This month Charles reviews the Oban Little Bay, exclusive to travel retail.
'Oban' is easy to say and order in the bar or the liquor store. There is no doubt that this has helped introduce this excellent malt to many, who have now become devotees – especially in the United States, which is the brand's principal market.
Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain, Auchroisk, Etc. eat your hearts out…!
Now Diageo are releasing a new expression of Oban. It’s named Little Bay and is a translation of the place-name (according to Wikipedia), although my Gaelic dictionary tells me that although Òb is Gaelic for a ‘creek’ or ‘haven’, ‘little’ is beag. (ban is used mainly to indicate ‘female’).
Anyhow, you get the picture.
Oban Bay is certainly a ‘haven’ – a lovely, sheltered bay, protected to the south and west by the island of Kerrera, and to the east by the mainland, with a peninsula surmounted by the ruins of Dunollie Castle guarding it from northern gales. This headland has been fortified since the Bronze Age, and humans have taken shelter in Oban Bay since Stone Age times: in 1890 a cave was discovered behind Oban Distillery while the guys were blasting rock to enlarge the premises, in which were human bones from around 4000BC and some tools. These are now in the National Museum in Edinburgh. The cave was sealed to prevent vandalism and grave robbing.
Certainly, the distillery could do with more space. It is, as a visitor wrote shortly before the cave was discovered, “built under a rock, which rises 400 feet high, and is festooned with creepers and ivy”: squashed in between the cliff and the sea. But this is part of it’s charm – this, and the old-fashioned equipment and processes that are used here.
As the same visitor, Alfred Barnard, wrote in the late 1880s: “It is a quaint old-fashioned work, and dates back prior to the existence of the town, having been built in the year 1794…by the family of Stevenson, the founders of the town of Oban, which previous to their advent was only a small fishing village.”
The ‘Stevenson family’ was led by Hugh and his brother John, local worthies with interests in slate quarrying, house-, ship- and bridge-building. The family had been living in the district since at least the 1740s, and, as Barnard says, Oban largely grew out of their enterprises – and around the distillery. Hugh Stevenson became the town’s second provost (i.e. mayor) in 1819, when he transferred his assets to his son: the distillery, farms, house property, a hotel (“in part erected”), the island of Belnahua (together with its substantial slate), two steamships and a sloop. Unfortunaly, in spite of this wealth, the son went bankrupt ten years later.
The distillery remained in the Stevenson family until 1866, however. Most of the whisky was transported to Glasgow and the Clyde ports by sea until the railway arrived in July 1880, attracting thousands of tourists a year to Oban, the West Highlands and the Hebrides, who could relish the single malt – which Barnard described as a “good self whisky” – from bottles decorated with a panoramic view of the town of Oban.
Burnished copper/red-gold in colour. A faintly oily nose, with gradually emerging maritime scents: brine, dried seaweed, sanded teak. A hint of fresh Granny Smith apples. At full strength the texture is oily and full-bodied; sweet overall, slightly salty, spicy across the tongue and in the finish; well balanced, with lingering warmth. Water increases the oily note; the taste is now even sweeter, the spice reduced, an aftertaste of almond cake. Very easy to drink.