Blair Athol is a distillery that is relatively unheralded, primarily due to its function as a cog in the impressive blended whisky machine of Diageo. The distillery is seen as the spiritual home of Bell’s blended whisky and forms the heart of the blend.
But sometimes, it is worth having a look at the whisky itself as there may be more to it than meets the eye.
Blair Athol distillery was founded in 1798 by John Stewart and Robert Robertson as Aldour distillery, which was its predecessor. The initial name was taken from the Allt Dour river, which was located next to the distillery site.
The distillery was then expanded and renamed as Blair Athol in 1825 by John Robertson and it was leased by the Duke of Atholl to Alexander Connacher & Co the following year.
The distillery remained in the hands of the Connacher family until 1862, when it was purchased by Peter Mackenzie & Company Distillers Ltd of Edinburgh (who would eventually found the Dufftown distillery) and expanded further.
In 1933, Arthur Bell & Sons takes over the distillery by acquiring Peter Mackenzie & Company after being mothballed the previous year and it took until 1949 for the distillery to restart production due to the effects of the Depression as well as the Second World War.
Blair Athol became an important part of Bell’s blended whisky, but while it was founded by Arthur Bell and his sons, Arthur and Robert, it took the arrival of an outsider to truly put the brand on the map.
In 1956, Raymond Miquel joined the company and stepped up to become managing director in 1968. It was then that he realised that the company had a very traditional way of doing things which did not serve them well in their quest to make Bell’s a well known brand.
Miquel sought to modernise the processes utilised by the distillery and expanded the amount of stills from two to four, which helped to greatly improve production of Blair Athol whisky. Over the next decade, Miquel oversaw the growth of sales of Bell’s blended whisky in the home market from £20m to £159m.
This staggering amount of success did not go unnoticed and it attracted the interest of the Guinness Group and its manager, Ernest Saunders, who launched a hostile takeover of Arthur Bell & Sons in 1985 and successfully absorbed it into the brewing giant’s portfolio.
The distillery was further expanded and a visitor centre was built in 1987, with Blair Athol remaining a key component in the Bell’s range as well as several other blended whiskies including those from the Johnnie Walker range.
In terms of equipment, the distillery sports an 8-tonne semi-lauter mash tun, six washbacks made of stainless steel and two pairs of stills. It is currently running 7 days of week and performing 16 mashes, which allows for an annual production capacity of 2.5 million litres of pure alcohol.
The whisky is matured in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, with the former being used for Bell’s blended whisky and the latter being used for other blends and purposes. In terms of official bottlings, the distillery has a 12 Years Old expression within the Diageo Flora & Fauna range as well as a 27 Years Old cask strength expression from 1975 within the Rare Malts series.
The distillery also released a No Age Statement (NAS) expression in 2010 which was matured in first fill sherry casks and bottled at cask strength as a distillery exclusive.
This week’s review focuses on a rather youthful expression of Blair Athol which was distilled in 2010, matured for 5 years in a sherry butt before being bottled at a cask strength abv of 59.4% by independent bottler Carn Mor.
So, let’s dive right into the review!
Blair Athol 2010 5 Years Old (Bottled by Carn Mor, 59.4% abv)
Nose: Initial entry presents a bright and slightly winey, yet malty note which is coupled with red fruits (under-ripe plums and grapes come to mind), oak and cracked black pepper. Slightly spirity, with candied ginger, a hint of vanilla and damp earth. (21/25)
Palate: Rich, spirity and sweet in equal measure, although not overly so. There is a pronounced amount of heat and bite, which would be derived from the cask strength nature of this dram and there are elements of cracked black pepper, sherry, candied ginger, nutmeg, pencil shavings and creosote.
Plasticine, damp clay and a trio of plums, dates and grapes emerge later on and intermingle with oak, vanilla and damp earthy notes. (22/25)
Finish: Relatively long and lingering on the finish, with a pronounced dry note which exhibits hints of black pepper, fading sherry, oak and candied ginger as well as a distant hint of smoke. (20/25)
Balance: A rather well balanced dram which showcases sweet, spicy, savoury and even some unusual notes which initial seem rather haphazardly thrown together and yet combine rather well to provide a cohesive and enjoyable experience. The mouthfeel is initially oily but quickly becomes rather drying. (21/25)
I found this expression rather interesting as while it contained a number of elements which one would generally associate with Blair Athol’s house style, there are other elements which are rather unusual and could either be attributed to the distillate or the end product of the maturation process in the sherry butt.
But what surprised me the most was that this expression was quite complex for one so young and it goes to show that a whisky should not be judged solely on its age statement but on its ability to provide a complete nosing and tasting experience.
This expression was savoured at The Elysian Whisky Bar in Fitzroy during my trip back to Melbourne a few months ago and I would highly recommend it to those who are looking for something interesting and enjoyable.
Until the next review, have a great week.
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