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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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Encounters With Wild Whisky

Aberfeldy

In the two-and-a-half years between the light bulb, grand induction moment into the single malt galaxy at The Glenlivet and alighting on to the 09.56 Edinburgh-bound train in April to begin my Scotch Odyssey, only one experience truly volunteers itself as an essential giant leap forward in my appreciation of whisky.

While my boutique (and marvellous) tour of Auchentoshan in 2008 afforded me more time observing the process, it wasn’t until my top-spec potter around Aberfeldy distillery last autumn that I gained privileged and enlightening insight into the mercurial DNA of Scotch malt whisky, contained within its individual casks. Therefore, ahead of my VIP tour of Glen Garioch and the inauguration on Scotch Odyssey Blog of my personal views regarding the many bespoke distillery guided tours available in addition to the basic packages, I would like to tell you about my time at Dewar’s World of Whisky and what single malt, untamed by reduction or filtration, tastes like.

The dunnage warehouses at Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Sadly, they are empty, but a few gems were left behind.

The dunnage warehouses at Aberfeldy, Perthshire. Sadly, they are empty, but a few gems were left behind.

The Aberfeldy Signature Tour [now the Connoisseur Tour and with added bells and whistles] cost me £30 and for that I was granted private access to the fount of knowledge that is Bruce. He guided me through a tasting of the Aberfeldy single malt and Dewar’s blended ranges, and then around the distillery. The climax of the tour – and the reason I had only nosed many of the drams in the gorgeous visitor centre – was the final point on the tour specification. I was going beyond the mesh gate and into the warehouse.

Very sadly, it was not the same breed of ambrosial vapour of The Glenlivet or Auchentoshan that greeted my quivering nostrils. John Dewar & Sons ceased maturing Aberfeldy on-site more than a decade ago and the hundreds of casks to be seen stacked deep into the depths of the gauzy darkness are empty. All bar three, that is.

“Take your pick,” Bruce encouraged, and I concurred with his recommendation, selecting the 24-year-old cask from 1985 in preference to two from 1983. Bruce produced a mallet and a valinch, beating the bung out of hogshead no. 1321 with the former and drawing out a measure of Highland single malt with the latter.

Aberfeldy Cask

I held my Glencairn glass below the valinch and a stream of sparkling rich gold passed from it to the glass. As I held my sample up to the solitary spotlamp I could see tiny black flecks of charcoal floating like dust motes in the glowing spirit. Tentative sniffs revealed apples, vanilla, and classic Aberfeldy heather honey but nothing more. It was only then that I realised how cold it was in the shadows of the warehouse. My skin felt clammy, as if the thousands of litres of whisky, which had once evaporated from their wooden bonds, were being squeezed from the blackened walls like water from a sponge, trickling over me.

24-year-old, single cask Aberfeldy: divine.

24-year-old, single cask Aberfeldy: divine.

When Bruce kept surreptitiously nosing the hole in the cask I followed his example and warmth returned. My head filled with sweet spicy aromas, partly from the alcohol, partly from the rich firm oak and biscuity, fruity, raw whisky. Each had been interacting with the other since before I was born. It was such a complex, enthralling fragrance – so much more so than even the best whiskies sampled in dull glass.

My dram had been transferred from cask to copita, however, so I dashed back across to the visitor centre where I might warm it up and unlock its character.

Over the next half-hour or so, I fell in love. The weight, muscularity but powerful pungent smoothness that all well-aged malts possess held me; sweet honey and vanilla charmed me, and heather-like aromas intrigued me. Amazingly, there was still much in the way of freshness and cleanness, despite its 24 years. Water pulled out richer caramel and butterscotch aromas.

Cleanliness and firm richness continued on the palate with the addition of wonderful warmth. Vanilla ice cream, nuts, fruit and what can only be described as “honey mist” made for a beautiful gently fading finish. On the Cask Tasting Tour [£12], there is a 25-year-old to sample straight from the cask. It may be the same one, or another very similar to it.

Ever since then, I have been dangerously vulnerable to the attractions of single casks: their focus and power, character and purity. I howled with lust and longing when Diageo announced the Manager’s Choice series. I subsequently howled with rage and dismay when the prices followed. I did put my name down for one of the limited edition Chris Anderson Cask Aberfeldys on the basis of that malt. 18-years-old directly from one cask; so severe was my desire that the asking price of £150 [now £180 at the distillery] didn’t deter me. I suspect my name was not transferred to the official waiting list, however, for I was not contacted again. In the long run, this was probably just as well.

My afternoon at Aberfeldy was an invaluable education, then. Indeed, what I learnt returned to me in April when I had the opportunity to compare it to another single cask encounter, this time at Aberlour. The experience at this Speyside distillery is made doubly astonishing when measured against this previous specialised tour. Aberlour is the only standard tour (besides Glen Moray) to economically reveal the majesty and charm of wild whisky.

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