There was a collective intake of breath as ‘Magic Mike’, our Oban Distillery tour guide, prepared to share his three cardinal rules for judging the quality of Scotch whisky.
“First, it needs to be in my hand. Second, it needs to taste good.”
As he paused for dramatic effect, we leaned in closer. “Finally, the third and most important rule … someone else has to pay for it.”
Established in 1794, Oban Distillery is one of the oldest and smallest in Scotland. The location was chosen for its harbour, and the town of Oban subsequently grew around the distillery.
Today, the distillery’s seven operators churn out over a million bottles of Oban single malt whisky each year.
Can’t tell your 14-year-old single malt from your blended whisky? And what’s the deal with water and ice? This one-hour Oban Distillery tour debunks some of the myths around Scotch whisky and demystifies the process.
Mike’s mission was to turn those who couldn’t care less about whisky into “enthusiastic amateurs.” Already firmly in the latter category, I needed no such Damascene conversion, but I did learn a LOT about whisky from this distillery visit.
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7 Things I learnt about whisky from an Oban Distillery tour
1. The difference between single malt and blended whisky
That’s right. Before taking this distillery tour, I had no idea how a single malt differed from a blended whisky. Other than the taste that is.
The answer is simple. Single malt whisky is produced at a single distillery from water and malted barley only. Blended whisky contains distillates from more than one distillery.
2. The key flavours of Oban single malt whisky
This Oban Distillery tour was a true flavour finding experience. To my uneducated palate, Scotch whisky was merely pleasantly warming stuff with varying degrees of smokiness.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. Oban Whisky has four key flavours: smoky, sea salt, orange peel and honey. In the first stage of the whisky-making process, the barley is lightly exposed to peat smoke, lending it a subtler smoky finish than some other Scotch whiskies, Laphroaig for example. Although the smokiness of Oban’s 14-year-old single malt wasn’t evident on sniffing the whisky, I could certainly taste it.
For you chemists out there, Oban whisky’s distinctive orange notes are a result of esterification during the fermentation process. Honey sweetness arises as a result of the whisky interacting with the oak casks, the final stage of the whisky-making process. As for the sea salt, no one knows where this comes from.
However, I confess that I couldn’t pick up the salty notes from the whisky tasting. Perhaps I need to drink more of the stuff to educate my palate?
3. The difference between Scotch and Irish whisky
This is mostly down to the distillation process. After fermentation, the resulting liquid or ‘wash’, is run through copper stills to produce a clear distillate. As Mike put it:
it is basically like boiling beer
Scotch whisky is usually distilled twice. By contrast, Irish whisky is distilled three times, which produces a purer product, albeit arguably with less character.
At Oban Distillery, they produce 5,000 litres of clear distillate each day.
4. The flavour of whisky is all to do with the oak
Maturation of the distillate in oak casks is the final stage of the whisky-making process and is key to its final flavour.
Previously used oak casks from the American bourbon and Spanish sherry making industries are typically used, their natural oils imparting their flavour to the distillate. Wood is porous and allows air to enter, oxidisation breaking down the alcohol and releasing tannins from the oak (more chemistry).
5. Scots get their ‘angel’s share’ of whisky
As well as allowing air to enter the cask, the porosity of the oak also allows air to escape.
Each cask loses 4% of its contents through evaporation in the first year, and 2% in each subsequent year. This is called the ‘angel’s share’. From the 18 million casks of whisky produced annually in Scotland, that’s a lot for the angels!
6. Older is not necessarily better Scotch whisky
Under UK and EU law, the distillate must be left to mature in oak casks for a minimum of three years before it can be called Scotch whisky. In practice, many Scottish distilleries have a longer maturation period.
Although some distilleries may use their ultra-long maturation periods as a marketing strategy, this does not necessarily mean that the whisky will taste better. As the maturation period increases, the wood dominates and the balance and relationship between the flavour shift.
Oban Distillery matures most of their whisky for 14 years, which they claim is the optimal duration. In the words of our tour guide:
“Orange, smoke and honey working in perfect harmony.”
7. The best way to take your single malt whisky
How do you take yours? Do you add water or ice or prefer it to slide neat down your throat? Or – Heaven forbid! – do you add a mixer?
According to Mike, the choice is between neat or with a teeny, tiny measure of water. On the distillery tour, we tried it neat (very good). Then our guide suggested we add a mere two or three drops of water, measured from a pipette, and try it again.
The difference was astonishing. Adding this minuscule amount of water to the 14-year-old whisky reduced its fire, allowing the flavours to come through.
Oban Distillery Tour: The Verdict
If you are visiting Scotland’s Western Highlands, I thoroughly recommend visiting Oban Distillery and taking their tour. It’s educational, you will be entertained, and, above all, you will get to sample two expressions of their delicious single malt whisky. You even get to keep the tasting glass! Slàinte!
How to Do an Oban Distillery Tour
Where is Oban Distillery’s Visitor Centre?
You’ll find the Oban Distillery Visitor Centre in the centre of town at Stafford St, Oban PA34 5NH. Oban is the terminus of the westerly branch of the West Highland Railway. The train journey from Glasgow Queen Street station takes from 3h 8mins.
Oban Distillery opening hours
Oban Distillery opening hours are seasonal. Check their website for further information.
Oban Distillery tour prices (in 2021)
The one-hour tour that I did costs £15 for adults. More specialist and more expensive tours are also available.
How to Get to Oban
I travelled to Oban by train. From London to Glasgow Central on the line formally operated by Virgin Trains (now Avanti West Coast), and then taking the West Highland Line from Glasgow Queen Street.
The journey from Glasgow takes just over three hours and costs from £20 one-way. Book train tickets in advance for the best prices.
Services do not run frequently and can be busy. Neglect to reserve a seat at the time of buying your ticket at your peril.
If you are driving, the quickest route will take you around 2.5 hours from Glasgow. Longer and more scenic routes are also available.
Where to Stay in Oban
As a tourist hub, Oban is not short of places to stay. However, these do get booked up quickly during the peak summer season.
When I booked, availability was limited and I ended up at the Royal Hotel, one of the town’s Victorian hotels that is the epitome of (very) faded grandeur. However, it has friendly, helpful staff and offers a free, generous buffet breakfast.
Here are some other places that I have found that look good:
Premier Inn – I love a good Premier Inn and, in all honesty, if I had known that one had opened in Oban I would have chosen to stay there. For me, this chain strikes just the right balance between price point and product and its breakfasts are one of the best out there. Oban’s Premier Inn is adjacent to the train station.
Glenburnie House – In an excellent location on Oban’s seafront, this guesthouse has excellent reviews.
Backpackersplus Hostel – Budget accommodation is hard to come by in Oban but this hostel in a lovely converted church is conveniently located and has great reviews.