Bells Blended Whisky
The story of Bells blended whisky began in 1825 when a small grocer was opened in Perth, Scotland by a T Sandeman, but it was later in 1940 when he was joined in partnership with Arthur Bell that the whisky story got off the ground. By the end of the 1840’s Arthur Bell was the sole proprietor and had discovered the benefits of blending grain and malt whiskies. It was reported that Arthur Bell was a religious and moral man guided by a religious sect whose motto was ‘work to your best and play fair’. It was also around this time that Blair Athol whisky distillery in Pitlochry (just north of Perth) was being turned from a small distillery (known as Aldour) into a more modern whisky distillery. A peat fired kiln and 2 malt floors were added as well as 2 large granaries were put in to. Everything was brought in from new washbacks to new copper stills, no expense was spared and no less than 5 bonded warehouses built. This led to Blair Athol and Bells having extremely close ties as Bells needed a constant supply of good malt whisky.
It wasn’t until 1863 that Arthur Bell appointed a London agent to market his blended whiskies and around this time brought his sons Arthur and Robert into the firm. The sons were split into looking after the home and export and export market and by the 1880 the grocers had been forgotten and the focus was solely on the blended whisky trade.
The blended whisky being put together by Arthur Bell at this time was called ‘Scotch Fir’ and ‘Colleen Old Scotch Whisky’ which had been rather uninspiring. It was only 4 years before Arthur Bell’s death in 1900 that the blended whisky product had the name Bells on the label however the name of that whisky was Curlers whisky (Curling was a popular Highland sport at the time). Bells, however was still a niche product compared to the global success it enjoys today.
The early part of the 20th century was a difficult time for Blair Athol distillery and Bells. Firstly World War one meant that all the male staff went off to fight and the women kept the whisky production going. It is rumoured that all staff were given a bottle of whisky before heading for the front line to face the Germans and the tag line ‘Afore ye go’ was born, which translated means ‘Before you go’. With the War and US prohibition Blair Athol was forced to close its doors and Bells took ownership of the distillery in a friendly takeover, only for the distillery to close again at the start of World War 2.
During World War 2 a William Farquharson joined Bells and it was Farquharson who drove Bells into the big time. Unfortunately, it was at exactly this time that both Bells sons passed away in the same year of 1942. Farquharson was well known at the time in the whisky industry and was at heart a marketing man; he created a tag line for Bells which was ‘Afore Ye Go’ which worked well in the UK and in US market. Farquharson did such a good job that in by 1970 two more stills had to be added at Blair Athol and it was one of the leading whisky brands in Scotland. By 1980 in the whole of the UK. Bells hold a leading position to this day and most bars in the UK will sport a bottle of Bells behind the counter.
Like most big brands they are now owned by a global dinks business in this case Diageo who were preceded by DCL and Guinness. The Blair Athol distillery today highlights the link between Bells and Blair Athol distillery with visitor centre and tours guiding people though the process of making malt whisky and the art of blending.