DISTILLERY AND BREWERY PROFILE
Make mine a double
You can’t beat a whisky with a beer chaser. But how about mixing up a distillery visit with a side trip to a nearby brewery? With the rise in the number of both distilleries and breweries around Scotland, there are plenty of options. Richard Goslan lined up a hauf’n’hauf combo in the heart of Perthshire, with a trip to Blair Athol distillery and the nearby Wasted Degrees Brewing
PHOTOS: PETER SANDGROUND
FIRST THE WHISKY
Pitlochry in autumn is a glorious place to be – a lovely wee town surrounded by the dramatically changing colours of the woodland, loch-side viewpoints and quiet forest trails. It’s no wonder that the town’s Blair Athol is one of Scotland’s most-visited distilleries, pulling in close to 100,000 whisky fans and tourists in a non-Covid year, and owner Diageo’s busiest site in terms of visitor numbers.
On my visit, we’re emerging from the restrictions of the past 18 months and visitors are returning, but there’s still a relaxed atmosphere on the site. I’m welcomed by Blair Athol’s distillery manager Derek Younie – an enthusiastic SMWS member – who gives me the lowdown on the distillery’s history.
ABOVE: Derek Younie, distillery manager at Blair Athol
ABOVE: Blair Athol’s signange after the creeping ivy’s annual trim
“It dates back to 1798, so that makes us one of the oldest in Scotland,” he says. “It used to be a farm estate and some of these original farm buildings are still in use. It was originally known as Aldour, after the main water source Allt Dour, the burn of the otter.”
The central courtyard is certainly impressive, with a blanket of Virginia creeper ivy covering the front of the production building, Blair Athol’s name barely visible before the vine gets its annual trim. As the season progresses it will turn a deep red before the colour fades away altogether through winter. Derek admits it’s a challenge to maintain, but the effect is glorious. He also explains the mystery of why the distillery is spelled Blair Athol – with only one L – despite being in Pitlochry.
“The distillery’s owner decided to change the name to Blair Athol but leave the second L off the end – more to wind up the other landowner than anything else”
“Legend has it that there was a falling out between the estate owners here and Blair Atholl, just up the road,” he says. “So the distillery’s owner decided to change the name to Blair Athol but leave the second L off the end – more to wind up the other landowner than anything else. And it’s been that way ever since.”
Capacity is 2.8 million litres of pure alcohol (LPA) a year, and nowadays almost all of Blair Athol’s output – Derek puts the figure at 99.7 per cent – goes into the Bell’s blend. It’s a familiar brand for generations of drinkers getting their first sips of whisky, and a huge name internationally.
“The ratio of grist to water is crucial, among other things, to Blair Athol’s nutty character to produce a cloudy wort to create our nuttiness, converting as much of the starch from the grist as possible.”
A mix of short and long fermentations – between 46 and 102 hours long – also enhance that nutty character. Lockdown and the lack of visitors gave the distillery the opportunity to install two new spirit stills through the roof, along with new wash condensers. We want to minimise copper contact and avoid reflux through the relatively short stills – and a slight angle in the lyne arms – which also contributes to the distillery’s spicy, nutty character.
Derek Younie behind the reclaimed mash tun from Clynelish, now pride of place in Blair Athol’s visitor centre
The spirit that goes towards Bell’s is matured in bourbon casks, but Blair Athol offers around 100,000 bottles a year as a single malt under its own name, matured mainly in oloroso sherry casks. Society members already know how good a single cask offering can be, and if you visit the distillery you can also pick up a selection of bottlings, from the 12-year-old Flora & Fauna to a distillery exclusive that has gone from sherry to bourbon wood, a fill-your-own bottling from a rejuvenated red wine cask as well as a 23-year-old Blair Athol matured in sherry wood.
And what better place to enjoy a dram than from a converted mash tun – in this case, a gleaming copper structure salvaged from Clynelish distillery and sliced open to create the ultimate whisky bar. I raise a glass with Derek, gather my travelling pack of drams, and head off in search of a beer chaser.
THEN THE BEER
A few miles up the road from Pitlochry, Blair Atholl – that’s the place with two Ls – is a small village on the southern fringes of the Cairngorms National Park. Its most distinctive feature is the imposing white-harled Blair Castle, familiar as the location to induct new members into the Keepers of the Quaich whisky society. But I’m in search of an industrial metal shed close to the railway line, home to the Wasted Degrees Brewing.
I’m greeted by founder Conall Low, a former physical education teacher who ditched his day job to pursue his passion for brewing. “That was an interesting conversation, considering both my parents were teachers,” he tells me.
“What started as a hobby had tipped over to the point of obsession, and when I started taking my own kegs to parties or passing bottles on as gifts, word spread and I decided to do it full-time”
“But what started as a hobby had tipped over to the point of obsession, and when I started taking my own kegs to parties or passing bottles on as gifts, word spread and I decided to do it full-time. So that’s where ‘Wasted Degrees’ came from, but my parents still let me start out in their double garage!”
For whisky fans, it’s fascinating to step inside a small brewery and trace both the familiar parts of the process and then where it departs – as well as to try and get your head around the different language being used. Wasted Degrees is a ‘six pot household’, allowing for two double and two single batch brews. The mash tun works much the same as in a distillery, but allows the brewer to add different forms of grain, such as flaked oats or wheat.
In Wasted Degrees’ case, they do extra pale malted barley as the base for everything to follow on from. From here the liquid is pumped to the kettle, where it is boiled for sterilisation and hops are added. Then it’s ready to ferment, chilled down using a heat exchanger and transferred to ‘unitanks’, which combine to allow brewers to ferment and carbonate in the same vessel. The beer is ultimately packaged in both can and keg, as well as a range of whisky casks for ageing.
Wasted Degrees is all about experimentation, an ethos that ties in with the SMWS. Their core offering is a session IPA known as Kveik – named for the fast-fermenting Norwegian yeast that gives it a big fruity, citrus character. But pretty much everything else is produced as a one-off, giving Conall the possibility to explore and experiment.
“Basically we don’t want to get bored making the same thing all the time,” he says.
“Being small is an advantage, and consumers are always looking for something different. We’ve been working with Scottish hops, for example, grown locally in polytunnels that we pick by hand, or producing a beer with coffee from Glen Lyon Coffee Roasters in Aberfeldy. The interest we’re generating is in ‘what’s next’, and it’s a bit like the Society bottling from a single cask, in that once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The focus on ever-changing options has led to a popular Tap Room opening on Fridays and Saturdays at the brewery, where visitors can meet the makers, get beer from source and try up to 11 taps of Wasted Degrees’ own beer, cider and guest brews. A local baker fires up a pizza oven, and there’s even a couple of bottles of SMWS whisky on the shelf for a hauf’n’hauf.
“It’s pretty basic and unpretentious but we want to offer two things done well – beer and pizza – and let people try and buy what we have, a bit like the Society does at its Members’ Rooms,” says Conall. “You can sit and have a beer, a whisky, a bite to eat – enjoy the view and actually have a conversation.”
What more could you need?