Oban is a whisky distillery in Oban, Argyll and Bute, within the Highlands of Scotland. It belongs to the spirits group Diageo (formerly United Distillers), the whisky is marketed as part of the group’s Classic Malts series. The distillery buildings are classified in category B in the Scottish monument lists. Although a classic Highland whisky, Oban is a catchy and comparatively mild single malt only slightly smoky and maritime. Oban’s profile skilfully combines the properties of the islands with the lighter, fruity single malts.
Location of Oban distillery
Oban is a town and whisky distillery on the west coast of Scotland. The Oban Disitllery name can be translated as a small bay, is one of the oldest operating Scottish whisky distilleries since it was founded it 1794. When the distillery was founded there was no town around it, instead the town was built around the distillery. This makes Oban the center of the city today, although its spatial expansion is restricted as a result. Oban has a visitor center offering a several guided tours every day. Visitors are allowed to keep their tasting glass after the tour.
The city of Oban is the capital of North Argyll (the Western Highlands) with a protected natural harbor and is considered the gateway to the Hebrides. From here, the state-owned Caledonian MacBrayne ferries go to Lismore, Colonsay, Islay, Coll, Tiree, Mull or Barra. Before it was connected to the railway network in 1880, the town was a sleepy fishing village. The climate is shaped by the Gulf Stream, mild and temperate with a lot of rain, some claim too much. Every August the Argyllshire gathering, the Highland Games, takes place in Oban.
Near Oban distillery
The symbol of the city is the McCaig Tower above the city. This unfinished replica of the Colosseum in Rome was built by local banker John Stuart McCaig in the late 19th century as a memorial to his family and to provide work for local workers during the winter months. Inside the building there is a park with a viewing platform. Neither the planned tower inside the structure nor the statues of the McCaig family were ever completed, as all members of the family died or became impoverished by 1904.
Production of Oban single malt
At only 4,280 square meters Oban Distillery is not one of Scotland’s larger distilleries, as the small town of Oban grew up around the distillery expansions are almost impossible without moving production off site. The distillery has an annual capacity of only a little more than 700 thousand liters of whisky per annum. Oban is actually the second smallest of around fifty manufacturers within the Diageo Group. Only the Royal Lochnagar Distillery is a little smaller with half a million liters of annual output.
The typical Oban whiskies are fresh, spicy with a slight salty note. Very good harmony with seafood. Due to its relatively low production volume, it is rarely found at independent bottlers as Diageo uses it for its own bottlings and blends. The standard bottlings from Oban are: Oban’s expressions are comparatively limited. The core range consists of a 14 year old 43% ABV and a 43% ABV Distillers Edition. The Distiller’s Edition is the 14 year old expression is matured by finishing in a Montilla fino cask making for a fruitier spirit. The Distiller’s Edition bottling does not carry a specific age statement, but do carry the year of distillation and are typically about 15 years old.
Oban also released more limited 18 year old and a rare 32 year old. Of the latter only around 6,000 bottles of the 32 year old were released. It currently retails for about £2,400, although surprisingly it can be found a little cheaper on the secondary market. Limited Editions cask strength 20 year old and 21 year old whiskies have also been released.
The Oban Little Bay is a non-age-statement expression released in 2014. Originally a travel retail exclusive, it now expands the small but very successful portfolio of Oban Distillery. Little Bay is a blend of whiskies drawn from a combination of sherry casks, ex-bourbon hogsheads and ex-bourbon refill casks that have had new oak ends added. The blend is allowed to matured further in small casks of 180-190 liter casks before being bottled. It shows a very typical aroma for the Oban distillery, which is underlaid with a touch of sea salt, but also honey and citrus fruits.
All Oban bottlings currently are bottled at 43 abv.
History of Oban distillery
The Oban Malt Distillery is one of the oldest producers of Scotch whisky in Scotland. In 1794 The Oban distillery was founded in Little Bay near the water by John and Hugh Stevensen. The Stevenson merchant brothers are also considered to be the founders of the port city of the same name, which was built on the slopes around the distillery.
In 1866 the distillery was taken over by Peter Cumstie, who then sold Oban to James Walter Higgin in 1883. James had the distillery renovated in 1890, but the construction of new warehouses had to be stopped after archaeological finds estimated to be several thousand year old remains of six adults and four children. The finds can now be seen in the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh. At that time, many products were still shipped by ship and the finished whisky was also transported by ship to vibrant cities such as Glasgow or overseas. This changed abruptly from 1888 onwards, when the growing network of the Scottish Railway also reached the west coast from the south.
In 1898 the distillery went to Alexander Edward, the then owner of the Aultmore distillery and Craigellachie distillery in what is now the Speyside region. In 1923 Oban was sold to the Oban Distillery Co, a subsidiary of John Dewar & Son. Dewar & Sons were then acquired by Distillers Company Limited (DCL) and passed to their Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd (SMD) subsidiary. SMD ceased production from 1931 to 1937.
In the 1960s, after the devastating world wars, the Scotch whisky industry grew rapidly which almost saw the end of Oban. In 1968 Oban again fell silent, being a very small distillery with limit growth potential in the middle of an expansive period for the industry its future seemed uncertain. Ultimately this decision was reversed and the present stillhouse was built in 1972 and onsite malting floors removed,
Oban became an early player in the increasingly important single malt whisky business, with the launch of the Oban 12 Years Highland Scotch Whiskey bottling in 1979. In 1989 there was another significant adjustment to today’s Oban 14 Years Whiskey and its inclusion in the groups Classic Malts Selection of Scotland. Today the US market is the most important for Oban, with around 90 percent of all production being shipped to North America. In 1989 a new visitor center was built and opened.
Since then a number of new bottlings have been released including the distillers edition in 1998, the distilleries first no age statement NAS offering in 2010 and Little Bay 2015. In 2019 Oban was released as the Night’s Watch offering within the Game of Thromes series of bottlings.
Production in detail
The distillery gets its clear and pure water for production via a kilometer-long pipeline from the higher situated Loch Glenn a’Bhearraidh. Until 1968, malting and grinding took place directly on site Oban, until Oban also obtained its specific malt from external service providers. Far from an isolated case in the industry, in the 1960s and 70s the production volumes increased enormously and it was a matter of further effectiveness for many manufacturers. Today only 6 distilleries actually still have their own floor maltings, none of which can provide 100% of the needed grain. Oban has been sourcing lightly peated malt from professional large malt houses in the country, including Roseisle Maltings from Elgin in Speyside. An old, dark red Potreus Patent Malt Mill from Leeds is still available for viewing when you start the distillery tour.
Oban’s unique wormtubs
There are only 16 distilleries in Scotland that still use worm tubs. The effect of the worm tub’s reduced copper contact can be adjusted by running the worm tubs hot. The hotter the temperature of the water they are immersed in, the longer it takes for the spirit to condense, thus prolonging the copper contact. An unintended consequence of hot worm tubs is that it also prolongs the distillation. Oban runs their worm tubs hot, usually 45-50 degrees Celsius (113 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit).
Oban’s worm tubs also have another unique feature; they contain two worms nested within one another. The vapor emerging from the lynn arm is divided into the two worms. The only reason for doing so is to further slowdown the condensation and maximize contact with the copper tubing. The result is that the meaty notes typical of worm tub condensed whiskies are less noticeable, although still present in Oban. It’s not clear when Oban began using two nested worms.
When mashing in the large tank, the grist is poured three times with differently hot water at intervals. For the first water, a total of 27,000 liters of hot water at 63 degrees Celsius is poured onto 7000kg of grist. This corresponds somewhat to the type of a 1: 4 distribution of ground barley and hot water. After the first highly sugary liquid has been filtered and collected through the perforated bottom of the lauter tun, the second water is poured onto the mash with 8000 liters of water at 75 degrees Celsius. Then the sweet wort (hot sweet barley water) is collected for the next process step, fermentation. The third infusion, the third water, is 25,000 Liters of water and 83 degrees Celsius are again collected in tanks, kept hot and used as first water for the next batch of infusion during mashing.
In Oban’s tun room there are a total of four wooden washbacks made of Douglas fir, sourced from Canada. These huge wooden containers are six meters high, and at working height you can not even see a third of them. Only when you open the heavy wooden lid do you recognize the size and thickness of these containers. As of May 2021, the youngest washback is just 3 year old while the oldest have been doing their job for Oban for around 45 years.
A total of 32,000 liters of the cooled word is pumped into a single washback, which corresponds to the height of the floor level. With the addition of distilling yeast, the sugar liquid is converted into a beer-like alcohol through fermentation. Oban works with a very long exposure time of more than 4 days or, in other words, up to 110 hours. This ultimately results in wonderfully fruity flavors of oranges with an alcohol strength of around 9 percent ABV.
In total, the Western Highland Distillery Oban can produce up to 25,000 liters of new make in one week. This would result in a theoretical production capacity of 1,300,000 liters per year if one distilled every single day of the week without silent times. In truth, the output in 2019 is around 870,000 liters, so there would still be opportunities to produce more without direct expansion of the distillery.
Demand for Oban single malts is currently enormous, which leads to a controversial discussion among those responsible at the distillery about expanding from the current five-day week to a seven-day week. Something similar was discussed and implemented in the internal Lagavulin Distillery, where it was possible to increase output again sustainably through many small efficiency steps in production.
The two pot stills are steam operated and have a capacity with the wash still of 11,000 liters and 6,700 liters for the spirit still. For the sequential distillation, i.e. always as the only batch, the beer produced is now pumped from the washbacks into the wash still and slowly heated by supplying steam. Since water and alcohol have different degrees of boiling relative to sea level, which is definitely the case here at Oban, the alcohol dissolves from the water at 78.3 degrees Celsius and rises in gaseous form in the Still. In the first stage with the wash still the entire amount of liquid is distilled to a 25-30% abv.
The second distillation in the spirit still results in a forerun in the first third, also called foreshot, with a maximum 83% abv. This head portion runs at Oban for around 50 minutes and is collected in the low wine receiver. Experienced distillers can use the spirit safe hygrometer to see when the lever has to be turned to separate the heart. This middle cut, also called the heart, then flows into a separate tank, the intermediate receiver. It is exactly the portion that is later used for aging in oak barrels and matures into Scotch whisky.
As the distillation progresses, the alcohol content continues to decrease until, from a lower limit of around 65 percent ABV, the technology or the distillers have to take action again and the middlecut now stops. The rest of this distillation batch becomes the tail. The fine brandy is now finally separated as heart, while the distillation process comes to an end as the alcohol content continues to decrease. From about 63% ABV, more and more fusel oils are included in the fire, which would not be beneficial to the taste and enjoyment for people. Ergo, seen from the spirit safe via the various pipelines, the tail, also known as the tail, now runs into thefeints reciever to collect.
As with many Scottish distilleries, the majority of the Oban distillate no longer matures directly on the company premises, but spread over several strategic locations across Scotland. At Oban, this can be traced back to several circumstances. On the one hand, the distillery located on “The Small Bay” no longer has the area and capacity to store all the maturing barrels. The steep rock rises directly behind the buildings and there is no space to the left and right of it due to the limited location in the middle of the city. There is only a warehouse in one building directly behind the production building, in which a smaller number of oak casks also find their home.
|Name||Pronounced||AKA||Region||Country of Origin|
|Status||Active||Whisky Type||Website||Tours Available|
|Active||1794 - Present||Malt||Oban||Not Available|
|Manager||Distiller||Blender||Owned by||Parent Group|
|Dr Matthew Crow; Dr Craig Wilson||Diageo|
1793: The Stevenson brothers enter the brewing business
1794: The distillery is founded by John & James Stevenson & Co
1797: Managed as Hugh, John & James Stevenson & Co.
1824: Passed to Thomas Stevenson when bankrupt
1829: John Stevenson
1860: Registered under the name Robert Walker
1866: Change of ownership from the Stevenson family Peter Cumstie
1878: Purchased by James Walter Higgin and rebuilt
1887: Two new warehouses were built
1890: The number of tuns was increased from 5 to 8
1898: Acquired by the Oban & Aultmore-Glenlivet Distilleries Ltd. from Higgin
1923: Oban & Aultmore-Glenlivet Distilleries Ltd. sold the distillery to the Oban Distillery Co. Ltd., subsidiary of John Dewar & Sons Ltd.
1925: John Dewar & Sons Ltd. passed to the Distillers Company Ltd. (DCL)
1930: Transferred to Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd. (SMD)
1931: Distillery falls silent
1937: Production resumes
1969: Distillery falls silent
1972: Production resumes in new steamheated stillhouse
1989: Visitor centre opened in old maltings
1990: Selected for promotion as a Classic Malt
1992: Licensed to John Hopkins & Co. Ltd.
1999: Owned by United Distillers & Vintners (UDV)
2004: Owned by Diageo plc
2010: The distilleries first no age statement NAS offering
2015: Little Bay is introduced in 2015
2019: Oban released as the Night's Watch in Game of Thromes bottling series
Can I tour Oban?
No, unfortunately Oban distillery is not open to the public for tours