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Dewar's Aberfeldy

by Gavin D Smith

Given the large amounts of water required in the whisky-making process, it is inevitable that a reliable source of pure water is one of the principal factors that determine distillery locations.

However, another significant factor to be taken into account during the second half of the 19th century was the proximity of the railway network, and Aberfeldy distillery in Perthshire provides the perfect case in point.

Aberfeldy was established in 1898, at the height of the great Victorian blended whisky boom, and a time when most goods were transported by rail or sea. Many roads, particularly in rural Perthshire, were unsuited to the movement of large quantities of freight. At Aberfeldy, barley was brought in for malting by train, along with coal to fire the stills, while casks of whisky were transported out to the blending halls of Perth and points south.

"Aberfeldy was one of the first distilleries to be built with barley going in at one end and spirit coming out at the other," says manager Chris Anderson. "The railway ran right beside the distillery, joining the main Inverness to Perth line a few miles away at Ballinluig."

Before we look at the establishment of Aberfeldy distillery, however, we really need to backtrack the best part of a century, to the hamlet of Dull near Aberfeldy, where John Dewar was born in 1806.


   We can only speculate on whether Dull deserved its somewhat unfortunate name, but after serving a joiner's apprenticeship, the crofter's son was lured to the bright lights of Perth, where he joined his cousin's wine merchant's business. Eventually he became a partner before setting up in his own right as a wine and spirits merchant on Perth's High Street in 1846.

Inevitably, whisky played a major part in Dewar's business, and Perth was a good place to be if you were in the whisky trade. Indeed, it was at the heart of the Scotch whisky blending business for many decades, being home to the Bell and Gloag (of Famous Grouse fame) families, as well as to the Dewar's.

Whisky became the dominant aspect of John Dewar's business, and eventually he began to blend and bottle his own proprietary whiskies. Dewar was later joined in his growing enterprise by his son John, who went on to take over the firm
on his father's death in 1880. At this point Tommy Dewar enters the story, joining the family firm when he was 16. Tommy was a born salesman, and he set off confidently for London at the age of 21, armed with the names of just two contacts. One turned out to be dead and the other bankrupt, but Tommy was undeterred, and set about selling Dewar's whisky to the world.

Tommy Dewar was an irrepressible showman and self-publicist, renowned for his many 'Dewarisms,' such as "We have a great regard for age, especially when it is bottled." On Tommy's initiative, Dewar's took a stand at the 1886 Brewers' Exhibition in London, where it was the only whisky company to be represented. No sooner had the exhibition opened than a bagpiper, hired by Tommy Dewar, began to march up and down the hall, playing at full blast. The brewers complained loudly, but Tommy refused to silence his piper, ensuring significant newspaper coverage.

In 1892 Tommy Dewar embarked on a world tour to promote the company's whisky, visiting 26 countries in two years and appointing 32 new agents. At home Dewar's held Queen Victoria's Royal Warrant, and in order to ensure a plentiful supply of malt whisky for the expanding Dewar's empire, John and Tommy decided to build their own distillery at Aberfeldy, not far from their father's birthplace.

Between 1919 and 1925 Dewar's acquired six more distilleries as business continued to boom, but then in 1925 the firm was absorbed into the mighty Distillers' Company Ltd (DCL), where it effectively remained for more than six decades.

Ultimately, both John and Tommy Dewar ended up as 'Whisky Barons', wealthy, titled gentlemen, who served as Members of Parliament and held a variety of public offices. Typically, John remained in his native Perthshire, while the ever flamboyant Tommy purchased a splendid estate in Surrey where he bred racehorses.

Dewar's Today

So much for the heritage of Aberfeldy distillery and the Dewars, but no commercial enterprise can survive on past glories. In 1998 the company was purchased by Bacardi. Effectively this meant a return to traditional family ownership, as the Puerto Rico-based Bacardi Corporation remains within the control of the Bacardi family.

Along with the Dewar brands, Bacardi acquired Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Royal Brackla and Aultmore distilleries to add to its existing Macduff distillery near Banff. Islay-born Chris Anderson is Distilleries Manager, and has the onerous task of looking after all five sites.

"I've got a good production manager in each place, and that's a huge help," he says. "They have full responsibility for the day to day running. I usually spend two days per week in the north - maybe Backla and Craigellachie one week, Aultmore and Macduff the next, as well as going to them as and when required.

"At Aberfeldy we work a five day week with seven production staff," says Anderson. "We work for 47 weeks of the year, and are at the optimum level for efficiency. As far as single malt sales go, last year we bottled 3,000 cases of the 12 and 21-year-old Aberfeldy.

"I started working at Caol Ila in March 1968, stencilling casks. After the rebuilt distillery opened in January 1974 I moved on to mashing and then distilling, and in 1986 I was made brewer. In 1990 I was promoted to assistant manager, working at Caol Ila and Lagavulin. In 1995 I became manager at Brackla, near Nairn, and then in February 1999 I joined Dewar's at Aberfeldy."

    Although the distilleries were in good order when acquired by Bacardi, Aberfeldy barely registered as a single malt with United Distillers. What's more, the once mighty Dewar's White Label blend - developed in 1899 by Dewar's legendary blender AJ Cameron - had become a shadow of its former self. United Distillers' main blended whisky focus was clearly on their Johnnie Walker and Bells brands.

Bacardi paid $1.4bn for the business, and by 2002 world sales had doubled. White Label is the best-selling Scotch whisky brand in the USA, and during the past few years Bacardi has greatly extended the Dewar's range, most recently with a 15-year-old blended malt.

Remarkably, Tom Aitken is only the sixth Master Blender to be employed in the history of John Dewar & Sons. He describes Aberfeldy single malt as "Pleasure in a glass," adding "When you blend it you know the joy is going to come out from the centre. It's very popular with other blenders, too. It may seem delicate compared to your big, sherried Macallans and the Islays, but it's got enough body to stand up. It's got a lot of character, and that body and character come through in the blends."

Prior to the purchase by Bacardi, Aberfeldy single malt had only been available from independent bottlers and in a United Distillers' 15-year-old 'Flora & Fauna' bottling. After careful evaluation, Tom Aitken decided that Aberfeldy was actually very nicely matured by the age of 12, and so the whisky was subsequently bottled at that age.

Clearly a number of distinguished judges agree with Aitken, as Aberfeldy 12-year-old won a gold medal at the 2005 International Wine & Spirits Competition. In the same year a 21-year-old variant was introduced to give consumers greater choice. Following a major packaging makeover, the two single malt expressions are now labelled as 'Dewar's Aberfeldy,' whereas the Dewar's name previously figured with much less prominence.

World of Whisky

In common with many other distilleries today, Aberfeldy is not just concerned with making whisky. It is also a popular tourist attraction.

Dewar's 'World of Whisky' is a state-of-the-art, interactive visitor and brand centre, based in the former distillery maltings. Hand-held audio guides, touch screen interactive displays and an e-mail booth make this a very modern visitor experience, though there is also plenty for the less technologically-minded to get to grips with, including a painstaking reconstruction of Dewar's blending room in Perth and an absorbing collection of promotional material. After all, it was Tommy Dewar who said "Advertising is to business what imagination is to poetry."

According to Neil Boyd, "When we carried out a feasibility study there were 41 distilleries with visitor centres, and we didn't want to be the 42nd! So we set about celebrating the legacy of the Dewar family. We like to think we led the way with visitor centre developments. We now get in excess of 40,000 visitors per year, and it's very useful too as somewhere we can bring people associated with the company, particularly those from abroad, to educate them about Dewar's."

Were he alive today, the innovative Tommy Dewar would surely delight in the various high tech toys in 'World of Whisky.' He would also, no doubt, be slightly surprised to find Aberfeldy readily available as a single malt, as the distillery was created purely to provide malt whisky for blending. Most of all, he would be proud of the fact that 160 years after his father set up in business, Dewar's is once again part of a family-owned company with a fine portfolio of products and a very positive outlook for the future. As Tommy Dewar noted, "Many a false step is made by standing still.", tel. + 44 (0) 01887 822010.

The Whiskies

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