In the Centre of Oban

I’m sitting, overlooking the harbour eating fish and chips. In front of me a heron gull is perched on a railing and I am looking into his cold, black eye. He is looking at my chips. I eat, guardedly, aware of stories about these bold, aggressive birds. The lady at the other end of the bench is more concerned. She gets up and shoos it away. It flies, circles and then hovers near by, then comes back to perch on a different part of the railing and is shooed away again. So it goes until I finish and put the rubbish in the bin. This is a common tale, it must happen a million times up and down the country in every seaside resort, and today I feel very British as if I am part of the thread of post-war holiday making. Oban is that sort of place, a traditional British seaside town, where the seagulls find our left over food more accessible than their traditional diet. The lady and I talk about it. She hates the dirty scavengers; I say how beautiful they look in flight but prefer the smaller gulls. It is not a meeting of minds but it is amiable enough and we then move on to why we are here. She is on a Highlands and Island coach tour, whilst I am travelling a similar but instead by car. But I am visiting distilleries. Either way both of us are spending time looking at majestic scenery and rapidly changing weather as we pass it by.  Here though, at Oban, is where our paths can intersect. It is a major touring hub with a distillery slap bang in the middle. It is only a couple of hundred metres away from us.

I can think of no other distillery that is so boxed in. Perhaps it’s just what happens when the town develops around the distillery rather than vice verse. Oban is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland and when it was founded in 1794 Oban was a tiny place with a harbour and some fishing boats. Now it has a resident population of 8,500 – not huge but big enough in terms of Argyll and big enough to trap the distillery so that it cannot expand. It is one of the smallest in the Diageo portfolio but, probably because it’s in a tourist town, it is one of their most visited (in 2017 it was their 4th most popular with 56,000 visitors). It might be one that the smaller distilleries tend to be more picturesque and are disproportionately visited but my guess is that location is the main thing and the reason a visitor centre was opened up as far back as 1991. A tourist attraction in a tourist town, why wouldn’t it have good numbers?

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You can tell the distillery is buffed up to attract visitors. The outside stonework looks as if it has been polished (compare this to Ben Nevis) or even lacquered. I am unable to show you what it looks like inside as photography is banned (in fact they take caution one step further by asking you to turn off your mobile phone as well) but rest assured it is just as smartly turned out. There is none of the Ben Nevis  ‘this is a factory that looks like a factory’ approach. This is a well presented tour, with even the staff look the part in their tartan waistcoats.

It sounds like I am being a bit sniffy at the professionalism but I am not. I like to see a job well done and they do their job well. Everything is well laid out with a greeting area, and shop as you enter and up a short flight of steps is a mezzanine area where there is a bar and the place people gather for the tour. I like the idea of a bar and don’t know why it is not more common. Other things I liked were the  display boards and care taken with presentation. They have taken whisky tourism seriously as a distinct enterprise and made a good job of it. In particular I liked the boards that graphically showed the flavour profile of Oban whisky: honey, orange peel, sea salt, and a little smoke. The graphics clearly demonstrated these characteristics and made it more memorable than if it was just a part of the spiel . Again I am surprised that more distilleries don’t do it. Multiple display boards emphasis the message and show the distillery is clear about what it does.

It made me think about the way distilleries present themselves and the differences between even those in the same company. Obviously Diageo lay down some general policies e.g. no photography or phones but aside from that there are variation: uniforms, what is highlighted in the displays, what’s in the shops and what you get for your money. Oban is a good value tour. You not only get two whiskies to sample at the end, you get to keep a rather nice glass, which is not just another Glencairn.

As I see more distilleries the more I realise how much I miss. It is easy to be fascinated by the look of the shiny copper stills and the atmosphere of the dunnage warehouse, the look of the buildings and living industrial archeology and not notice the lens through which you are viewing – how the distillery frames its presentation and the message they wanted you to take away. It is easy to go with the flow and fail to drain every last drop of the information in front. But perhaps that is just me owning up to being a little slapdash.

From Oban my main take-out from the distilling process it was how slow it was. The fermentation time is  3 or 5 days, which as there are only 4 washbacks is a significant limit on the amount of whisky that can be produced. This is done to increase the fruity notes in the final product. Also this lighter quality is achieved against the nature of its equipment. There are small stills, which would usually limit the amount of reflux and copper contact but are run slow and the stills are opened between runs to refresh the copper. The use of a worm tub would again tend towards a heavier, meatier spirit but is here counterbalanced by running them warm and having a double worm tube.

The idea that Oban is a distillery fighting its own nature is fascinating and for some strange reason exactly the same thing happens in Diageo’s other small distillery:Royal Lochnagar. The paradox of their production add an extra layer to the whisky that you would not notice if you had not been told. The first question might well be  ‘why?’ (and the only answer might be; ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’) but after that there is the assessment  of how going against nature can produce and interesting hybrid and what it means. 

P.S. The photo of the glasses came from a very good hotel website https://www.lochmelfort.co.uk/blog/favourite-whiskies-part-3-oban/ Posh hotels catering for whisky tours show how far whisky tourism has come.