Oban: A Highland Whisky Story

By | July 8, 2016

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The Oban distillery, Oban Scotland

The Oban distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland, dating back to 1794. It sits at the head of a broad U-shaped bay that shares its name. Its very name in Scotch Gaelic, An t-Oban, means “little bay.” The island of Kerrera almost closes off the bay creating a particularly calm anchorage. In the distance, the Island of Mull and some of the other Hebridean islands protect the town from the Atlantic’s onslaught.

Despite its small size, even today, Oban has a long and colorful history. The region has been inhabited since at least Mesolithic times, some 7,000 years ago. In 1885, during a renovation of the distillery, an old cave was uncovered on the distillery’s grounds with evidence of prehistoric habitation. The Stone of Destiny, the ceremonial symbol of royal authority upon which all Scottish kings were crowned, was taken from Ireland and first landed at Oban, before being taken to Scone Abbey. Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots,” had the stone taken to Westminster Abbey where it was built into the Coronation Chair on which all English sovereigns have since been crowned. Since 1996, the stone has been kept at Edinburgh Castle when not required for a coronation.

On a more modern note, Oban was the landfall of the first transatlantic telephone cable. The cable, TAT-1, carried the infamous “hot line” that connected the Pentagon and the Kremlin. The line itself was never a phone line. It began as a teletype and switched to a fax machine in 1986.

The distillery sits in the center of the town of Oban, making it one of the few urban distilleries in Scotland and the only one on a town’s main thoroughfare. Indeed, the town grew up around the distillery and owes its very existence to Oban’s whisky making tradition. It is one of less than a dozen functioning distilleries in Scotland that can document their history back to the 18th century.

Oban is located on the Firth of Lorn, at the very top of the Kintyre Peninsula, in the Argyll and Bute region between Helensburgh and Fort William. From its perch on the western edge of the Scottish Highlands it looks out over the Hebrides. It is “the gateway to the Isles;” one of the main transportation links between the Scottish mainland and the Islands.

Stylistically its whisky is also at the seam between the Islands and the Western Highlands. It’s very lightly peated, two to three ppm, with a slight briny character, combining the typical West Highland fruitiness, sweet and floral heather notes and elements of the dry smoky style of the islands. The result is a distinctive, lightly smoky, malty, dryness that is the signature of Oban whisky.

Oban owes its existence to two entrepreneurial brothers, John and High Stevenson. In the late 18th century, the Duke of Argyll, eager to develop his lands, offered low land rents to anyone who would build a house. The brothers, both stone masons, launched a plan to develop Oban into a thriving town. They organized a range of ventures, from construction to slate quarries, to fishing and farming. Hugh opened a retail store that sold whisky, an unusual practice in late 18th century rural Scotland when virtually every highland farmer operated an illicit still.

In 1793, the two brothers built a brewery in the center of what was then still a small fishing hamlet. The town was so small, that notwithstanding its status as a port and possessing an excellent harbor, it had not even necessitated a customs house till 1760.

The next year, the fledging brewery was converted into a distillery, then one of the largest and best equipped in Scotland. It’s not clear if the brewery venture failed or whether it was just a cover for establishing the distillery. The first official license is not dated till 1797, and expired the following year. A second application for a license was made in 1818. It’s uncertain whether the distillery suspended operations during that period or whether it just operated illegally. Unlike the other illicit distilleries in the highlands, Oban, smack in the middle of a town, would hardly have escaped notice.

The Stevenson family retained control of the distillery until 1866, when it was sold to Peter Cumstie. In 1883 he sold it John Walter Higgin who retained it till 1898. Historically, Oban’s main market had been Glasgow. Even with a thriving port however, distribution had always been problematic. In 1888, a railroad link was established between Oban and Glasgow, finally allowing for broader distribution of Oban whisky.

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The Oban distillery in the early 20th century

It was during this period that Higgin rebuilt the distillery, giving it its current façade and expanding its capacity. Other than for some updated equipment, the distillery today looks much like Higgin rebuilt it. In order not to disrupt the distillery’s production, he rebuilt it in small steps over about an eight-year period. In 1898, he sold the distillery to whisky entrepreneur Alexander Edward, the owner of Aultmore and Craigellachie. He combined his other distillery interests into the Oban & Aultmore-Glenlivet Company. Aultmore, a Speyside distillery from the Glenlivet region, had the right to append the Glenlivet name to its distillery. It had nothing to do with the more famous distillery that went by the two-word name Glen Livet.

Higgin’s timing proved fortuitous, because in December of 1898 the infamous Pattison Crash began. Historically, Oban had been bottled and sold as a single malt. In the 1890’s, however, it began to sell bulk loads of mature whisky to the blending firm of Pattison’s of Leith. The decimation of France’s brandy industry as a result of the phylloxera grape louse and easy commercial credit had spurred a whisky boom and a rapid expansion of the industry. The Pattison brothers, notorious for questionable accounting practices and a lavish lifestyle, used easy credit to quickly assemble a whisky distilling and blending empire only to see it collapse when overproduction finally overwhelmed demand and creditors began calling in loans.

Although Edwards ran the combined company, its shareholders included John Dewar and Sons, James Buchanan & Company and White Horse Distillers. In 1923, John Dewar bought out the other shareholders. Dewar became part of the Distillers Company in 1925, and from 1930 on Oban was run as part of Scotch Malt Distillers. Distillers Company morphed into United Distillers in 1986, which became part of the newly organized Diageo in 1997.

The Distillery was closed from 1931-37, during the great depression. It was also shut down from 1968 through 1972, while it was undergoing a major reconstruction.

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The view of Oban Bay from McCaigs Tower in Oban

There are several interesting features about whisky distillation at Oban.

First, the operation itself is quite small. There are only two stills, a wash still and a spirit still. The wash still has a capacity of 11,000 liters and is usually charged to about 95 percent of capacity. The spirit still is only 7,200 liters in capacity and is usually charged to about 88 percent of capacity. The total output is about 660,000 liters of pure alcohol, making it the second smallest Diageo distillery in Scotland. Of Diageo’s 30-odd distilleries, only Royal Lochnagar is smaller.

The stills are onion or lantern shaped with wide conical necks. The spirit still is actually quite small. According to Donald Colville, Diageo Global Scotch Whisky Ambassador, the stills are run “incredibly softly, gently even, to encourage as much contact with the copper as possible.” The combination of wide necks and slow distillation maximizes reflux. A significant “lamp glass” constriction at the base of the necks also encourages reflux. Reflux refers to the condensation of vapor in the still and its subsequent re-distillation. Typically, the more reflux the lighter the style of the whisky. The stills are similar in design to the classic Speyside still.

The distillery uses a combination of both peated and unpeated malt, both of which come from Diageo’s central malting facility. In the second half of the 19th century, Oban was often unpeated. It became progressively so during the early 20th century, although it remained lightly peated by the standard of island whiskies. In recent years, the distillery has been reducing its overall peating levels by increasing the proportion of unpeated malt that it uses in its mash tuns. According to Donald Colville, current peating levels are just a slight 2/3 ppm and the new make spirit is about 1/2ppm.

Fermentation is an unusually long 65 hours. According to Colville, historically Oban used a combination of one long ferment of 120 hours and one short ferment of 65 hours. Currently, however, it does only the short, 65-hour ferment. While this may be considered short by Oban’s historical practices, it is still at the upper range of the typical Scotch industry fermentation lengths.

Oban uses a traditional worm tub as a condenser rather than the modern tube and shell condenser. In a tube and shell condenser, the vapor passes through a large tube among myriad smaller pipes of water cooled copper tubing. This arrangement maximizes the amount of copper contact that the vapor receives, stripping it of heavy and sulfurous compounds.

In a worm tub, there is only a single spiraled copper tube through which the vapor passes. The tube or worm is immersed in a water bath. Distilleries that use worm tubs generally produce whiskies that are often described as having meaty notes; with aromas of smoked meat, jerky, bacon like and raw steak. Although the intensity of these aromas can vary quite dramatically between distilleries.

There are only 14 distilleries in Scotland that still use worm tubs. These are: Balmenach, Benrinnes, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Edradour, Glen Eglin, Glenkinchie, Old Putney Speyburn, Royal Lochnagar, Talisker and Mortlach. Springbank uses worm tubs, but only for the wash still.

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The still room at the Oban distillery

The effect of the worm tub’s reduced copper contact can be adjusted by running the worm tubs “hot.” The hotter the temperature of the water they are immersed in, the longer it takes for the spirit to condense, thus prolonging the copper contact. An unintended consequence of “hot” worm tubs is that it also prolongs the distillation. Oban runs their worm tubs “hot,” usually 113 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit (45-50 degrees Celsius).

Oban’s worm tubs also have another unique feature; they contain two worms nested within one another. The spirit emerging from the lynn arm is divided into the two worms. The only reason for doing so is to further slowdown the condensation and maximize contact with the copper tubing. The result is that the meaty notes typical of worm tub condensed whiskies are less noticeable, although still present in Oban, compared, say, to Mortlach where it is one of its signature characteristics. According to Colville, it’s not clear when Oban began using two nested worms or if this has always been the case at the distillery. Locals claim the practice goes back to the 19th century.

Unlike many other Scottish distilleries, Oban’s expressions are relatively limited. The core range consists of a 14 YO 43% ABV and a 43% ABV Distillers Edition. The Distiller’s Edition is the 14 YO expression that is additionally double matured, usually for around a year, by finishing in a Montilla Fino cask. According to Colville, the specific length of time in the Montilla casks varies and is ultimately dependent on when the master blender considers the whisky ready. The Distiller’s Edition bottling do not carry a specific age statement, but they do carry the year of distillation and are typically about 15 years old.

Montilla is a wine district in Spain about 125 miles northeast from Jerez. It produces sherry-like wines. Because the climate is hotter and drier here, however, these Sherries achieve higher alcohol levels without being fortified. The Montilla Finos tend to be slightly sweeter, fruitier, and less nutty and have a more viscus texture then Finos from Jerez.

Oban has also released an 18 YO and a rare 32 YO. Only 6,000 bottles of the 32 YO were released. It currently retails for about $1,900, although surprisingly it is often a lot cheaper at auction. Limited Editions cask strength 20 YO and 21 YO whiskies have also been released. The Oban Little Bay expression is a non-age-statement expression released in 2014, as a travel retail exclusive, but is now moving into the core range. Little Bay is a blend of whiskies drawn from a combination of Sherry casks, ex-bourbon hogsheads and ex-Bourbon refill casks that have had new oak ends added. The blend is allowed to marry in smaller, American standard barrels of 180-190 liter casks before being bottled.

Oban has sold its whisky as a single malt longer than just about any Scottish distillery. During the first half of the 20th century, however, its whisky often appeared in blends from Dewar, Buchanan and White Horse. According to Coolville, Oban is still used in small quantities by Diageo’s blenders in some of the company’s blended Scotch whiskies.

Oban may also have been one of the first distilleries to bottle private label whisky. McKercher’s, an Oban grocery store, sold Oban whisky under the Glenforsa brand name. The odd bottle of Glenforsa from the 19th century turns up from time-to-time at auctions. It’s been described as soft and fragrant, with pronounced floral and heather aromas. Further evidence that in those days Oban may have been unpeated or only lightly so. Oban re-entered the single malt category in 1979, with a 12 YO bottling. This was relaunched in 1989, as the current 14 YO expression.

In 1988, United Distillers launched the classic malt range, picking six whiskies that epitomized the style of Scotland’s whisky producing regions. Oban was selected as an example of a West Highlands malt. Although this concept was largely driven by marketing considerations, it did underscore Oban’s unique style as a meld of the West Highland and Island styles.

Oban is an outstanding malt whisky with a signature style that combines the best features of whiskies of the Western Highlands and the islands. For Scotch whisky enthusiasts, its long history adds an additional element of enjoyment. Sláinte.

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Oban, 14 YO, West Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 43% ABV, 750 ml

This Scotch has a deep, rich amber color. On the nose, there are dry heather and floral notes followed by some dried fruit and citric elements. There is a malty creaminess in the background along with whiffs of smoke.

On the palate, it is initially distinctly dry with a slightly sweet, smooth creaminess emerging in the mid-palate. There is a briny note with a hint of old, sun-washed, drift wood layered with dried fruit elements followed by a slightly bitter note and a mild pepperiness.

The finish is long, notably dry with a slight wood note that gives way to a long pepperiness and a slight bitter note that lingers on the end.

This an excellent whisky with a distinctive dry, floral, West Highland style.

Appearance 8/10, Nose 27/30, Palate 26/30, Finish 26/30 Final Score: 87/100

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Oban Little Bay, NAS, Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 43% ABV, 750 ml

Little Bay has a dark amber color with a pronounced orange hue throughout. On the nose, there are distinctive floral and fruity notes, with some dried apple and candied orange, hints of spice, licorice and anise, and some creamy cereal notes.

On the palate, there is a distinctive sweet, viscous, honey creaminess. The wood is well integrated, barely noticeable and meshed nicely with dried apple notes and just a hint of mint. Mild pepperiness emerges toward the end, with a very slight bitter note.

The finish is long, with cereal and dried fruit notes and a slight sweetish and peppery element that lingers.

This is also an excellent whisky. Its Oban roots are obvious but it is sweeter, more nuanced with more distinctive dried fruit elements and a more complex finish.

Appearance 8/10, Nose 27/30, Palate 27/30, Finish 27/30 Final Score 89/100

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