It’s fair to say that whenever I get to visit a Scottish town then the trip is usually based around the distillery. With Oban, this happens to be the case for the entire town itself!
Oban distillery was legally established in 1794 and the town has since been very much built around it. Set in a beautiful, naturally occurring bay and sat at the bottom of a steep bank overlooked by the iconic McCaig’s Tower, the distillery is nestled in the heart of the harbour town. To be honest, it is so settled in that, if it wasn’t for the distinctive chimney and lingering malty scent, you could easily miss the distillery altogether when walking through the streets. Luckily, with enough signage (and sat nav as a potential backup) I was able to stroll up the waterfront road and stumble across the near-camouflaged building, tucked just behind a row of shops.
Immediately within the cold-looking, grey stoned building lies a warm, wood-panelled gift shop with an equally warm and friendly group of staff awaiting to tend to your every whisky-related need. Having attended a couple of Diageo-owned distilleries, I’d learned to present my ‘whisky passport’ – like the true whisky geek that I am – keen to get another stamp and get ready for the upcoming tour. Speaking of which, the gift shop itself seemed to be filled to the rafters with all of Diageo’s other staple offerings and a few gems from the Flora and Fauna range, plus the serious connoisseur/bankrobber’s Lagavulin 37 year old.
After a little wait in the gallery area the tour was presented by a young local lass by the name of Emily and she’d gotten her patter and knowledge down to a tee. Unlike other tours, which usually talk in generalities about their range of products, the Oban tour focussed almost exclusively on its core 14 year old output, and in particular, its four distinct flavours: Sea Salt, Honey, Orange and Smoke. I’ve enjoyed an Oban 14 on many occasions, but whether or not it is the power of suggestion, since visiting the town, I can no longer drink it with ticking off each of those four flavours along the way. The other flavour that I often pick up is the grist-like malt itself.
The tour took you through the whisky making process from start to finish as you got to smell the grist, walk between the tuns and through the stillhouse before ending up in one of the warehouses. Here we got our first taste of the Oban signature liquid, followed quickly by another short measure straight from the barrel – an 11 year old cask strength, dram obviously, which was delicious (see notes below).
One thing that I’d read about the tour in advance on trip adviser (and was happy to see as still ringing true) was that they offered to put your dram into a miniature travel cup with lid for those not able to enjoy the dram onsite, i.e. the conscientious drivers. Fortunately for me, I was with my wife and she later kindly donated her dram after the drive too (double thumbs up).
At the end of the tour, Emily was all too happy to answer any questions and we were not simply rushed out of the premises, like you can feel sometimes when there’s a chain of tours and tastings going on. Of course, the tour ended up by having to make your way out of the building via the gift shop and once again the combination of alcohol and enthusiasm resulted in a swift purchase – not forgetting the all important £5 discount for having been on the tour!
Just before leaving, nature was calling for us two travellers and I’m glad that it did because we then happened upon the distillery’s small bar upstairs, above the gift shop and this resulted in sampling the Oban Distillers Edition (notes below).
All in all, it was a really nicely polished tour, as you would come to expect from such a revered distillery and I would heavily recommend it to anyone going to the Argyll area. I would also strongly recommend the Oban Whisky and Fine Wines Shop (click here) adjacent to the distillery and the Cuan Mor pub nearby – excellent drams and food, respectively.
Notes from the tour:
N: Pretty honey-sweet smelling after the fruity alocholic burn
T: A little salty. A little malty. Then the sweetness makes way for the zesty, orange and citrus flavours
F: Damn fine with a little smoke to finish off the orange zest
V: Absolute solid dram and worth the little extra money for one of Scotland’s most time-honoured whiskies
Oban 11yo Cask Strength (Tour)
N: Sweet marzipan and Christmas flavour
T: Very light and sweet – after the 55.7% punch and burn of alcohol
F: Sweet and tingly – very warming
V: Nice, tour only tasting and very indicative of the original flavours to come in the 14yo
Oban Distiller’s Edition
N: Slight Christmas and sherry fruitiness
T: Sweet fruit cake
F: Slightly treacle like texture
V: It is the 14 plus 8(ish) months in a sherry cask, and does exactly what it needs to – adding that additional festive flavour