Just over two miles above the town of Oban lies Loch Gleann a’ Bhearraidh, a reservoir that overhangs the coast like an infinity pool, glassily reflecting the changeable Scottish skies. Oban whisky is made with its water.
Although controversial drinks giant Diageo (once described as ‘a soulless corporate identity’) now owns many whisky brands, don’t make the mistake of thinking their whiskies are some kind of mass-produced commodity. The truth may surprise you. Take Oban for instance, made by a team of just seven people.
Tucked away on Scotland’s haunting west coast, the Oban distillery was born before a town even existed there. Two merchant brothers, John and Hugh Stevenson set up the brewery at the end of the 18th century. Remote even today, it’s hard to imagine how isolated this area must have felt back then. Quays and bridges were improving access to the Hebrides, but at the same time brutal land clearances and the failure of kelp industry were causing the destruction of small clan-based communities. It was into this context that the Stevensons came, lured by the Duke of Argyll who was offering low rents to people who would found businesses.
The Stevensons had bought the island of Belnahua in 1780 and begun quarrying slate. Their plan? To take advantage of the natural harbour they’d found along the coast and build not just a distillery but a town. They laid out the foundations in 1793, with the distillery at its heart beneath steep cliffs. Distillation started a year later, although the first official records date it at 1799. For the next 67 years, the business stayed in the family, battling the elements to ship their elixir from Oban’s small port to Glasgow.
The business was sold on twice and by the 1880s a railway arrived and the distillery was rebuilt into the design we can still see an extended version of today: peering from the town out to sea, austere, grey buildings with pavilion roofs and blackish lintels and apron walls. Tall white lettering declares Oban’s name.
Just over two miles above the town lies Loch Gleann a’ Bhearraidh, a reservoir that overhangs the coast like an infinity pool, glassily reflecting the changeable Scottish skies. Oban whisky is made with its water.
Whisky-making is a multi-stage process. Oban’s barley is from Speyside, where the River Spey runs. First you ‘malt’ the barley, which involves steeping it in water, letting it germinate and then dry. Next, the malt is ‘mashed’, which means ground and mixed with hot water. The resulting sugary liquid, called ‘wort’, is fermented into a ‘wash’. Oban ferments its whisky for five days. The wash is then heated and cooled again so it condenses and distills.
The Oban distillery has just two ‘lamp-glass’ stills – onion-shaped and made of copper – and is one of only ten Scottish producers to keep using worm-tubs (a system of coiled copper tubing where gaseous alcohol vapours condense). Even these two stills don’t run every day, meaning Oban produces a lot less whisky than it could.
Why? Because the emphasis is on character. Oban is a ‘West Highland’ type of whisky, lighter than the heavy smoky style of the Scottish Isles but not as light as the sweeter Highland whiskies. The key to this is two-fold: running the copper tubes ‘hot’ to increase the copper contact and allowing air in after distillation to rest and refresh the copper. The result is a clean, fruity whisky given a mineral, spicy aftertaste by ageing in refill casks.