When you hit Pitlochry whilst heading north to the Highlands of Scotland, it’s clearly a tourist destination and magnet for the local area. The fact it has a distillery ideally located on the outskirts of town is a fortunate occurrence and a profitable one for Diageo.
Despite its old looks and courtyard setting, Blair Athol offers the usual bland bog standard corporate tour experience. There are flashes of interest but not much of the site itself is explored and for such a small producer – albeit an important component of the Bell’s blend – it feels more like a box ticking exercise for visitors who are passing by. When a business is geared around the distillery shop and processing bus loads of tourists, the more bespoke and detailed tour experience isn’t on the agenda. The fact that they have installed an old mashtun from the Clynelish distillery onsite to create the gimmick of a bar tells you that Blair Athol is lacking in character.
Thankfully its single malt whisky is a different matter – if you can actually find some. Pretty much almost everything that Blair Athol produces goes towards blends with the figure banded about last time I took the tour being as high as 99.7%. That’s a formidable amount, a total domination verging on exclusivity. Clearly what limited casks that are bottled should be treasured. The main Blair Athol for many years was the Flora & Fauna 12 year old, which was a little over-engineered and coloured. Then there was the recent Distillery Exclusive representing the perfect memento for Blair Athol visitors looking for that take-home gift. Slightly overpriced and a No Age Statement release, it was a reasonable whisky. Let’s not talk about the thoroughly disappointing and memorable – for all the wrong reasons – of the Blair Athol Manager’s Dram. However, the Blair Athols in my experience that have showcased the true potential of the distillery are the independent releases. The excellent 28 year old from Cadenhead’s or the enjoyable 24 year old Blair Athol.
When Michael at the Carnegie Whisky Cellars recommended this release from independent bottlers Hunter Laing, my interest was piqued and a sample soon followed. Of late I’ve enjoyed a couple of Hunter Laing releases that have delivered on the basis of excellent sherry casks. This Blair Athol was distilled in October 1995, before being bottled in September 2017 from a sherry butt HL14245. This resulted in an outturn of 366 bottles with a strength of 48.9% and priced at £89.95 is certainly a winner on paper, but what about the ultimate test?
Hunter Laing Blair Athol 1995 – review
Colour: a golden tobacco.
On the nose: very chocolate base but it’s actually more – a chocolate brownie if you will. More sweetness with caramel, figs and raisins but it’s not overly sugary as the wood influence keeps everything in check with a drying quality. Dried cherries, a resin quality and chopped hazelnuts all marry wonderfully well.
In the mouth: very unusual, yes there’s elements of the sherry cask influence with chocolate and cherry but there’s more characteristics in here beyond just the cask itself. It’s difficult to pin down. Almost an infusion of cola into the agenda and still that drying quality comes through almost mossy.
A very interesting Blair Athol that’s been boosted by the sherry butt but not in the way you’d normally associate with this type of cask. A very enjoyable interplay between the cask and spirit perfectly preserved at the time of bottling. An easy one to recommend and I’ll be purchasing a bottle.