Saturday, March 7, 2015

Oban, 18 year

stats: single malt Scotch, Highlands, 43%, $158

My current employers are wise enough to not pass up a good resource that is at their disposal. So after less than six months of employment they asked me select new single malts for their existing restaurant and pick the Scotches that they would feature in their soon-to-open, second location. Neither establishment is particularly whisky-centric, so the single malt groupings had to be small, focused and well-selected. A little more than a year after the opening of the second, larger outlet, I was asked to put together a short list of potential additions to their Scotch collection from a higher price range. The only caveat was that it had to be something with good brand recognition.

That was actually kind of a tough exception for me. I’m not all that fond of many of the more easily recognized whisky brands for a variety of reasons. The other single malts I had previously chosen were picked to fit a theme of having been produced by traditional methods, at least to some degree (long fermentation, slow distillation, floor malting, direct-fire stills, worm tubs, non-chill filtration, etc), and I wanted to stick to that if possible. Adding a flavor profile that would compliment what we already had on offer was something to be considered as well.

Being in a small liquor-control state also puts some limitations on what is available. My short list was pretty short; just four selections from three producers (well, I also tacked on one more without much name recognition, just to hold true to my principles). The selection that eventually came out on top was 18 year Oban.

Of the twenty-something malt distilleries owned by Diageo, Oban is the second smallest, with a capacity of 670,000 liters per year. Just to put that into perspective, Caol Ila, Diageo’s workhorse on Islay puts out 6.5 million liters per year, and two of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, Kilchoman and Edradour are at 100,000 liters per year.

When the distillery was established in 1794, the town of Oban was a small fishing village with a minimal population that was just starting to establish other industries, such as shipbuilding, trading and quarrying. Further growth of the town was fuelled by its connection to Glasgow by rail in 1880. Today Oban has a population of 8500 people. That may not seem like a lot, but the fact that it is the largest town on Scotland’s west coast and its dense, compact layout make Oban have more of an urban feel than one might expect. Oban’s bay allows it to serve as a major ferry port, acting as a hub to many of the Hebridean islands, and supporting tourism, which has been its principal industry for the last 60 years.

The town grew and developed through the 19th and 20th centuries with the distillery at its center. This has left the facility unable to expand in modern times, limiting Oban to its current capacity. I’ve actually found a few references from 10 to 15 years ago stating that 80 percent of Oban’s production went to blends. I couldn’t find a current figure, but I’m sure that number has shifted downward since then allowing for the growth in popularity of Oban as a single malt. I’ve also seen older references to Oban using bourbon barrels for three or four cycles, but during my visit to the distillery three years ago I was told that they use second fill bourbon barrels exclusively. This focus on cask management is another indication that they are shifting away from using the whisky in blends.

As for modernization, Oban stopped using their traditional floor maltings in 1968, and when they shut down from 1969 to 1972 and rebuilt the stillhouse, the stills were converted from being direct fired with coal to using internal steam coils. Importantly though, the worm tubs were retained and the fermentation times were kept relatively long, at four days. These factors certainly have an impact on the character of modern Oban.

Originally released as a distillery bottled single malt in the late 1970’s, Oban started off as a 12 year old at 40% abv. In 1987 they transitioned to a 14 year old at 43% abv, which is still their flagship, and is easily Oban’s most widely available single malt. There have been quite a few other bottlings from the distillery over the years though.

In the early 1990’s there were three bottlings under the “Manager’s Dram” title; a 13 year, a 16 year and a 19 year. All three were sherry cask matured and bottled at cask strength. These were apparently special bottlings for employees and friends of the distillery, and not released to the general public.

In 1998, Oban began annual releases of the “Distiller’s Edition”, a series that is used for many of the Diageo owned single malts. In the case of Oban it is aged primarily in bourbon barrels and finished in Montilla Fino butts. The first release was about 20 years old, but the ages drifted down over the next five releases and since then they have been aged 14 years plus an additional 6 to 18 months finishing time. Currently 300 casks are set aside each year for the Distiller’s Edition.

In 2002 there was a limited release (6000 bottles) of 32 year Oban which was distilled in 1969. It was matured in sherry butts and bottled at 55.1% abv. The original retail price was $350, but any that are still floating around out there today will cost at least $1000.

In 2004 the distillery put out another limited release (1260 bottles). This one was aged in bourbon barrels for 20 years and bottled at 57.9% abv.

18 year Oban was initially introduced as a limited release (about 8800 bottles) in 2008, matured in bourbon barrels, bottled at 43% and retailed for $150. It was exclusive to the U.S. and the distillery shop.

Another exclusive to the distillery shop first appeared in 2010. This one was a non-age stated cask strength bottling.

Then, at the end of 2011, Oban announced that the 18 year would return as a regular part of the standard lineup, though limited in production and exclusive to the U.S. market. The distillery now sets aside 300 casks each year for this bottling. I’ll spare you the boring math details, but that works out to about 60,000 bottles per year. Looking online I see an unusually broad range of prices for 18 year Oban, from $95 to $185. The price listed up top of $158 is the going rate here in Vermont.

2013 saw the release of a limited (2860 bottles) release of 21 year Oban, matured in a mix of bourbon barrels and sherry casks, bottled at 58.5% and selling for $385.

I also mentioned the 2014 introduction of Oban “Little Bay” here.

Before tasting the 18 year Oban I sat down with a glass of the flagship 14 year to reacquaint myself with it for the sake of comparison. It certainly has a malty core, but with more of a lighter, softer, honeyed character (as opposed to some other single malts that have more dense, molasses and baking spice aspect to their malt signature). Orange citrus notes, a subtle floral aspect, a touch of brine and soft peat notes all round out the profile.

With the 18 year Oban, the nose is less malty, with a little more oak showing. It’s also more delicate / elegant, and the aromas are a bit more harmonious. On the palate, the primary notes are similar to those of the 14 year. Honeyed malt, citrus (primarily orange), delicate peat smoke and a touch of brine are all there but toned down and the oak character is a little more prominent. It turns slightly floral (more so than the 14 year) as it moves into the warming, spicy finish. Overall, this is not a dramatic departure from the 14 year, but more of a pleasant refinement of it.

This is essentially what I was expecting, considering that the two are bottled at the same proof and matured in the same type of casks, with just a 29% increase in age. With the 18 year, you’re paying a premium more for the rarity of an older Oban than you are for a significant shift in the flavor profile. This is a good example of why a lot of Scottish malt distillers have started to use increasing proportions of sherry cask maturation (and sometimes higher alcohol levels) as they move up the age range of their offerings. It makes it much easier for them to justify the significantly higher prices of their older bottlings.

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