I had the good fortune of having to accompany my wife, Collette, to Oban, the day after our very first Twhisky event, which we held to coincide with the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns birthday. Oban’s a beautiful town situated on the shoreline of the west coast of Scotland, and it’s known as “The Gateway to the Western Isles”, most of these islands serving as fertile whisky producing areas. At such close proximity to the Atlantic, despite the diversity of characters these island malts span, they all share a degree of the maritime influence, which most say is a direct effect of their proximity to the sea.
The evening we arrived, my parent’s had driven down to meet us from Speyside in their camper van, so we headed out for a bite to eat together. We chose the Cuan Mor Gastropub on George Street, as we’d been there last April and remembered it as being good honest food, with unpretentious and warm service. The fish was as expected, fresh and fantastically cooked, and although it was ‘just’ fish and chips, it was everything I remember about having grown up in a coastal community and the abundance of food divorced from a chain of freezing, packing, shipping and then re-freezing. Taste the bloody difference indeed.
I thought it was only fair that I pair my scran with the geographically-correct whisky, and ordered an Oban 14. It’s got a citrus-y nose, with just the right amount of esters in it to do a fish supper justice without overpowering you. The whiff of lemon and salad wasn’t just coming from the plate in front of me! In the mouth, Oban’s velvety and smooth, with a touch of pine. The finish is abrupt, but warm, like strong advice from a good friend. After somehow managing to find room for an amazing apple tart with vanilla ice-cream (sometimes you just want the classics…) we settled up, and I waddled out the door.
So our parents dropped us off at the B&B we were staying at called Alltavona, which was situated on the esplanade heading towards Ganavan Sands, which was where the camper was due to settle for the night. So, I knew that my Dad has a habit of keeping the wagon well stocked, and I enquired as to which miniatures were accompanying him on his travels. So, I headed off to bed with a Glenmorangie 10 as a nightcap.
The next morning, I set off for the half-hour trek out to the beach to grab a cup of tea with my parents whilst Collette sorted out a few work related issues back at Alltavona. As I walked along, it occurred me to give Oban Distillery a quick ring and see if there was any chance of a quick chat with someone about their particular malt and what goes into the process of making it there. So I rang the number I had for it, and explained to the guy on the other end what I was after, and about the blog, and Twhisky etc… The very helpful chap enquired at the end of my reply, “What’s your name again? Ok, I’ll have to run it past the marketing department…” to which I said “No problem, and what’s your name please?”
“Oh, I’m Kenny Gray, distillery manager here at Oban… Anyway, leave it with me, they’re usually fine about such things, and I’m always happy to talk to someone who’s enthusiastic about whisky. I’ll give you a call back shortly.”
Fantastic! I thought.
Kenny Gray’s got forty years of whisky experience under his belt, and he’s worked at Glen Esk, Glen Ord (also looking after Teaninich at the same time) and Port Ellen, and recently has been given a lifetime achievement award along with Willie Tait from the not-too-distant Jura distillery at 2008’s Malt Advocate Whisky Awards. Also, I doubt there’s anyone else in the industry that has a better understanding of the chemical processes at work inside the husks of the malt itself, given Kenny’s background in science, having worked himself under Magnus Pyke.
Before I knew it, it was three o’clock and time for my meeting. I was greeted by Paul Cummins who’s one of Process Operators working there, and was shown straight up to Kenny’s office and greeted by the man himself.
Over the course of the following hour and a half I was treated to my own private lesson in the art of distilling, from a man who could have easily been reading from a chemistry degree textbook, but who was as gracious with his explanations to the scientific layman that sat in front of him (myself) as he was with his generosity when it came to sending me on my way with a very special parting gift – more of which later.
The thing that stuck in my mind most upon leaving was Kenny’s genuine passion and fascination for what he called “the package”. He explained to me that barley has all of the properties and systems required to turn from grain into distillate merely by the application of water, heat, and a bit of knowledge. Within each grain the starches lie in tandem with the enzymes (alpha-amylase and beta-amylase) necessary to break them down in to the sugars (glucose, fructose and sucrose) which, after the other processes required, will eventually end up as clear, new make spirit, to be placed into casks and left to sleep until ready.
That’s essentially a condensed version of the process Kenny gave me, and he showed no sign of impatience at my frequent interjections for the sake of clarity for my tiny chicken brain, science never having been one of my strong points.
We skimmed the surface of other topics (the new distillery at Roseisle being one) and we then got ‘round to discussing in depth the character of Oban’s malt. Knowing that I’d tried the Oban 14, Kenny asked if I’d had the 1969 32 Year Old. No I’ve not, was my answer.
“Ah, well… Ye can’t leave here without trying that. Here’s the last bottle in the distillery.”
I’d actually seen a bottle of this earlier in the day, and had asked the guy in the shop if I could have a look at it (top shelf gear) to check out the notes on the back. I noticed the price was £275, and heeded my Dad’s advice to “put it back before you drop it…”!!
At 55.1% ABV, it’s a hefty dram, and I’m not sure where it would sit in an evening’s schedule. I don’t know if it’s pre or post eating, but I’d like to be in the position to try both one day! Its nose is full of citrus, melon, a touch of smoke, and Kenny pointed out his own observation of the aroma of damp sand on the beach. I kind of got what he meant, but my nose was saying brine. I picked out yacht varnish (not weird, I’m a carpenter) and Kenny said that acetone had been noted in it before, so I felt vindicated, knowing full well that Dubber thinks this is hilarious when I mention it.
I took a sip and let it drift over my tongue. It had that silky, smooth oiliness that the 14 has, but turned up to 11. Taste-wise, it was full of honey, a bit of cinnamon (mainly the sharpness, not the spiciness), and also got rhubarb and lemon curd. Really complex, but with an instantly identifiable West Coast overtone to it. Basically, it’s immense.
The finish is a long affair, which just hangs around for ages, saying “Got the message yet?” It’s salty and sandy and astringent and estery, but none of these aspects linger long enough to dominate your perception. It just makes you take another sip in order to try and ascertain a definitive answer. One of THE most unfathomable (in a good way) whiskies I’ve ever had the good fortune to try.
Kenny disappeared for a minute whilst I savoured the dram, and reappeared with a 200ml sample bottle in hand.
“Ye’ll have to take a dram back to your pal Dubber… I’ll no have you windin’ him up aboot havin’ tried this whilst he’s stuck doon in Birmingham.”
Kenny, you’re too kind. I mean, I was kind of looking forward to that bit…
After I’d caught my breath at Kenny’s dispensation of about seventy-odd quids worth of malt, he then offered me a quick tour of the distillery, saying, “I know you’ve been on tours before, so I’ll spare you the patter, and just show you the place quickly.”
There’s only two stills at Oban, beautifully maintained, and the lyne arm leads off in to the unusual rectangular wormtub which sits on the roof, before the pipes return the precious stuff to the spirit safe. It’s one of the smallest producers in the whisky industry and the quality of the whisky is testament to the wise decision not to ramp up production for the sake of profit.
Oban’s a beautiful town, in a beautiful setting, and if you head that way in search of a boat to peatier country, don’t forget to give this place it’s due. You’ll be rewarded with the finest of everything if you spend the time there. The distillery’s a treasure, and Kenny’s due to retire in March, so count yourself lucky if you get there in time to meet him.