Oban distillery is a petite operation by Scottish standards. Comprising only two stills, their output is listed on Wikipedia at 670,000 barrels a year. That’s about half the rate of Ardbeg, itself a distillery of modest output. With such limited production, Oban concentrate on their 14-year old, though there is a Distiller’s edition and some older releases.
Oban distillery is located in the seaside town of Oban. That’s a good place to stop and spend some time if you are working your way to the islands. Oban is a port of call for Caledonian MacBrayne, the ferry service. (You can get to Jura and Islay from there, though it’s a much longer trip than from Kennacraig.) The town has a lively main street, with lots of shops, hotels, and restaurants. There’s even a really nice bookshop, Waterstones. The distillery, shop and visitor’s center are right off the main drag. The visitor’s center is nice and spiffy but not lavish like the LVMH joints like Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. The Oban distillery is owned by Diageo, which is foremost a spirits company, not a luxury brand like LVMH. It is interesting to note that the other Diageo facilities we visited — Caol Isla and Lagavulin — were similarly nice and modern, but not lavish and marketing-forward like LVMH.
Unfortunately, this was one of our long driving days so while we bought some glasses and tasters at the shop, we did not have time for a tour. I had my chance for a dram later during a whisky tasting at my house, as a friend brought a bottle.
The Diageo aesthetic is evident not only in the presentation of their facilities, but in the presentation of the product. Like Talisker, Lagavulin and Dalwhinnie (also Diageo single malts), Oban is presented in a classic style. The shape of the bottle, the typefaces and sepia label evoke old times and in fact, the tiny script, set in three sections on the label, recount three ages of Argyll history. You can read about the Sons of King Erc, who in 498 AD settled the area, and of the poor sods who shivered in the caves thousands of years before that. And they didn’t even have any whisky to warm themselves up!
Alright, back to the whisky. The fourteen is a taste-forward dram. Definitely Highland, not as sweet and smooth as the Speysiders, the palate is notable for orange rind and oak, a touch of hard-candy sweetness and spice around the edges. The mouthfeel is lively, though not harsh. There is a lot going on in Oban — it does not steamroller you with smoke or sherry or unctuous sweetness; rather, Oban challenges the palate with each sip to discern its complex palette. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) For example, compared to a Glenmorangie (also considered Highland), this has probably double the action going on the tongue. As well it should being four more years in cask — very flavorful casks.
On top of a lively palate, Oban has a very light touch of smoke and a long, delicate finish. All in all, a top-flight example of Highland single malt whisky. Oddly enough, I was directed to Oban as I had tried a Craigellachie at the local Whisky Library (nifty!), and when I went to inquire about it, the salesman at our local liquor store said I should try the Oban, which was ‘even better.’ And in stock. Good salesman? I don’t know — the Cragellachie is s Speysider. At any rate, I am still in the hunt for a bottle of Craigellachie.
I’m glad the Oban folks do such a nice job with this whisky as for one, it is a traditional ‘age statement’ brand and thus must uphold the standard for us anti-NASers, and secondly, the whisky is pricey, about $80 here in Oregon.
Oban 14-year, Highland single malt, 43% ABV
Nose: Quite a rich nose, and notably sweet in a whisky with no sherry in its casking. Immediately: sweet malt, followed by prominent orange rind, touches of honey and freshly cut grass and floral sweetness. The barest whiff of mineral and peat.
Palate: They claim it is ‘smooth’ on the canister, but to me this is a whisky that is quite lively. Hard candy, oranges (mostly rind) with white pepper and oak tannins in the center and along the edge of the tongue.
Finish: A good long finish with the orange remaining, though not overbearing; it dries to a modest tannin bitterness accompanied by hints of its floral nose. The white pepper continues to tickle the tongue minutes later.
Bottom line: Oban is a good choice to add subtle complexity to your collection, provided you prize a lively whisky. This is not a smooth, unctuous Speysider, after all. In fact, compared to a mass-market Highlander like Glenmorangie, Oban has a lot more going on. Save it for a night when you have the energy and interest to savor and explore. If you have a tasting kit, this is a worthy dram on which to practice. I would not give this to anyone who puts ice in their whisky, that would be a waste. Yes, it is pricey, but it is worth it.