Where to find Oban

Oban Scotch Whisky

Oban  (Pronounced: Ow-b'n)
Western Highlands
5624'53.75"N, 528'18.08"W
Ben Nevis, Glenlochy, Tobermory
1794
Active
Loch Gleann a'Bhearraidh in Ardconnel
1 Wash still, 1 Spirit still
670,000 litres of pure alcohol per year
Diageo > UDV (since 1989)
Oban, Argyll PA34 5NH, Scotland, UK
+441631 572004
Yes - with a shop
No
Yes
Below, on WhiskyFun and on the Malt Maniacs Monitor

Oban location

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Oban distillery

Oban whisky

Oban distillery in the new millennium

2002 - A 32 years old official bottling of Oban is released; the oldest ever (official) bottling of Oban on record.
It is a relatively 'limited edition'; there were 6,000 bottles in this batch.
 
2009 - Brendan McCarron takes over as distillery manager at Oban.
 

View on Oban and the nearby 'McCaig's Folly', Scotland

There are some other black pages in the history of Oban.
At the end of the 19th century the distillery was briefly owned
by the Pattison brothers - the whisky fraudsters that became
so famous that they had a crisis named after them. When their
whisky empire collapsed it took dozens of businesses with it.

One of the things that sets the Oban distillery apart from most
other distilleries is the fact that it's located in the middle of a
busy town, overlooking the harbour. Overlooking the distillery
itself is an interesting 'folly' - a small 'Collosseum'. It was built
during harder times when they had to invent silly projects to
provide jobs for the hungry unemployed masses.

Oban distillery profile Interactive whisky distillery mapScotland - whisky distillery informationScotch whisky bottlersScotch malt whisky brandsNew distillery projects

The Pattisons built their whisky empire with borrowed money. They boosted their growth by
manipulating the stock prices of their company. They also dabbled in double bookkeeping and inflated
prices of their products before using them to pay off debts - instead of the cash that investors were
hoping for... Nevertheless, the whisky market was booming and everybody wanted in on it. Between
1890 and 1899 enterprising spirits built more than 30 new whisky distilleries in Scotland - more than
had to be closed during the 'disastrous' 1980's a century later. During the 1890's, Oban celebrated its
100th birthday while distilleries like Ardmore, Balvenie, Benromach and Tomatin were being born.

Oban 1985 Double Matured Scotch whisky

New distilleries popped up left and right and existing distilleries maximised
and expanded their production capacity. The stocks of maturing whisky in
Scotland were larger than ever before; the amount of whisky annually stored
in Scottish warehouses grew from less than two million gallons around 1891
to 13,5 gallons in 1899. The atmosphere in the 'fin de siecle' whisky world
of the late 19th century was comparable with that of the internet bubble of
the late 20th century. Companies like World Online and Enron could be as
creative as they liked in their bookkeeping; nobody wanted to 'rock the boat'.
 
The bubble burst in December 1898 when Pattisons Ltd. urgently requested
a customer to pick up and pay for whisky stocks he bought. Rumours started
to spread across Edinburgh and an article appeared in 'The Scotsman' about
'The Stoppage of Pattisons (Ltd)'. Shortly afterwards Pattisons Ltd. ceased all
payments. It turned out that their balance sheet wasn't very balanced; their
capital of 40,000 GBP didn't quite outweigh their debts of 743.000 pounds...

Oban 14 years old whisky label

When the financial house of cards and mirrors that the
Pattison brothers built came crashing down, the collapse
took many of their partners, suppliers and clients with them.

The Pattisons were certainly not the first Scottish whisky distillers, blenders or
bottlers to boldly venture beyond the restrictive borders of the law. After all, many
of the distilleries in Scotland started their lives as illicit stills. However, when the law
and reality caught up with the Pattisons, the effects were felt throughout the entire
whisky industry. When the dust had settled, one of the companies still standing was
the Distillers Company Limited (DCL). They were the predecessors of the current
whisky giant Diageo, owner of circa 30 malt whisky distilleries in Scotland.
One of the malt whisky distilleries still owned by Diageo is... Oban.

Malt maniacs tasting Obans at Oban

When I wrote the first version of this profile in
2005, Oban was one of only fourteen distilleries
in Scotland still using 'worm tubs' to cool the
wash and the spirit. The other distilleries still
using worm tubs are Balmenach, Benrinnes,
Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Edradour, Glen Elgin, Glenkinchie, Mortlach, Old Pulteney, Speyburn,
Royal Lochnagar, Springbank (wash still only)
and Talisker. The unique thing about the worm
tubs at Oban is the fact that they are hidden
under the roof. When some maniacs visited
Oban for a tasting in 2005, Willie MacDougall
took us up on the roof for a closer inspection.
 
Meanwhile, he schooled us in the history of the
distillery. Oban is said to have been founded in
1794 by Hugh, John and James Stevenson & Co.
Oban remained in the hands of the Stevenson
family until 1860, after which the distillery had
several different owners. Between 1883 and
1887 the distillery was rebuilt by Walter Higgin.

Oban distillery - photographed by Konstantin

Oban was silent between 1931 and
1937 and between 1969 and 1972.
In the late 1960's and early 1970's the
still house was rebuilt, and Oban has
been continuously active since 1972.
 
These days a two official bottlings are
readily vailable; the 14yo that was first
released in 1988 as part of the 'Classic
Malts' and a 'double matured' version
with a montilla fino finish that was
released in 1998. Apart from these
standard bottlings, the occasional
limited release (like an overpriced
'Manager's Dram') is available.
 
Meanwhile, independent bottings of
Oban are extremely hard to find these
days. The last time I checked (which
was in the Spring of 2012), no more
than three independent bottlings were
listed on the Malt Maniacs Monitor.
They were released by Cadenhead's,
Gordon & MacPhail and Signatory. All
these whiskies were distilled in the
1960's and 1970's. 

Trivia about Oban

1) Oban was part of Diageo's original series of 6 'Classic Malts', together with Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin and Talisker. This series was first released in 1988. Around 2005 a bunch of other distilleries were added to the range of 'classic malts'; Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Glen Elgin, Glen Ord, Knockando and Royal Lochnagar.

2) Oban is Diageo's second smallest distillery, right after Royal Lochnagar

3) Oban is one of less than a dozen active distilleries that can trace its roots back to the 18th century.

4) The 'colosseum' overlooking Oban looks Roman in style, but the Romans never made it this far north.
Also, if it had been built in Roman times, it surely would have been a ruin by now. The building is actually known as 'McCaig's Folly'. A local banker by the name of John Stuart McCaig gave the orders to start construction in 1897. Even though that was around the time of one of the biggest whisky booms in history, unemployment in the area was extremely high. Building McCaig's folly was a job creation sheme as much as it was an act of madness. However, after some 5,000 pounds had been spent the construction stopped and the building was never finished. Maybe that's just as well; it seems McCaig had planned to fill the apertures with statues of his ancestors...

5) Oban is one of the suppliers that suffered losses after their most important customer, Pattissons Ltd. from Leith, went bankrupt in the infamous Pattisson crisis that hit the industry around the year 1900.

6) There have been virtually no independent bottlings of Oban. The last expressions on the MMMonitor were bottled in the middle of the 1990's; a Oban 30yo 1963/1993 (52%, Cadenhead's Authentic Collection), a Oban 1972 (40%, G&M Connoisseurs Choice, old map label) and a Oban 18yo 1978/1996 (59%, Signatory, C#215, 272 Bts.).
 

Oban tasting notes

Oban NAS (55.2%, OB, Distillery Only bottling, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Polished, nondescript start. Very slowly opens up, showing a sweeter and fruitier side of itself.
With a splash of water the alcoholic prickle grew stronger. Not much effect on the bouquet though, it seems.
Taste: Sweet and fruity start. The profile stays more or less the same until the finish - with extra tannins.
After I diluted it to +/- 45% it appeared maltier and some aniseed and liquorice flavours emerged.
Score: 78 points - one of the peculiarities of this whisky was the fact that it had extremely "heavy legs".

Oban 2000/2009 (58.7%, OB Manager's Choice, Sherry C#1186, 534 Bts.)
Nose: Sweetish and fairly mellow start, followed by more spices. Something bittersweet. Sorrel? Beer?
Taste: Smooth, fruity and sherried start with the tannins popping up within a few seconds. Quite nice.
It remains quite potent after I added a generous dash of water, while the nose grows sweeter. Dry. Chocolate.
Score: 82 points - it has been a few years since I sampled a bottling of Oban that was so complex.

Oban 14yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2010)
Nose: Malty with a fair dose of apples in the background. Some spices emerge after a few minutes.
Taste: Malty with a strong liquorice trait. Fairly harsh in the centre. This one is not very sweet, it seems.
Score: 77 points - it scores a little above average, but I wouldn't actively recommend this whisky.

Oban 14yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2008)
Nose: Pleasant balanced profile, but it feels a little 'pressure cooked'. Extremely lightly peated.
Needs some time to breathe to open up - and when it does it isn't a lot. Very decent whisky though.
Taste: Nothing wrong here, but it's a 'clean' malt that doesn't really choose sides.
Gentle, sweetish sweetness. Very pleasant long finish.
Score: 78 points - Still no favourite of mine, but for me this is the best batch in quite a few years.

Oban 14yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 2005)
Nose: Spicy and grassy. Hints of peat and dust. Fairly flawless, but it lacks some personality.
Taste: Campbeltown characteristics? Seems not too powerful. Hint of something vaguely salty - no peat.
Score: 76 points - Just like earlier batches, it's just a tad too clean and 'bland' for me. Good whisky, though.

Oban 20yo Natural Cask Strength (57.9%, OB, Bourbon, 1260 Bottles, Bottled 2004)
Nose: Spicy with a hint of glue. Quite natural. A similar 'profile' to the 14yo from the 90's but more depth.
Taste: Again spicy, this time with some peppers. Once again a relatively 'natural' whisky but I liked it.
Score: 86 points - the profile is similar to the 14yo, but a lot more depth and complexity.

Oban 32yo 1969/2002 (55.1%, OB, from 13 European Casks, 6000 Bottles)
Nose: Rich and sweet with a distant hint of oil. Growing complexity. More and more organics. LOVELY!
Taste: Sweet and fruity. Smooth. The pleasurable effect of wood tannins without a 'woody' feeling.
Score: 90 points - justifyably the 'crown' on the Oban range. Excellent whisky that won't offend anybody.

Oban 14yo (43%, OB, Bottled +/- 1999) - my third bottle in the 1990's and the first with 'proper' notes
Nose: It almost seemed like a very light Bowmore at first, with light sherry and peaty overtones.
Second whiff: Sweet, then sour. Perfumy, flowery. More versatile than I remembered.
Taste: Sharp start, then sweet, then dry. A little peat. Nice development if you give it enough time.
Score: 77 points - just short of greatness. A bottling from +/- 1994 managed to reach 80 points.

Oban 1984 Distillers Edition (43%, OB, Double Matured, Montilla Fino finish, +/- 1999)
Nose: Sherry & peat. Some smoke. Opens up after a few minutes, becoming very rich.
Big and complex; the double maturation has enriched the character of the Oban.
Taste: Smooth start, quickly followed by a nutty and malty burn. Some of the salt of the regular 14 as well.
Here, the double maturation didn't have an obvious effect, but it didn't hurt the whisky either.
Rating: 79 points - Only two points more than the standard Oban 14; enough to justify the price difference?
 

And there's more to tell about Oban...

These were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Oban Scotch whisky I've tried over the years.
Besides, these tasting notes only reflect my own, personal opinion; your tastes might be different from mine.
Fortunately, you can find the scores and tasting notes from up to two dozen other whisky lovers in the 'Malt Maniacs Monitor' - an independent whisky database with details on more than 15,000 different whiskies from Scotland and the rest of the world. Visit the Oban page on the MMMonitor and select 'scorecard view' if you want to know how other whisky lovers felt about the dozens of Oban expressions that were released in recent years. However, if you'd like to learn more about whisky in general (and single malt Scotch whisky in particular), you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky (10 chapters filled with everything you need to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky) or the mAlmanac (sort of a rudimentary whisky shopping guide.) 
 

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