A tiny town where Gaelic is still spoken to this day is the home of the highly regarded Oban distillery. Oban distillery was originally founded on the site of an old brewery by brothers John and Hugh Stevenson from Oban, Scotland in 1794, making it one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, in addition to being one of the last surviving urban distilleries.
As a major source of industry, the distillery had a significant economic impact on Oban, a tiny harbour town. The Stevenson brothers continued to run the distillery together until the death of Hugh Stevenson in 1820. Hugh’s son Thomas, living in Buenos Aires at that time, returned to Oban to manage the distillery.
By 1822, Thomas Stevenson had acquired complete interest in Oban Distillery and he was in control of the business. While having started successfully in his endeavours, a strong of bad investments left Thomas Stevenson bankrupt and heavily in debt by 1829. Thomas’ eldest son John took over the family business, and in 1831 purchased Oban distillery back from Thomas Stevenson’s creditors for £1,500.
Oban thrived under the watchful eye of John Stevenson for more than 30 years. A decision was made in 1866 to sell the distillery to Peter Cumsie. Oban distillery would again exchange hands in 1883 as Peter Cumsie sold the business to James Walter Higgins. Higgins modernized and completely refurbished the distillery prior to its takeover in 1898 by the Oban & Aultmore-Glenvilet Company. The operation was then overseen by Alexander Edwards. Also involved in the running of the distillery was a consortium comprised of John Dewar & Sons, White Horse Distillers, and James Buchanan and Company.
It was around this time the distillery suffered devastating financial losses due to one of the major buyers of single malt scotch, Patterson Blends, experiencing their own financial crisis. Within a few years, Oban Distillery was regaining its financial foothold and in 1923, the Oban Distillery Company, owned at that time by Buchanan-Dewar, was able to purchase the distillery site.
In 1825, Distillers Company Limited bought out Buchanan-Dewars interest in Oban entirely. Scotch Malt Distillers took over administration of the operations in 1930. Oban was shuttered temporarily from 1931 to 1937 due to poor economic conditions. Once the site reopened, business boomed. In 1968, it shut down temporarily to undergo a major reconstruction, including discontinuing the use of its own floor maltings. Oban distillery reopened in 1972 and has moved into the 21st century as a thriving and growing interest. Oban distillery was acquired by Diageo in 1989, and Diageo continues to run Oban, which continues to release new expressions.
Oban’s current product capacity is 670,000 litres, making it the second smallest whisky producer ahead of Royal Lochnager. Water used in production is taken from Loch Glen a’Bhearraidh. Oban remains one of the few distilleries that still use traditional worm tubs, which are found outside the still house. To this day, Oban operates with just one pot still and one wash still. The wash still has a capacity of 12,600 litres, and the spirit still has a capacity of 7,200 litres.
The malt used at Oban Distillery today comes from Diageo’s central maltings and is a combination of peated and unpeated, with a heavy emphasis on the unpeated malt. Casks mature in a small on-site warehouse. Casks are typically white oak and sherry, though a few casks are reserved for the Distillers’ Editions, including Montilla Fina Sherry casks.
One of Oban’s most popular whiskies is their 14-year-old West Highland single malt scotch. It is of medium richness and noted for a combination of light smoke and appetizing spice. In 2010, it was awarded Double Gold at the San Francisco Spirits Competition.
Oban Distillery is highly respected for their production of an 18 year old and 32 year old Distiller’s Edition single malt scotch. The 18-year-old scotch has an aroma that is light, sweet and bright, reminiscent of honey, lemon peel, golden apple and candied orange peel. The taste is quite dry, but smooth. Notes of caramel apple, hard apple cider and orange blossom honey are detected. The finish is long and warming. The 32-year-old scotch, easily the jewel in the crown of Oban’s offerings, has a rich and sweet aroma that grows in complexity. The taste is sweet and fruity, smooth, not woody. A bottle of Oban’s 32-year-old single malt scotch currently sells for around £1,300.
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