July 21, 2024

Confession time: the true reason for my wanting to stop off and spend a bit of time in Oban is the distillery, which – you guessed it – makes one of my favorite brown liquors. Oban also happens to be one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland – physically and spiritually at the heart of the town. In fact it predates the town. Founded by local brothers John and Hugh Stevenson, who established a boat building yard, a tannery, and in the 1790s a brewery which by 1794 would become the Oban distillery, the town of Oban is largely a byproduct of the brother’s business enterprises. By the late 19th century it had become a busy port which shipped wool, whisky, slate and kelp to Liverpool and Glasgow. The arrival of the Victorian railways brought further prosperity, revitalising local industry and giving birth to local tourism. In 1883 the distillery fell from family hands when it was bought by J. Walter Higgin. He dismantled and rebuilt it bit by bit, carefully replicating the famously small stills and other traditional features in order to preserve the quality of the whisky. Today the distillery buildings and their internal arrangements are substantially the same as they were following Higgin’s refurbishment. The distillery has only two pot stills, making it one of the smallest in Scotland, and the whisky it produces perfectly echoes its coastal location: briny on the nose with a background of heather and peat. It’s a distinctive West Highland flavor which falls somewhere between the lighter, sweeter Highland malts of Glenmorangie and Dalmore and the dry, smoky island-style of Talisker and Laphroig. Single malt whisky has been made here for over 200 years; by contrast it’s only recently that very exceptional malts were bottled and sold as ‘singles,’ as opposed to blended. Guided by senior site manager, Mike Tough, I was lucky enough to be taken through the whiskey making process and given a bit of insight into Oban’s unique profile: made using barley malted to the distillery’s particular specification, the partly germinated kernels are gently dried in a kiln where a light peat smoke gives the malt its distinctive character. The particularly addictive malty dryness in the flavor and finish of Oban whisky owes almost as much to how the grain is handled as it does the small-batch distillation process and a stillman’s attention to detail. It’s no cliche to say you can taste the tradition – and the finish is ever so smooth.

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