Size isn’t everything…..

…..It’s what you do with it that counts….

Whisky distillery visit – Oban

Well, I hope you all didn’t miss world whisky day on the 18th of May. I have to admit, I did. I had hoped to leave an article or a tasting review on the day. I was travelling about 100 miles down the West Coast of Scotland to Oban, and my intention was to get into the distillery and have a wee taste review on the day, but it just wasn’t to be. In the end my visit had to be on the day after on Sunday.

Oban is the second smallest distillery in Diageo’s Scottish portfolio, the smallest being Royal Lochnagar. It has a capacity of 838,000 litres a year, which is quite low for a distillery owned by a major corporation. The distillery started off as a brewery next to a small fishing village. Soon, the village grew into a small town and surrounded the distillery, meaning that the distillery could not expand.

The Oban Distillery

The tour guide who showed us around was Irianna, a young lady from Cuba who had settled in Scotland. She knew her subject matter well, and answered questions well.

Because Oban distillery is so small, malting does not take place here, so the malted barley is delivered from a supplier. The malt has been dried with peat, but is only lightly so. It is crushed here to create the heist and fed into the single mash tun.

Retired Grist Mill
Mash Tun

Internals of Mash Tun

The wort from the last mash is used as the liquid for the first mash in the next mash. The mashing produces 32,000 litres of wort which then gets fed to the wash backs. The 4 washbacks are made of Douglas Fir, each lasting about 45 years. 2 are due replacement soon. Fermentation takes up to 6 days, with the long fermentation giving the citrus notes to the spirit. The wash is typically 9% abv. 

Wooden Wash Backs
Wash ready for the Still

Both the wash still and spirit still are lamp glass shape, with the Spirit charge being 11,000 litres. The low wines from the wash still are about 24% abv. which then feed into the spirit charger and onto the spirit still, the charge measuring approximately 6,500 litres. The foreshots come out of the still at 90% abv, but this isn’t desirable nor is it drinkable unless making yourself blind is one of your life goals. The heart of the distillation is taken at 65-70% abv. The feints (the spirit too weak to make whisky) is put back into the spirit charger along with the foreshots for the next charge of low wine into the spirit still.

Wash Still
Spirit Still

The waste products of the stills (pot ale from the wash and spent lees from the spirit still) are treated and sent to waste.

The Oban Distillery uses worm tubs to cool the vapour from the stills, which have the disadvantage of not having as much copper contact as a shell and tube condenser. This means the spirit is a bit heavier, more meaty. This is counteracted by running the worms hotter than normal, and leaving the access door to the still open after the distillation of a batch to ensure that the copper of the still rejuvenates quicker. Copper contact is vital for taking out some of the impurities out of the spirit, such as sulphur. I noted that the Lyne arm from the wash still was slightly canted upwards which would help with reflux and filter out more of the undesirable parts of the spirit.

Illustration of still and worm tub tubing

The final spirit is diluted to 63.5% before being placed into ex bourbon casks, which impart the honeyed note that is also part of Oban’s whisky. Most of the production is matured off-site due to the space restrictions. It is unknown where the maritime note of sea salt gets into the whisky, but perhaps it is from the barrels that are stored on site.

As we move toward the end of the tour, we are led into an old warehouse which has some barrel parts with coopering tools. There were a couple barrels which had whisky in them. The guide would then use a valinch to remove enough whisky to give each one of us a small dram. This was whisky that isn’t sold at all by the distillery and was a nine year old Cask Strength (58.1%) whisky.

An unguarded cask!

What struck me at this point was if I was to have had a ‘Copper Dog’ with me, I could have had a much better portion as the cask was left unguarded as the guides back was turned. And I so wish I could have, as this for me would prove to be the best dram of the day, despite only getting 10ml of it. Plus, regardless of its strength, I found this very palatable with no water, and very little burn. A strong honey flavour in the taste, with a light smoke, and salty smoke in the medium finish.

Very little colour and not enough liquid!

We finish up in a tasting room, where we are all shown the distillery range, and whereupon the Diageo Game of Thrones range was pushed upon us a wee bit. Having never seen a single episode, I’m not that interested and especially when when we were told it is a 60/40 mix of two of their range, which if I remember correctly was Oban Distillery Edition and Oban 14. A dram of 14 y.o was given out and that was the end of the tour.

I find it funny that the big push to buy something when the next stop is the gift shop, but I decided to give that a miss to begin with, and headed to the impressive whisky bar upstairs which gave a full range of Oban produce as well as some other Diageo offerings, including most of the currently produced remnants of the Flora and Fauna range (I’ll have to do a blog post on that sometime!). I went for another Oban 14, to get the essence of it, then an Inchgower 14 F&F which I am familiar with, but rarely taste.

Both 14 year olds are very palatable but the Oban is a heavier whisky, whereas Inchgower is much more delicate – probably the most delicate thing to come from the fishing port of Buckie! It made my mind up to buy a drinking bottle of Inchgower, and I also had to purchase a 20cl bottle of Oban 14 and Clynelish 14. The Clynelish I have had before and it is absolutely fantastic.

Oban 14

The 14 year old Oban was good enough, and apparently most of their produce of this bottling is sold in the USA. I’ll do a taste review on this later in the week. In conclusion, this is a good tour to do. If you can look past the corporate side of things, it’s brilliant to see a small distillery rather than a massive spirit factory. The staff are really friendly and helpful, and I thoroughly recommend a visit.

Slainte Mhath!

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2 thoughts on “Size isn’t everything…..

  1. My face isn’t even on this post! You been on too much cheekywatter?

    Hope you’re doing well Kass. Take a peek at the Facebook page and click like. You may learn summat! 😉


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