Friday, 16 April 2010

On the road - Blair Athol and Edradour

After a most satisfactory wee jaunt to Bladnoch in the depth of Lowlands, myself and interested partner head north to sample some of the highlights of the Highland whiskies. First stop is...

Pitlochry (Gaelic: Baile Choichridh). Population 2564. Average age 73.
The interested partner is actually present in a semi-professional capacity as she is scouting potential distilleries to add to whisky tours. She is looking for something different but still authentic and natural with which to impress whisky connoisseurs from the continent. Can we find this at Blair Athol? How will a distillery with a delicious malt present itself in a town of woolen mill shops that is a mecca to grey haired tourists?

Blair Athol has long been a major part of the Bells blend. This itself comes under the considerable wing of Diageo and as such raised suspicions. However, upon arriving, we find a building yard and some serious repair and maintenance work underway. It appears that Blair Athol is closed to the public until July. Never mind. We're given a brief tour of the highlights. Everything is geared towards whisky tourists. Blair Athol is not so much a working distillery as a spotless example of health and safety regulations followed to the letter.

My partner wonders if the potential whisky tasters will be shown the warehouses. Sure. We are then lead into a kind of glass tardis built inside one of the warehouses. The casks are there for viewing but are strictly hands-off.

On the plus-side, Blair Athol does cater for connoisseurs and on its 'special tour' will furnish the whisky lover with a dram of the Flora and Fauna 12yo, a 15yo cask strength and a chance to draw a dram straight from a sherry-butt that's been laid aside for the purpose. Sounds good.

The downside to Blair Athol is this:
  • why keep this beautiful malt a secret? Apparently 98% of BA goes into the Bells' blend. The meagre remainder is bottled as a single malt - mostly for the Flora and Fauna expression. The F&F at 43% is superb. But even this is in short supply. We were told that at one point last year, the Blair Athol distillery had NO bottles of its own malt for sale in the shop. Other expressions seem to be running out fast and independent bottlers too are getting little or nothing.
  • bitching. Apparently, war has been declared on nearby independently owned Edradour. It is not clear to us who was the aggressor but neither distillery did much to sell itself to us in terms of PR. Does the interested visitor want to hear their guide or barman gurning about the big/small competitor up the road? No. Keep it to yourselves. If we want whinging, we'll tune into Eastenders or put it in our blogs.
From Blair Athol, its up to the hidden glen in which Edradour resides. Here, we find a new charge of £5 for the pleasure of accessing the site!!! This is not a charge for the tour but for actually setting foot on their land, entering their well stocked bar and shop! Has Edradour gone Diageo?! The Edradour tour has been free up until a few weeks ago. And while we can understand a modest charge being made for a tour, this seems to be born of sheer greed.

We gatecrash anyway and head for the 'tasting bar'. This is a gem. A range of malts from both Edradour and the Signatory range are offered at decent prices. A peated BenRiach single cask is a mere £2. A similar single cask offering from a closed distillery such as Linlithgow, Brora or Port Ellen is £6. The downside here is the rotund and surly barman - he that apparently fired the first salvo in anger at Blair Athol down the road. 'Ceud mile failte' as it says on Pitlochry's sign? Not here. We get given a dram that we didn't order, that isn't even on the menu but funnily enough, costs more than twice the price. Not the end of world but its an aspect of our tourist market that should have died out. So, for what its worth, Edradour should:
  • drop the entrance fee altogether or charge something that fits the short-lived experience you get with Scotland's smallest distillery
  • give your employees higher wages and/or more free booze - whatever it takes to make them appear cheerful and welcoming. Maybe give yon dour barman his retirement and sign him up to the cast of Eastenders where he can whinge and gurn to his heart's content.
Pitlochry though has an excellent whisky shop in the form of Robertsons in Atholl Road. Friendly service from well established locals and an excellent stock of all the usual bottles as well as many interesting independent bottlings. A bottle of the superb Ileach Cask Strength at £33 - apparently a Lagavulin - was enough to restore my faith in Perthshire's hospitality.

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