Bourbon is a very American drink, big and bold. Scotch, on the other hand, is a more delicate and delicious spirit with nuances and variations in flavor that could be compared to the terroir of a fine wine.
When I’m feeling like a mellower drink, I turn to my trusty scotch collection. A staple of this collection is Oban — one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, and also one of the most interesting in terms of their location.
In the late 1790’s, the Stevenson brothers (John and Hugh) moved to a small fishing village on the western coast of Scotland with their widowed mother and took jobs repairing boats. Eventually they grew restless and decided to open a brewery in the city, which they converted into a distillery in 1794. Dubbed the “Oban Distillery” after the Gaelic word for “little bay” (for the location of that small fishing village), it began operation and remains one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland.
The distillery actually pre-dates the modern town of Oban, which surrounds the facility and borrowed its name from the distillery rather than the other way ’round.
The two brothers owned and operated the distillery until 1866 when they sold it to Peter Curnstie. Rebuilt in 1883, the distillery changed hands repeatedly until it was finally purchased by Dewars in 1925. With the exception of a few years of inactivity while a new still house was being built in the 1930’s and the late 1960’s, it has been in continuous operation.
In 1997 the Dewars brand (then owned by Guinness) was purchased by the UK based alcoholic beverage conglomerate Diageo, who continue to own and produce Oban scotch to this day. Despite the popularity, Oban still only operates a single wash and spirit still and produces 670,000 litres of spirit per year.
The Oban 14 year old scotch whiskey starts as a crop of 100% malted barley that is germinated and dried over a peat fired kiln. From there, its mashed and distilled twice in the pear-shaped pots of the Oban Distillery before being sealed in oak casks.
Traditionally, Scotch whiskey is barreled and aged for a minimum of three years before bottling, with most distillers extending that period to ensure that their spirits have picked up the right amount of flavor from the barrels. Aging whiskey in Scotland’s cold and rainy climate is tough, and without the hot Kentucky summers there’s not much movement of the liquid into and out of the staves of the barrel.
The flagship product from the Oban distillery is a 14 year aged scotch whiskey, which is seven times as old as the minimum requirement. That extra aging is designed to create a smoother and more delicious tasting spirit than the competition. During bottling a caramel coloring is added, which adds to the visual appeal of the spirit but doesn’t change the flavor or texture (or so they claim).
Oban comes in a cylindrical box much like most of the better scotch whiskies on the market. The outside of the cylinder is wrapped with an illustration that appears to be done with pen and ink depicting the craggy shores on which the Oban distillery sits.
Everything about the bottle is designed to impart a sense of their extensive history. The glass bottle itself is fairly plain and simple, a straight walled cylinder with a slightly stylized neck. Capping off the bottle is a wood and cork stopper, which is a much appreciated departure from the typical plastic capped varieties. The wrapper that surrounds the bottle is in the same style as the box, and has an inscription in the center of the wrapper that talks directly about the distillery’s history:
Along the shores of Lorin lies a record of man far more ancient than that of any city in the land. The first settlers arrived on the mainland in 5,000 B.C. and sheltered in the natural caves of the land then known as “An Ob.” The ‘Distillery Cave’ was one such shelter hidden in the Creag A’ Bharrain cliffs which rise dramatically above the ‘Oban Distillery’.
On either side of the wrapper is more historical context in a handwritten style, and the top of the bottle has another wrapper that proudly proclaims the date the distillery started operation – “1794.” Like I said, this bottle is dripping in history.
On first pouring a glass the aroma from the spirit is sweet and pleasant, with some richness and complexity. The closest thing I can compare it to is a dessert wine, heavy on the citrus and alcohol content. But there’s not just sweetness in the glass — the peaty aroma adds a depth and richness to the smell that is unique to the scotch family of spirits.
The first thing you experience when you take a sip is the mild yet present peatiness coming through probably from the drying process of the malted barley. At 86 proof the spirit feels a little heavier on the tongue than others due to that higher alcohol content but definitely still sippable.
As the liquid heats up and swirls around your mouth the flavor profile changes and builds in intensity. It might be some psychosomatic stuff going on but I swear I can taste the salt from the sea air that permeated the barrels during the aging process. A little more time on the tongue and the fruitier elements start to become more apparent and I think I detected a hint of pear at the end.
Overall the scotch provides for a relatively smooth drink. There’s no distinct burn or bite except for a small bit of acidity on the aftertaste.
There really isn’t much to mellow out with the addition of ice. But a little water and a little chill does tone down that peaty flavor that’s present on the first taste allowing some of the more delicate flavors to shine through. With a couple ice cubes, this is more like that dessert wine I mentioned earlier. Instead of a hint of pear, the pear is now the most prominent flavor.
My wife doesn’t like brown liquor — her statement is that they all “taste like burning.” But the sweetness and fruitiness of Oban on the rocks is probably the closest I can get her to enjoying a whisky without a mixer of some sort. Which would be sacrilege, and as a result I won’t even try my usual cocktails with this one. Instead, I’ll just pour another glass on the rocks and enjoy.
It’s a damn fine thing, and there’s something here for everyone. A sweet spirit that can pack a punch of peaty flavor, the Oban 14 Year Scotch is no doubt delicious. That said, I’m taking a star off for the added caramel coloring.
Oban 14 Year Scotch
Owner: Diageo (UK)
Production: Oban, Scotland
Classification: Highland Scotch Whisky
Grain bill: 100% malted barley
Aging: 14 years
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $67.99 / 750ml ($0.09/ ml)
Overall Rating: 3.5/5
It’s damn good. I just wish it were a bit more authentic to the product and history, without the added coloring.