Whiskey Review: Oban Little Bay

Most single malt Scotch whiskey has an age statement prominently featured as part of their name (and part of their price point). Oban is typically no different; however, their Little Bay offering flips the script a bit on that expectation. In this version, though, they are trying to let the flavor do the talking instead of expecting an age statement to serve as a mark of quality.


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History

In the late 1790’s, brothers John and Hugh Stevenson 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” (named 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 around.

The Stevenson family ran the distillery for 3 generations, until it was sold in 1830. The new owner streamlined the name to Oban. While the distillery changed hands a few other times over the years, the skills, dedication, and tradition of excellence remained constant.

With only two small stills, Oban is one of the smallest distilleries in Scotland. This enables the distiller to pay close attention to every step of the process, ensuring that no detail is missed and they remain in full control of the process.

“The copper of the still has a conversation with the whisky . . . . The cleaner the copper and the more you rest it, the fresher and cleaner that spirit is.”

Kenny Gray, former Oban Distillery Manager

In the 1930’s, the distillery went through a shutdown due to economic hardships, and was transferred to the Scottish Malt Distillers. Ultimately, Diego acquired the distillery in 1989 and continues to operate the distillery today.

Product

In case it wasn’t readily apparent from the fact that Oban literally translates to “Little Bay” in Gaelic, the name of this particular offering comes directly from their distillery name. This is a newer product in their lineup, which is otherwise mostly known for their 14-year whiskey.

The Oban distillation process has remained largely unchanged for 200 years. They start with 100% locally grown barley, which is malted on site (a process where the barley is soaked in water and allowed to germinate, releasing enzymes that convert the starch in the grains into sugars). The malted barley is then dried in peat fired kilns to stop the germination process before being cooked and fermented in large vats.

After fermentation, the mixture is distilled in small batches in Oban’s two small pot stills. That newly made whiskey is then matured in American white oak barrels. This Little Bay variety is aged for an undisclosed period of time before being bottled alongside it’s named siblings.

Packaging

There is nothing new or flashy about the bottle. Little Bay is packaged in a traditional clear round-body bottle, with a slightly tapered shoulder and a long neck topped with their usual wood and cork stopper. It’s not surprising coming from a distillery that has been around for over 200 years.

The label on the bottle is large (which, sadly, hides much of the golden amber spirit from view) and light blue with white writing detailing the distillation process and history. From far away, it looks simple, like something you would find as you wander around a quaint seaside village. Closer, you can tell there is a story told on the label, but the color contrast makes it difficult to read in good lighting – I imagine it’s impossible in standard bar lighting.

It feels busy for a distillery that embraces its simple roots.

Neat

When you raise this glass, the first thing you notice is a mild and pleasant smoky, earthy aroma from the peat, before that gives way to a nuttiness (which honestly reminds me of the warm bowl of mixed nuts they distribute on long-haul flights). 

The first flavor I pick up is an earthy, mossy note which is paired with a sweetness you would find in brown sugar or molasses.  Following that is a little bit of citrus, which is a flavor that lingers long into the experience.  And while there are a lot of flavors going on, everything is on the mild slide — nothing is over-powering or hidden. 

There is a simple complexity present in this deceptively low-key package.

On Ice

With the addition of a bit of ice, the aroma is significantly changed and all that’s left is the earthiness. You no longer get any peat or nuttiness; rather, the aroma that you’re left with is akin to overnight oats. Nothing distinct, but genuinely earthy.

As far as the flavor goes, there is a mild green tea flavor paired with a light chocolate. While Little Bay is certainly still drinkable on ice, there isn’t a lot of that subtle complexity from the neat version remaining.


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Overall Rating

Little Bay is a Scotch whiskey that I normally keep around – it has a complex flavor, while being approachable for non-Scotch drinkers.  It’s been great to take the time to learn more about the history of the Oban distillery, and take a critical look at their product.

This is the second Oban product we’ve reviewed after the Oban 14, and the sharp eyed among you may have noticed that the Oban 14 appears to be ~$10 cheaper than the Little Bay (at least according to our reviews). Problem is, that previous review is three years old now and prices have changed thanks to various market forces. Oban 14 now retails closer to $90, whereas the Little Bay clocks in at $75.

This version of Oban has no age statement and currently sports a lower price point.  Diageo appears to be intending this product as a gateway to the world of “good” Scotch Whiskey, positioning this as an entry point to their more premium products which can be produced more efficiently than 14 or 18 years products. And in that position, I think it does a great job, highlighting the potential of what a good scotch can taste like.

Oban Little Bay
Produced By: Oban
Owned By: Diageo
Production Location: Highlands, Scotland
Classification: Single Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 43.5% ABV
Price: $75 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 4/5
There are centuries of history and pride in this bottle, and it shows – just keep it simple and drink it neat.


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