Thank you to Diageo for inviting me to do this tour at Blair Athol Distillery.
These sure are some strange and uncertain times due to COVID-19 and it is weird, but of course good, to see things come alive and start going back to a new normal after these last few months of lockdown.
For me, who’s in daily contact with the whisky industry and its updates, there’s been announcements of distilleries reopening but also decisions to stay closed until at least 2021.
One of the distilleries that have just reopened is beautiful Blair Athol, located in Pitlochry – a mere 20 minute walk from the train station.
I had the pleasure of visiting the distillery back in February – and you can read more about that visit here. This time it was of course different due to the new regulations and taking social distancing in to consideration.
When we arrived at the distillery we got to wait in the wee courtyard where you have this beautiful sight in front of you, whilst the staff cleaned out the main building after the previous tour. We were of course very lucky with the weather and the sun shone almost nonstop throughout the day. They have a one way directional system in place, so when you are entering the building to do your tour you have to walk around to the main entrance. When entering they also check your temperature, with a quick and handy little reader on the wall where you simply just hold up your wrist. There’s of course also hand sanitiser located through the tour and also at the entrance. In this main building you’ll find the only bathrooms on site for visitors, where there’s also clear signs for social distancing and health & safety regulations. Keep in mind that you can only visit the bathrooms throughout the tour however.
We were met by the really friendly staff who informed us of how everything was gonna work and the approximate timings for the tour. There’s also these handy markings on the floor (see below) everywhere to make it easier and very clear of where to stand to keep the appropriate distance of 2 m between everyone on the tour. The tour sizes have also been reduced from approximately 20 people to only 4 people per tour which makes it feel way less crowded.
Before our visit we weren’t sure if we would even get to enter the distillery, since it is a working environment for whisky production first and foremost where the staff of course has to be safe, but it was great to see that they had the possibility to show us through all the stages, just like we had done on the tour back in February. The main difference is that you can’t touch anything, for example to have a closer look at the jars of barley yourself.
Blair Athol is of course a really interesting distillery where only 0.3% of the whisky that they make gets bottled as single malt, where the remaining 99.7% goes straight in to blends like Johnnie Walker and Bells.
Originally a farm, and one of the distilleries that dates back to pre 1800’s, it’s now part of the Diageo Flora & Faun range, available to the UK market.
The distillery was in production as you can see and we had a look at both mash tuns, their stainless steel wash backs and of course the stills. Very happy that you’re able to take photos everywhere, as long as you don’t use the flash. Which is different to last time we did the tour when my Nikon wasn’t allowed in the still room.
In between the condensers there’s also a soft toy otter that’s watching over the stills, since it is the symbol for the distilleries. The reason for this is that the water source for the distillery – the Allt Dhour Burn – translates in to burn of the otter.
It was so hot outside, but of course even hotter inside the still room!
I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to work wearing a mask inside that room, but I believe they have the possibility to work from different controls rooms so that it’s not that much of a problem.
After going through the production process you also get to have a look inside one of their dunnage warehouses, which is often my favourite part of the tour – primarily because of the wonderful scents of alcohol, damp earth and oak that you are greeted by inside.
All of their spirit is of course not matured on site, but there’s some special casks that they’ll point out – and it’s great to get to see the difference primarily in size between hogsheads and the larger sherry butts.
After the main part of the tour, which wasn’t that much different to back in February, except for the marking on the floor telling you where to stand to keep the distance, we were led back to the main building and The Mash Tun Bar. Last time we did the tasting in an area above the shop but now you instead do the tour in more of a masterclass format in the bar. It’s of course such a shame that the bar isn’t open at the moment, since it’s such a stunning one – made from an old Clynelish Mash Tun of course – where you can’t both whisky and cocktails, but it’s instead of course a lovely touch to be able to do the tasting here.
We sat down at one end of the room and the other couple on the tour got to sit on the opposite end and we got a tasting of four whiskies, which is a nice touch and slightly different since last time we got three samples. One thing to keep in mind however is that you have quite a limited time here and not a lot of time to just sit and enjoy your whiskies as the staff needs to clean and get the room ready for the next tour. Our tour started at 13.00 and the next one started at 14.00 so it’s a fairly quick turnover.
There is however the possibility to pour your whiskies in little glass sample bottles in case someone is driving, or if you want to save your whiskies for a later occasion. And you also get a Blair Athol branded glass to take home.
The four whiskies that we tried were:
– Blair Athol 12
– Blair Athol Distillery Exclusive
– Auchroisk 10
– Talisker Storm
After the tour your tour guide leads you to the shop, where you need to wear a mask, if you’d like to have a look around their and perhaps purchase a souvenir or a whisky to take home.
We also took the opportunity to film for an upcoming YouTube video, so remember to subscribe to my channel if you don’t want to miss out on that and the other upcoming videos that are coming soon!
Overall we felt very safe and well taken care of on the tour. We were very happy that you could still get to have a look inside the distillery and a nice touch to get the masterclass style of tasting at The Mash Tun Bar. Only downsides was that it’s not possible to stay at the bar – since it’s such a nice one, and that you’re slightly cramped on time, but I do think it’s understandable considering the circumstances and that they are managing to clean the tasting area between every tour.
If you’re looking to book tickets and have a look at the different tour options – you can find them here!