Raindrops keep falling…in my dram
A rainy day trip to yet another Diageo workhorse distillery (and a wee rant about bottles pricing).
Over the last three years, we embraced the dry January tradition. After over a month in Italy, this year felt even more necessary to regenerate our livers for a few weeks…and, as usual, they were the slowest of the year.
For this reason too we were particularly thrilled when we woke up on a rainy Sunday morning in February for our first distillery trip of the year! It was an old acquaintance of us: Blair Athol, in Pitlochry. We had already visited it in July 2019, although only for a tasting in their unique bar (a former copper mashtun IS the bar). Since then, we tried a number of Blair Athol expressions, mostly from the SMWS, and were never disappointed.
When planning the trip we were quite happy to realise that we could do it in a day using public transportation. The return bus ticket was less than £20 each, more environmentally friendly and way cheaper than going by car. Pitlochry is just about 1h and 40 minutes away from Edinburgh, and if it wasn’t for a 15-20 minutes stop in Perth, the bus trip would have matched that duration.
We woke up quite early and walked our way up the Leith Walk to the bus station, only stopping to grab a coffee and a roll at the Snax Cafè (W Register St), just a few minutes away from the station: the only one open at 7.30am on a Sunday (and probably the cheapest in the area). We can’t say the bus ride was exactly smooth, as the table was vibrating so much that we couldn’t leave our coffees on it until we hit the highway. But in a figurative sense, it was a smooth ride indeed. Once in Pitlochry, we had enough time for a second breakfast, espresso and (a very yummy) cake this time, in the very cosy Escape Route Café, while hiding from the rain.
With an extra half-slice of cake in the stomach, we were definitely ready for the tour! Since we were here in 2019 the tours offer has changed a bit. When we booked there were three experiences available (at the time of writing they added a fourth: Blair Athol Cask and Cocktail experience, for £75): the Signature Tour (£16, “guided distillery experience” with three drams), the Allt Dour Tour (£35) and the Managers Tasting Experience tour (£65). According to their webpage, the latter two included 6 drams, so we inquired about the difference and learned that while the Allt Dour Tour features a mix of Blair Athol and other Diageo’s distilleries’ drams, the Managers Tasting Experience is an exclusively Blair Athol tasting, with two samples from casks and two distillery exclusives. We chose the latter, of course.
Our tour guide was David, whose kindness didn’t betray the fame Canadians have. Commonly to other distillery guides we met, he moved there when about to retire and decided to pick up a part-time job at the distillery. We both agree that it sounds like a very good plan.
As the tour started David told us that the 99.7% of Blair Athol single malt goes into blends, mostly Bell’s. We knew it, but not to that extent. We were also surprised by how the production process is still very manual, in contrast with other Diageo workhorses such as Clynelish, mostly automated.
There is no filling room, as the new make spirit is loaded into tankers and put into casks at the main Diageo facilities near Alloa. We moved to one of the few dunnage warehouses they have on site, which keeps casks dating back to the 60s…Awesome smell!
After the tour, we moved to a very small but cosy room accessible from the courtyard, where five drams were waiting for us. The first one was the Blair Athol 12y Flora and Fauna. We discovered that it comes from only first-fill ex-sherry casks and is not artificially coloured (which makes sense, given the former). We wondered why they don’t put it on the label. The second dram was their Distillery Exclusive. The age is not stated, however it is a bit higher in abv (48%) and from “refill, rejuvenated and American oak ex-bourbon casks”. Very buttery and sweet dram, we thought more ex-bourbon casks than sherry ones were in the vatting. The third was a cracking dram: Blair Athol 23y (58.4%, 2017 special release, cracking price as well, unfortunately). Then, we had two samples from the cask, a 2009 vintage from an ex-bourbon barrel and a 1993 vintage from an ex-sherry butt.
While both lovely, the bourbon was truly great, a shame it wasn’t for sale. Finally, David gave us a wee sample of the 11y bottle-your-own expression (56.2%, full maturation in ex-red wine casks)…Maybe it was the 6th dram, although the “we are gifting this” feel of it was not great since it was advertised on the website and in the email.
As the tour ended, we were conducted to the distillery shop. To be honest it felt a bit rushed, with most of our samples still in the glass…Fortunately we had empties with us.
We returned to the village to look for food, which we found (in good quantities) at the Old Mill Inn: the lamb Sunday roast was particularly tasty! The rain didn’t stop however, so except for a wee walk up to the local church courtyard, we spent the rest of the afternoon in a pub, watching the England rugby team smashing Italy yet again.
The bus was perfectly on time and took us back home while we were happily sipping the leftovers from the tasting.
It was a nice experience to revisit a distillery we had seen in the early days of our whisky journey. The liquid did not disappoint, as well as the staff, nice and welcoming. However, here we need to have a bit of a rant about distillery bottle pricing and offering (***). Blair Athol is the fifth Diageo distillery we visited in the last year, the others being Clynelish, Ord, Lochnagar, and Cardhu. All of them had a Distillery Exclusive (all 48% and non-age statement), priced at £85 or £90. All except Ord, if we recall correctly, had a bottle-your-own expression: single cask, naturally presented, usually around 11-12y, in all cases £120. First, in our opinion, both distillery exclusive and bottle-your-own are overpriced. We are prepared and willing to pay a premium for special expressions and distillery exclusives, and we are also aware of the current prices’ madness. However, it needs to be somehow justified. 120 quids for a 11-12y naturally presented is quite steep, 30 quids above single cask expressions of similar age at other distilleries (Glenallachie or Auchentoshan). Furthermore, how is it possible that all these cask permutations come always at the same price? Talking about the Distillery Exclusive range, these are decently sized batches (6000 bottles), still non-age statement whisky and not cask-strength: how come they cost £85/90? As an example, the Glenlivet bottle-your-own, a small batch as well, came for a much lower price (£55 for the 12y, £70 for the 15y, both cask-strength). We find really hard to explain the logic behind prices, it looks almost like they want to take advantage of whisky enthusiasts, which is not great, in particular considering the very convenient price of the entry level expressions in their core ranges. We can see why new and independent distilleries would push prices a bit, but here we are at decades-old sites backed by a huge multinational company. It is a shame because, in spite of the nice visits we had at these distilleries, this left us a bitter taste, and we probably won’t rush to go back and check out new bottlings.
Blair Athol – The Managers Tasting Experience
Price: £65.00 pp (February 2022)
Tasting: 6 drams, BA 12y (F&F, 43%), BA Distillery Exclusive (see below), BA 23y 2017 special release, BA ex-bourbon cask sample, BA ex-sherry cask sample, BA Bottle your own (see below)
Target: whisky geeks
Value for money: a wee bit pricey
Highlights: the single cask drams
Things we did not like: the sampled drams not for sale, and see rant above (***)
Distillery exclusive: BA bottle-your-own (11y, ex-red wine cask, NC, NCF, 56.1%, £120) and BA Distillery Exclusive (NAS, 48%, £90)
NAS: non-age statement, NC: non-coloured, NCF: non-chill filtered