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Oban (pronounced: OH-ban) is a curious distillery in many ways. There are so few bottlings of it in comparison to most other distilleries yet its image has been popularized over the years as part of the classic malts series. The accumulative affect of these oddly opposing facts means that many people tend to either overlook it or forget about it. This is a shame because Oban is a fantastic whisky when it wants to be, a rare example of a west coast style malt and one that is capable of displaying fantastic lively freshness. It is the second smallest distillery in Diageo's portfolio (just after Royal Lochnagar) so this goes some way to explaining why independent bottlings have been so few over the years and perhaps why aged stock is also a rarity in itself.
Stills: 1 Wash 1 Spirit
Water Source: Loch Gleann a'Bhearraidh
Capacity: 670.000 Litres
1960-1972: Old Style Oban, Phenols, Flints, Brine and Fruit.
Oban was bottled, like many of Diageo's more individual distillates, in an official form quite early on. There was an official 12yo decanter style bottling available from the early seventies onwards up until the late eighties. You can still find various rotations of this bottling quite readily and they are well worth seeking out. Oban from this time was distilled when the distillery still ran on direct fired stills and the make was noticeably peatier with a greater coastal influence. Whether this was down to a higher level of on site maturation we will never know, what's certain is that the majority of Oban is now transported as new make down to Glasgow and matured in vast inland warehousing complexes.
Today independent expressions of Oban are nonexistent but back in the seventies through to the early nineties there were several bottlings available. Gordon & MacPhail bottled a few different expressions under their CC label and Cadenheads had a couple of bottlings in their old brown dumpy packaging. There was also a 1978 18yo single cask bottled by Signatory in 1996 that was pretty stunning but the greatest independent (possibly the greatest Oban bottling full stop) was a 1963 30yo by Cadenheads that was out of this world. There was also a fantastic official 32yo Oban bottled in 2002, it was a full and expressive style Oban with bags of herbaceous coastal character and delicate fruit complexity.
1972-Present: Tamed Oban, Tentative Fruit, Coastal Zing and Freshness.
Oban was closed between 1969 and 1972, during this time the distillery received a small overhaul. The stills were converted from mechanical stoking to internal steam heating and the still house was rebuilt. Thankfully the worm tubs were allowed to remain in use and they are still there to this day, a fact that goes a long way to explaining why Oban's character has changed a lot less than many other distilleries over the years. This is also helped by the fact that Oban, with only one set of stills, has limited potential for expansion and mass production, meaning that whisky is still made at a more leisurely pace unlike many of its larger contemporaries.
However, the changes in 1972 did not leave Oban completely unchanged and there was a noticeable taming of the more rugged coastal and phenolic characters in the spirit. Thankfully much of the spirit's individuality remained and to this day Oban is still a distinctly coastal whisky with a clear and unsexy edge to it with notes of fruit and wax abound.
In 1988 Oban was included in the newly conceived Classic Malts range and the standard 12yo was replaced by a new 14yo. The 14yo has maintained a steady consistency through the years but it fails to shine as brightly as many of the smaller batch cask strength editions that Diageo has released. There were a handful of Obans released under the Manager's Dram series back in the early nineties. There was a 13yo bourbon cask edition that offered a powerhouse, very punchy and in your face slant on Oban's character. The 16yo Bicentenary expression at 64% was a fantastic, full sherried monster of an Oban that is the only real example of an Oban in top quality sherry. There was also a beautiful 19yo that encapsulated all the Oban coastal and fruit attributes perfectly. Further official variants were released in the 2000s like the special releases OB 20yo in 2004 which was a blast from the past with a big honey, salty, coastal phenol combo. In general the limited edition bottlings of Oban have been pretty stunning while the standard bottlings like the 14yo and the distiller's edition remain consistent if fairly standard fair, so hopefully we will see more examples of cask strength limited edition Oban in the coming years. Already in the past year we have had the new Manager's Choice 9yo sherry cask and a special cask strength distillery only NAS bottling, which is reputedly excellent.
Usually in these profiles I can only allude to a few specific bottlings as examples for each distillery, this is the only profile I have written where I have been able to talk about virtually every bottling that exists. That is quite a feat considering Oban is one of the more famous distilleries. The fact that almost all the more 'premium'expressions of Oban seem to be verging on fantastic says a huge amount about the quality of this distillery. Hopefully Diageo will continue to quietly produce whisky at Oban as they have always done and will maybe see fit to give us a few more dynamite expressions of Oban in time.