A little while back I got round to visiting the Oban distillery. Sadly I didn’t have time to go on the extended tasting tour as this was just a stopping point on our journey further north. Anyway….
A peaceful sunset greets us across the bay as we pull into Oban. There’s a man playing an accordion, behind a row of photographs depicting heroic sea adventures, in the foyer of the 1970s decorated sea-fronted Regent Hotel. The residents seem entertained but we opt for a quick explore of the town before turning in.
Whilst locals laden with bags of lager and salty sea-dogs wait for the sea-taxi to ferry them home we eat freshly made fish and chips on the harbour wall. It’s really good Fish and Chips. We’ve eaten from some of the best in the country and this is up there. Top Three. It’s only later that we find out that the Oban Fish and Chip Shop is one of Rick Stein’s faves. Surely a contender for the yearly National Fish and Chip awards. Almost worth the trip here itself.
The morning brings brilliant sunshine. Looking out, across the harbour and back into town, you can make out McCaigs Tower highlighted on the hillside. A Colleusum style monument to a local land owner and his family who kept the local builders in work in the awkward winter months. Below, tucked away from sight, nestles Oban distilery. It’s front is hidden from view by the shops along the harbour promenade.
Oban was just a small fishing village when the brothers Stevenson, who had had a hand in the building of Tobermory on Mull, founded the diatillery on the site of a former brewery and then set about expanding Oban by establishing a tannery, a boating yard and other house building schemes. The distillery, founded in 1794 predates the town. The town literally grew around the distillery, hemming it in and making any future expansion plans obsolete. Hence, the distillery is fairly small (in the Diageo group it’s the second smallest, the second most frequented, the fifth best selling single malt and their best selling malt in U.S.A. ). With such small production all of the make is destined for single malt bottling. Independent bottles are nigh-on non-existent and there are only two readily available distillery own bottles – the standard 14 year old and a Distillers Edition finished in a montilla fino sherry cask. The distillery exclusive bottle, released in 2010, was frustratingly sold out. However, we were treated to a very small taster (very small) at the end of the tour from a 9 year old single cask, distilled in 2003, that was maturing in the old filling room more-or-less directly below the stills.
Oban malt is characterised by sea salt, honey, orange peel and a touch of smoke and each of these elements are created in the different stages of production.
According to our guide Katrine, the citrus and salt elements are created at the fermentation, the honey at the maturation and presumably the smoke comes from the peating of the malt.
Oban has a lauter stainless steel mash tun that holds 6.5 tonnes. They are capable of producing 6 mashes a week as the mash time runs from 8 to 10 hours. Where things slow down a bit is at the fermentation stage. Oban’s character relies heavily on their long fermentation times – around 96 to 110 hours. That’s around 4 days and that’s a particulatly long fermentation time in the whisky industry. It’s here that the citrus part of Oban is made. The four washbacks are all made from larch and can hold up to 36,000 litres (although only filled to floor level at 30,000l, with switchers on the lids to keep the foamy head in check). The wash itself is a vivid lemon pastel yellow in colour and the citrus notes are fairly dominant in the room. Although the washbacks have wooden lids all the windows were open on our visit and the sea air permeates the room – this is where the salty notes of Oban are meant to derive from. (Seeing as the new make is shipped elsewhere to mature – common in most Diageo malt distilleries – the salt can’t really come from the maturation process).
The still room is fairly tiny with a layout that looks like it’s probably not been changed since the distillery opened. The wash still is larger at 18,880 litres capacity and lantern shaped. It is charged with 11,500 litres The spirit still is smaller at 8296 litres and is also lantern shaped (although more elongated) with a descending lynne arm. Both are heated by a steam coil. However, they are condensed by an unusual worm tub that is, instead of a traditional gradually smaller coil, is an”S” shape that runs along the roof space area of the still room (hidden from view) in a cold bath. Fairly unique to Oban.
The stills are operated Monday to Friday. The foreshots are run to 20 minutes. With a 2 hour spirit run at a 75%-60% middle cut, creating an average of a 68% new make spirit. The distillery is able to produce a million bottles a year, apparently. They employ 7 men to run the production part of the distillery.
Diageo really do not like you taking photographs around and in their distilleries. So sadly there are no photographs of the stills or washbacks (other distilleries are not bothered and I feel that the underlying excuse of alcohol in the air sparking off a fire is tenuous but possibly enforced by Health and Safety Protocol and it’s a lot easier to work a blanket ban than make exceptions so we’ll just have to give them that one). So here’s a sneaky outside picture instead!
Overall a beautifully situated distillery and a relatively small one at that. Oban’s a great stopping point if you’re journeying further north to places like Skye. A great fish and chip shop, a superb sea-food hut near the ferry terminal, a whisky shop, a picture postcard town and with a traditional distillery.