If you are not a Scotch drinker, you are asking where? If you drink Scotch, your next words are “Fourteen —my favorite.” Oban Distillery founded in 1794, is one of Scotland’s oldest whisky (yes they spell it without the ‘e’) distilleries, although documents show Scottish monks making the stuff as early as 1494.
The Oban label declares: “Along the shores of Lorn lies a record of man far more ancient than that of any city in the land. The first settlers arrived on the Mainland in 5000 BC and sheltered in the natural caves… then known as ‘an Ob.’ The distillery cave was one such shelter hidden in the Creag a’Barrain Cliffs which rise dramatically above the Oban Distillery.”
I looked up, saw the Creag a’ Barrain Cliffs (just rolls off your tongue) but didn’t spot a cave to get a dram or two. I didn’t need the ‘ob.’ Scotch is sold everywhere in Oban.
Scotch – not Bourbon, not Tennessee whiskey, nor Rye,not even Japanese Yamazaki which took top top single malt honors in 2013 and malts from dozens of other geographic regions and oh don’t dare confuse it with Irish whiskey nor –blends- yikes – is a label that may only be used for whisky made in five specific regions of Scotland. Like wine and more like champagne in the specificity of appellation, Single Malt Scotch takes on the character of its region because of four simple ingredients: mashed barley, peat, water and yeast. These reflect nuances of their geographic origin and the distillery process.
Oban Single Malt Whisky pulls its character from the West Highlands region with its deep connection to the sea, fishing and a history of rebellion. The quantity is limited to the brew from the giant copper stills at the Oban Distillery. That liquid ages in charred oak barrels for fourteen years.A special Distillers Edition bottle is difficult to find in the United States. Oban also produces a twenty-one year old version. For the difference in price (£45 per bottle for the 14 year and £400 for the 21) the fire in the 14 year more than satisfied expectations.
The history of Scotch whisky is woven into politics, especially the tax policies of Scotland and the United Kingdom. The more the British tried to tax whisky the more illegal production increased. At one time there were 14,000 illegal distilleries. When one Lord convinced the Brits to price the whisky license and dram tax at an affordable level, illegal production almost disappeared and total revenues increased. Perhaps there are lessons here for modern politicians.
A blight of French wine grapes in the 1800’s reduced the availability of Cognac and Port and boosted demand for Scotch. The result was an increase in the taste for Scotch on the continent and beyond.
Corporate bev giant Diageo owns Oban today and has had more than it’s share of gaffs, including closure of some distilleries important to local economies, in its pursuit of the £4 Billion Scotch export business. At present, Diageo seems committed to keeping distilling local, good news for Oban.
A visit here without tasting the stuff I used to drink over a glass full of ice—a Scotch faux pas I learned, would be a missed opportunity. Tastings abound but I had invites to a few exceptional ones, imbibing more than 10 different Scotches. I inhaled the amber liquid from a rounded glass (no straight edges) with an open mouth helps prepare the taste buds for the full experience. As directed, I swished some around my mouth for 30 seconds to absorb the flavour and reduce the burn of the swallow.
I survived the palette wake-up and eventually savored some exquisite brew. The Lagavulin 37 year Single Malt Islay (one of the five districts) took my top honors even before I learned it sold for £2200 a bottle. It would be a crime to add water to the Lagavuin,but if one desires the whisky less strong, water should be added a drop at a time. A glass pipette was provided turning the tasting into a bit of a Chemistry class. I added Highland Spring Water to the Caol Ha 25 year Islay and the Brora 35 year Highland. No over-diluting in Oban. And ice- if you must- one cube only added after the Scotch in in the glass.
With a few hundred dollars in a couple of swallows, I contemplated licking the Lagavullin off the inside of the glass. Instead I bought two bottles of Oban 14 and scored a sold-out bottle of Distillers Edition at the shoppe across the street. I’m a Scotch drinker now. Sláinte!