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Described as the heart of John Dewar and Sons, the inspiration for its blends and their physical and spiritual home, the history of Aberfeldy is one of opportunism, innovation, passion and endurance. Today, the distillery’s output continues to be an essential part of the Dewar’s blends and also serves as home to Dewar’s World of Whisky.
Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s master blender, describes the whisky as being at the heart of the Dewar’s style. “Aberfeldy is obviously the inspiration for our blends so it has a honeyed sweetness, just that hint of peatyness at the end and this is exactly what we find with White Label and Dewars 12. Essentially Dewar’s is Aberfeldy in blend form.”
The Dewar brothers commissioned Charles Cree Doig to design their distillery and construction began in 1896. He used his trademark pagoda roof, dubbed a Doig Ventilator, to draw smoke up though the kilns as part of the malting process.
The only distillery that the Dewar family built, it is unusually well designed so the barley comes in at one end and the whisky goes out at the other, unlike many other distilleries where the process doubles back on itself. The buildings are of local stone and the distillery was powered by a water turbine and steam engine. Upon opening in November 1898, two years after construction began, Aberfeldy was producing 20 butts of spirit each week, some 2,200 gallons.
When the brothers planned their distillery both whisky stocks and hopes were high, thanks to an increased demand for British goods in the expanding Empire and a decline in cognac production owing to the Phylloxera outbreak. When the distillery opened just two years later the outlook for whisky was bleak: the Pattison crisis had struck, taking down with it the price of whisky and its good name.
The distillery’s survival, and indeed that of John Dewars & Sons, during the whisky industry’s downturn at the turn of the 19th century can arguably be attributed to the strength built in the Dewar’s whisky blend. Only four years previously, in 1894, Tommy Dewar, the charismatic younger son of the founder, had released a book A Ramble Round the Globe which was proving a phenomenal success. It was based on the first of two round-the-world trips he took, constituting an early international sales drive to promote his family’s products. The first of these was in 1892, when Tommy visited 26 countries and, in a stroke of entrepreneurial genius, he appointed 32 agents as far afield as Sydney, Johannesburg and Calcutta. They were already returning orders for whisky when he set off on a second tour, just as Aberfeldy was opening in November 1898.
This market helped perpetuate the Dewar’s name after the First World War, though during hostilities virtually all whisky production was halted, including that of Dewar’s. After the war, in 1919, Aberfeldy reopened and was slowly able to return to full production. Business continued unaltered until 1925 when the brand became property of The Distillers Company Ltd (D.C.L).
The D.C.L. merger (known as the Big Amalgamation) was the result of discussions that had been taking place in the industry for many years. Whisky brands were spending a lot of money competing with one another, while at the same time often sharing whisky for blending. Consequently it made sense to join forces, with Buchanan's and Walker's moving into D.C.L. with John Dewar’s. In 1930, all of D.C.L.’s single malt distilleries, including Aberfeldy, were transferred into a subsidiary called Scottish Malt Distillers (S.M.D.).
During the Second World War Aberfeldy again progressively shut down operations. At the beginning it was merely restricted, but by 1941 the whole industry once again ground to a halt, although it did try and protect its export markets by continuing to bottle aged spirits.
Apart from the two world wars, historians of Aberfeldy tend to claim it had continuous production. However, an unearthed news snippet, from the in-house publication – The DCL Gazette – from 1934, casts this into doubt and suggests it also closed in the intervening years. Lamenting over the ‘silent’ distillery, which has been so ‘for the past few years’, the publication makes the comment that when demand picks up it will be one of the first to reopen. In the meantime it says that the only work being carried out was sending aged stock for blending.
A boom in demand characterised the 1950s and ‘60s, and this period precipitated a host of technological innovations leading to the stills’ heating system being changed in 1960. The new stills, exact replicas of the originals, used a mechanical coal-stoking system instead of relying on manual labour to constantly stock the kiln with coal.
Further extensive modernisation took place in 1972/3, overhauling the tun room and stillhouse with rebuilding using the original stone. The two coal-fired stills were abandoned for four steam-heated stills, which are still in use today (see below). Also installed was the still room’s glass façade, something of a trademark for D.C.L. distilleries at the time, allowing passers-by a peep into the world of distillation and the large bulbous copper stills but also opening to allow access for maintenance.
It was around this time that Aberfeldy’s maltings hall ceased to be of use. Centralisation and efficiency had become the currency of the day and D.C.L. turned away from on-site malting in favour of centralised malting for all of its Scotch whisky.
Malting took place on site until the late 1960s. The catalyst for the change was the infamous Dr Beeching – the British government minister who was charged with modernising the national rail system and who was subsequently responsible for cutting huge swathes of non-profitable rural rail services, impacting lives across the country and seeing the line that ran through Aberfeldy close in 1966. Removal of the train line placed a huge strain on the distillery which did all its blending and bottling in Perth, some 30 miles away, using the direct railway for everything coming in and out.
During the 1970s and early ‘80s business carried on as usual until an era of bureaucratic consolidation, characterised by mergers and disposals. The ownership of Aberfeldy changed as D.C.L. aligned itself with Guinness in 1986 to form United Distillers (U.D.) and then that conglomerate merged with Grand Metropolitan in 1998 to form United Distillers & Vintners (U.D.V.), later renamed Diageo. Following these mergers Diageo was forced to sell off some of its whisky assets by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission leading to Bacardi buying John Dewars and Sons a year later for £1,150 million, the deal including four distilleries - Aberfeldy plus Aultmore, Royal Brackla and Craigellachie.
Bacardi’s new perspective and reach helped shaped the Aberfeldy distillery as it stands today. Its cultural heritage was seized upon and the neglected malting hall was renovated in 2000 to become the tourist-friendly Dewar’s World of Whisky, introducing visitors to the brand’s history and product.