Oban Distillery, Oban.
THE next afternoon we left Ardrishaig behind us and embarked on board the “Linnet,” as pretty and comfortable a boat as sails on any canal in the kingdom. We steamed through the Crinan Canal, on which there are fifteen locks, and a delightful time we had. There were four of us, and how we all revelled in the glory of that summer day’s procession; now we would alight from the boat and walk into the woods, or hasten forward and refresh ourselves with milk and wild strawberries, vended on the canal banks, or return to the boat to the next lock and smoke a cigar. It was quite easy to keep pace with the steamer, and most of our fellow passengers exercised themselves in this way.
After leaving the locks, the canal winds round the beautiful wooded ridge of Knapdale, and we are in the land of spells and witchcraft. Here, thirty-four years ago, the last known witch was burned. Start not, gentle reader, it was neither by the law nor Judge Lynch she suffered. She was a masculine kind of old woman, and said to have been tall and strong as most men. Sarah of the bog, as she was called, was extensively engaged in smuggling, and unlike Meg Merrilies, she had not borne twelve “buirdly sans and daughters,” but had lived like Queen Bess - “in maiden meditation fancy free.” To cover up her illicit traffic, she practised necromancy, and the inhabitants of the district being very superstitious, propitiated her good graces by providing peats, potatoes, and meal, and many instances of the belief in her powers and the manner in which she levied her contributions were related to us. But Sarah grew old, and having acquired the taste for stimulants amid the exciting scenes of her youth, like Neil Gow, she"Dearly lo’ed the whisky, oh,“and regularly dosed herself with the contents of her whisky keg. One night she drank too much, stumbled and fell into the fire, and when the house was next visited, the miserable creature was found with her head black and burned to a cinder.
At the next bend of the canal we came in sight of Kilmahumaig, or the tomb of St. Omaig, a bold promontory; and for a moment only, the small canonical mound called Dundonald, where tradition saith, the Lords of the Isles were wont to sit, in their periodical visits to Knapdale, to deliver judgment on offenders. And now the “Linnet” has reached Crinan, and the “Chevalier” Captain McMillan, lies at the wharf with her “blue peter” flying, indicating that all was ready for a start. As we stepped on board the welcome sound of the dinner-bell sent us all below to the dining saloon, where we found as sumptuous a repast as could be served at any hotel. When we reached the deck again the steamer was passing through some of the most interesting scenery on the route. It was such a perfect day that we found it difficult to leave the deck, even when pressed by our cheery companions Cruickshank and Cook, of Edinburgh, who occasionally dived down to the saloon to taste the drink of their country. We reached Oban at seven o’clock in the evening, taking the road up to our hotel by a route which passed the Distillery we had come to visit. The Craigard Hotel is pitched on the top of a rock, and the view therefrom is signally fine. It commands a sort of bird’s eye view of the town and bay, and when we reached the terrace in front we stopped to gaze at the scene below. On the water all was life and gaiety as far as the eye could reach, and innumerable boats were seen studding the surface of the sea, and vessels of all descriptions and sizes from the light skiff to the biggest yacht; whilst the streets and promenade were crowded with people and enlivened with music.
The next morning we descended the hill by a pathway through the grounds of the hotel down to the sea, and from thence bent our steps to the Oban Distillery. It is a quaint old-fashioned work, and dates back prior to the existence of the town, having been built in the year 1794. The establishment covers two acres of ground and is entered from the main street by a pair of timber gates. It was built by the family of Stevenson, the founders of the town of Oban, which previous to their advent was only a small fishing village. The Distillery consists of an oblong set of buildings, with three sectional annexes, which have been added by the present proprietor. He has also made vast improvements in the machinery and appliances, and built two new bonded Warehouses. We gained access to the establishment by an old-fashioned stair thrown across the basement cutting, which leads from the road to the clerks’, manager’s, and Distillery offices. These are all contiguous and mostly under one roof, and were formerly the residence of the Stevensons; a part of the sitting room was made to project over into the Still House, and we were shown the “peep-hole” door through which the proprietor could watch the progress of the work. We made the tour of inspection under the guidance of Mr. James Gordon. This gentleman is a nephew of the late Mr. Smith, of Cragganmore, and his father was the pioneer of distilling in the north, serving at one time as brewer and Distiller to as many as seven Distilleries in the Glenlivet district, and taking each in turn. The Oban work is quite enclosed, and built under a rock, which rises 400 feet, and is festooned with creepers and ivy. The water supply is from two lochs in Ardconnel, one mile above Oban, the waters of which are collected from the peaty uplands, and are reputed to be of splendid quality.
We first bent our steps to the outer courtyard, on two sides of which, in the form of a triangle, are the Granaries and Malt-barns. They are built with stone, and being nearly a century old, have a very ancient appearance. An outside stone staircase gives access to the two upper floors, which are used for storing the barley. The ground floors are concreted, and each possesses a stone Step. At the end of the building there is a Kiln, which is 30 feet square, and is floored with wire cloth. It is heated with peats, enclosed in an old-fashioned brick furnace. The sides of this enclosure are very spacious, and are used for storing and drying the peat; there is besides on the hill, a large shed which contained sufficient for two years’ consumption. On a level with the floor of the Kiln and communicating therewith is a Malt Deposit 50 feet long and 27 feet wide capable of storing 400 quarters of malt. At this place the raw material changes its residence from one side of the quadrangle to the other, and a rustic timber bridge has been thrown across the way, over which the dried malt is wheeled to the Mill building attached to the Brewing House. The latter is two stories high, the basement containing the malt cylinders and mill machinery, driven by steam the top flat is used as the Grist Loft, and contains a hopper, into which the pulverized malt is tipped before passing through the Mashing-machine. We next followed our guide through a narrow doorway, and found ourselves on a platform overlooking the Mash House, whereon are placed two antiquated timber Heating Coppers, holding together 2,000 gallons, and a sparger. Descending to the floor, we are shown the Mash-tun, a peculiar little metal vessel standing on the ground; it is 9 feet in diameter and 5½ feet deep containing the usual stirring gear driven by steam. Mr. Gordon here drew our attention to a loft overhead, where is placed the Worts Receiver, to which we ascended and obtained a view of the Coolers; they consist of an open shallow tank forming the inside roof of the Tun-room. From this receptacle the worts run by gravitation into the Washbacks. Descending a few steps, we then passed through an archway direct into the Tun Room, a building by itself, hearing indisputable marks of antiquity. It contains seven Washbacks, each holding 1,200 gallons. We next proceeded to the Still House, passing under a gallery on which is placed the Wash Charger, which holds 1,200 gallons, and the Worm Tub and Water supply, one of them of singular construction and position. It consists of a narrow timber trough or tank high up in the air, stretching right across the yard, and contains an enclosed pipe, leading direct from the lade through which runs a continuous stream to the worms, and passing out on the other side, the water is utilized to turn the rummager of the Wash Still. We had seen the Still House before from the distiller’s parlour, but on entering it from the court, and observing its walls and roof, it presented the appearance of a monastic building. It contains two old Pot Stills, one a Wash Still holding 1,000 gallons, the other a Spirit Still holding 500 gallons, both heated by fire, and the rummagers therein driven by water from the Worm Tub. There is a platform running across the old building, on which are placed the Low-wines and Feints Charger and Safe, and in the adjoining chamber are the Receivers. Following our guide, we next entered the Spirit Store, which forms the basement of the offices, and was formerly the distiller’s kitchen. It contains a Spirit Vat of 1,200 gallons content, and the casking appliances. Opposite there is a small Cooperage an cask shed; also a 10-horse power engine, which has been at work upwards of forty years, and shows no signs of decay; also a steam boiler, 14 feet long and 5 feet in diameter. Distributed about the premises are four warehouses; two of them are newly built, and although not of large dimensions, are great height and solid construction. That most recently finished is three stories high, and measures 60 feet by 30 feet, and will hold 60,000 gallons of Whisky. Lower down the hill there is a second building, also of three stories, 78 feet by 30 feet. These new Warehouses are fitted up with fixed gauntrees on every floor, the timber supports of which are most substantial, and run from the ground to the roof, so that they will bear any weight, and help to support the building; they are all arranged so that any cask can be removed without affecting its neighbour. The whole of the Warehouses together will store 3,500 casks.
The Whisky is not only pure Highland Malt, but a good self Whisky, and the annual output is 35,000 gallons.