul sounds like she can sort me out.

***

As for the photos, dear readers, I have done what I can. An hour (£3) of uploading and only the picture of Glenkinchie would load onto my photostream – check it out, it’s beautiful. I have deleted four fifths of the pictures on my camera so that I had less to upload, but still, the other nine images I wanted to show you wouldn’t transfer. I tried again and zilch. I have done my best folks. Technology is just not on my side.

Apologies also for ay typos or tautology. I’m writing these posts straight onto the computer – no drafting – and haven’t time to read back through. With less than two minutes of credit left, I shall see you all when I see you.

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