Malt of the Moment
Oban distillery is one of the few remnants of an era when distilleries were swallowed up by the towns they represented. Such is the longevity of a distillery nowadays that...
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Oban distillery is one of the few remnants of an era when distilleries were swallowed up by the towns they represented. Such is the longevity of a distillery nowadays that in some cases, centuries have passed and the town boundaries - formerly a remote sighting - have encroached and eventually encamped what was once a remote distilling outpost. Highland Park is a good example of this whereas Oban when it was established in 1793 was nearer civilisation and a working harbour thanks to a grand vision. Whilst many other distilleries have suffocated and departed due to urbanisation pressures, Oban continues to thrive despite the limited dimensions of the site.
The town itself is also a relic of the past with its popularity as a holiday destination during the Victorian era of the 1860’s cementing its legacy in Scottish granite and sandstone. It’s prominence as a holiday destination may have sailed but the distillery founded by the Stevenson brothers remains. This duo made their initial success on the isle of Belnahua in the 1780’s, quarrying for slate. Not content with establishing a distillery, they laid out the coastal town of Oban in 1793 with meticulous planning. In doing so they created the rarity of a mainland West Coast Highland distillery.
Oban was retained by the family until 1866 when ownership changed and before further subsequent owners arrived and departed. The most prominent of these was James Higgins, who in 1883 set about modernising and creating the Oban we see today. History also shows us that the infamous Pattison brothers also had a partial interest in the distillery around 1898. This was shortly prior to the crash that hampered the industry hugely with a loss of confidence from consumers and investors. The Pattison’s inflated stock prices and manipulated company accounts to embezzle huge sums of money at the time. The duo had interests in many distilleries such as Glenfarclas, which managed to survive the fallout and until this date remains in family hands.
For Oban, it manages to continue producing and becomes part of the James Buchanan-Dewar empire in 1923. Shortly afterwards, these famous blending names are acquired by the Distillers Company Limited which is a forerunner to the Diageo we know today. The distillery was mothballed in 1931 for a period of 6 years but apart from this has been fairly active throughout its existence. Diageo’s blenders prize the character and nature of Oban’s whisky so much so that very little of it has ever been released independently and certainly not a drop in recent decades. The distillery was one of the original 6 in 1988 that made up Diageo’s Classic Malts range that endures today in a more expanded form, with Oban’s entry being a 14-year-old expression. By the 1960’s, the still house is modernised as part of extensive modernisations including the closing of the floor maltings, which in 1989 are reopened as a visitor’s centre. These improvements also account for Oban’s other period of closure which lasted until 1972, but since then it has remained in production.
The distillery was unaffected by the widespread fall in demand during the 1980’s and whilst many may have considered this small regional producer a prime candidate for closure it remains unscathed. A surprise to some given its limited identity as a single malt with only a 12-year-old expression released in the late 1970’s. The site is encased by the town itself thereby removing any potential for expansion and its output makes it one of Diageo’s smallest distilleries. Even today, its annual capacity is a mere 870,000 litres and second only to Royal Lochnagar in terms of being the smallest.
In recent times despite the limited amount of whisky available, Oban has seen a continued emphasis from Diageo to raise its profile. Various limited editions have reached market including a distillery exclusive in 2016, however it’s 2015’s Little Bay expression as a No Age Statement release which is the most commonly sighted Oban today. Both are available if you happen to visit the town and take a tour around the distillery that welcomes visitors and is one of Diageo’s most popular destinations.