Blair Athol Distillery – Home of Bell’s Blended Scotch

Bells 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) and from time to time it still contains otters but is now mostly home to water volesdippers and ducks.

Burn of the Otter

Aldour Distillery closed not long after its opening but was resurrected in 1826 as Blair Athol Distillery – possibly after the nearby village of Blair Atholl, but also likely is that it named to secure favour with the Duke of Atholl who at the time owned the land the distillery is 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, refrigerator (for cooling the wort after it leaves the mash tun) and a spirit receiver “all nearly new”. They were producing 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.

Blair Athol Distillery
Blair Athol Distillery

The Era of Bell

Blair Athol Distillery did well for a time under Peter Mackenzie & Co. However, it was forced to close in 1932. Fortuitously, Peter Mackenzie & Co found a new owner shortly after in 1933, but Blair Athol Distillery 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 really started to take off. First, under the direction of W. G. Farquharson who was 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 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 (5). 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.

Even though Blair Athol Distillery didn’t come on line until 1949, it is now the heart of the 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. (4)

Bells Blair Athol Distillery Address

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).

What Else Is Nearby

Bells Blair Athol Distillery Tours, Prices and Bookings

For bookings Tel: 01796 482003 or email: blair.athol.distillery@diageo.com

All Tour Options includes a £5 discount voucher off the purchase of a 70cl single malt whisky.

Blair Athol Standard Tour – £7.5 – for a guided tour of the distillery followed by a dram of Blair Athol 12-Year-Old Single Malt.

Blair Athol Signature Tour – £20 – for a guided tour of the distillery followed by a dram of Blair Athol 12-Year-Old Single Malt and an additional three Single Malt Whiskies. Available as a public or private tour – advanced booking required for a private tour.

Allt Dour Deluxe Tour – £35 – private tour for connaisseurs – includes a sample of Blair Athol straight from the cask plus an additional four drams from the Diageo collection. Advanced booking required.

Guide’s Choice Tasting – £50 – includes a private tutored tasting of 5 exclusive whiskies selected by the Blair Athol guides – including 2 drams of Cask Strength Blair Athol drawn directly from the cask, and one of your choice from their Vintage Range. Advanced booking required.

Platinum Tour and Tasting – £165 – for the ultimate Blair Athol Distillery experience – includes a private tour of the distillery and your choice of 6 drams from Diageo’s extensive and exclusive range. You also have the opportunity to purchase a dram of Port Ellen or Lagavulin 37-year-old single malt. Advanced booking required.

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.

Blair Athol Distillery Tour Photos

Blair Athol Distillery - Arthur Bell rose bush and a Stillman's Tesla (charging!).
Blair Athol Distillery - Arthur Bell rose bush and a Stillman's Tesla (charging!).
The beautiful trees outside the Blair Athol warehouses - a Weeping Willow and Copper Beech
The beautiful trees outside the Blair Athol warehouses - a Weeping Willow and Copper Beech
The Kinnaird Burn runs through Blair Athol Distillery
The Kinnaird Burn runs through Blair Athol Distillery
Blair Athol Distillery Warehouses
Blair Athol Distillery Warehouses
The tun room at Blair Athol Distillery contains several pieces of historic equipment
The tun room at Blair Athol Distillery contains several pieces of historic equipment
The old malt mill at Blair Athol Distillery of Porteus Patent variety
The old malt mill at Blair Athol Distillery of Porteus Patent variety
Inside the steel mash tun at Blair Athol Distillery
Inside the steel mash tun at Blair Athol Distillery
Steel Mash Tun at Blair Athol Distillery
Steel Mash Tun at Blair Athol Distillery
The Kinnaird Burn is a source of water for Blair Athol Distillery - note the salmon gate on the right. The stream was once full of otters, which now adorn the Blair Athol logo. The distillery was originally named 'Aldour' (same as the town) after the Gaelic 'allt dour' which means 'burn of the otter'.
The Kinnaird Burn is a source of water for Blair Athol Distillery - note the salmon gate on the right. The stream was once full of otters, which now adorn the Blair Athol logo. The distillery was originally named 'Aldour' (same as the town) after the Gaelic 'allt dour' which means 'burn of the otter'.
Relics of another era - old distillery tools at Blair Athol Distillery
Relics of another era - old distillery tools at Blair Athol Distillery
Timber clad steel mash tun at Blair Athol Distillery
Timber clad steel mash tun at Blair Athol Distillery
Fermenting wort at Blair Athol Distillery. Blair Athol uses a creamed yeast and produces a cloudy wort.
Fermenting wort at Blair Athol Distillery. Blair Athol uses a creamed yeast and produces a cloudy wort.
Two of the six steel washbacks at Blair Athol Distillery
Two of the six steel washbacks at Blair Athol Distillery

For more images or to buy prints see our Blair Athol Distillery Gallery

References & Further Reading

  1. Alfred Barnard, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, 2008 Edition, first published in 1887 by Harpers Weekly Gazette
  2. Blair Athol History, Malts.com
  3. Arthur Bell & Sons History, Scotchwhisky.com
  4. Bell’s Blended Whisky History, bells.co.uk
  5. Bell’s History, scotchwhisky.com