"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Friday, 18 February 2011

Oban Distillery

Barnard’s party left Ardrishaig the afternoon after enjoying the hospitality of the owner of Glendarroch Distillery.  They travelled up the Crinan Canal on the ‘SS Linnet’ which covers the 9 miles in around 2 hours.  The canal was opened in 1809 and Thomas Telford was a superintendant on the work.  It has often been described as “the most scenic short cut in Britain”, as the journey through Knapdale at the top of Kintyre to the Sound of Jura saves over 100 miles of difficult sea navigation down past Campbeltown and the tip of the peninsula.

There were four people in Barnard’s party on this stage of his journey.  He mentions Cruickshank and Cook of Edinburgh but not the other one.  They would sometimes walk along beside the boat as it passed through the 15 locks, enjoying “milk and wild strawberries, vended on the canal banks”.  He regales us with a story about the last known witch to be burned near here, some thirty-four years earlier, although accidentally having “dosed herself with the contents of her whisky keg” and falling drunkenly into her fire.

On approaching the small village of Crinan, Barnard observes the promontory of Kilmahumaig that guards the mouth of the River Add and a brief glimpse of the small canonical mound, or Law, called Dundonald (Dun Domhnuill) where he says that the Lords of the Isles sat to deliver judgement when visiting this area.  If he had looked northeast across the flat plain of Mòine Mhòr he would have seen the fort of Dunadd where the Kings of Dalriada sat 500 years before the Lords of the Isles, those Lords preferring their own symbolic station in the landscape to confer authority to them.

Reaching Crinan they transferred to the ‘Chevalier’ which ran the line up to Oban, being greeted by the “welcome sound of the dinner-bell”.  After a “sumptuous repast” they once more enjoyed the scenery from the deck, except for Cruickshank and Cook “who occasionally dived down to the saloon to taste the drink of their country”, Barnard here seeming to prefer the view to the whisky.  Strangely he makes no mention of the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the third largest tidal whirlpool on Earth, which they must have passed by as it lies in the straight between the northern tip of Jura and Scarba.  I would have thought that this was the kind of phenomenon that would have excited Barnard.

Craigard Hotel on cliff above Oban Distillery
They arrived in Oban at 7pm and made their way up the slope behind the distillery to their accommodation at the Craigard Hotel.  The hotel sat on a rocky crag above the distillery with views across the whole town and bay below.  The hotel has since been converted to private apartments but the view still shows the activity on the water below, albeit perhaps quieter than in Barnard’s time.  The railway arrived here in 1880, 5 years before he arrived, and would gradually replace much of the trade by sea.

Oban Bay from behind Craigard
They visited the distillery the next morning and describe it as a “quaint old-fashioned work” which first grew out of a brewery in 1794, one of the oldest recognised distilleries in Scotland.  Before the distillery was built Oban had been a small fishing village and it was the arrival of the entrepreneurial Stevenson family that turned Oban into “the Charing Cross of the Highlands” as Barnard was to describe it in a later report.  The Stevensons laid out the plans for the town in the 1780s and 90s and owned the distillery until the 1860s.  They had started as slate quarriers and ship builders but became the founders of a busy town now known as the Gateway to the Isles.

When Barnard visited the distillery was in the hands of Walter Higgin who had taken over just two years earlier and who had already made improvements to the old buildings and built new warehouses.  He widely promoted both the distillery and its whisky as the finest available and he went on to refurbish the entire plant in the early 1890s, replicating the shape of the stills to preserve the character of the whisky but making some changes to the layout of the operation.

During the refurbishment a cave was found in 1890 in the cliff behind the distillery and an archaeological excavation there found remains and artefacts from the Mesolithic period, around 4,500 BC.  There is a long history of human activity in the Oban area and a number of similar sites have been found just inland on the raised beaches that were created after the last ice age, as the land rebounded from the depressing weight of the 1km thick ice sheet that was centred on Rannoch Moor northeast of here.
Oban Distillery and McCaig's Tower (built c1900) above, early 1900s
The main distillery buildings were, and still are three long oblong annexes, with warehouses built at the base of the cliffs to the rear.  Barnard first visited the Granaries and Malt-barns which he describes as being in the form of a triangle, later straightened out by Higgin’s refurbishment and now being used as the visitor centre.  There was a kiln at the west end of the building, heated by peat only, and a peat shed on the hill behind held enough for two years supply.  The kiln was later to have a pagoda roof with a tall slender shape, as seen in this old photograph from the distillery visitor centre, that is sadly no longer there as it would provide an interesting landmark for the town, although dwarfed by the chimney stack built in the 1890s.

Oban Distillery today, Craigard Hotel top left
The water supply ran through peaty uplands and came from two lochs by Ardconnel, one mile above Oban, and this is still the mains supply for the town and the distillery today.  The lochs lie below a hill called Black Mount, further up the hills are the ‘Black Lochs’ and another one to the north of Oban is called Lochan Dubh, dubh being Gaelic for black, so you can get an idea of just how peaty this whisky may once have been.  The maltings were last used in 1968 when the distillery closed for four years, the barley now malted in Morayshire and now only to 2ppm.

From the kiln the dried malt was wheeled by barrow over a “rustic timber bridge” to the Mill House with an adjacent Mash House.  The Mash Tun is described as “peculiar” and was only 9 feet across by 5 1/2 feet deep, one of the smallest at the time but containing the usual stirring gear.  The tun today is of fairly standard size at 18 feet across but is described as ‘traditional’ as it doesn’t contain the Lauter style stirring gear of most others, just a mixing arm mainly used to remove the draff.

The roof above the Tun Room once contained open shallow cooling tanks of a style we have seen elsewhere, the worts then flowing straight down to the tuns below, but they have since been removed.  Barnard records 7 washbacks in the “antiquated” tun room, each holding just 1,200 gallons (5,450 litres), amongst the smallest I can recall mentioned.  The plans for the redevelopment in 1890 show 8 washbacks but don’t state their sizes.  Now there are 4 of European Larch with a capacity of 36,000 litres each.

The Still House was once overlooked by the private residence of the Stevenson family, a peep-hole door allowing them to check on the operation below in the years before spirit safes were introduced in 1824.  Barnard describes the Still House as “monastic” and it contained two old pot stills, a wash still at 1,000 gallons (4,544 litres) and a spirit still at just half that size.  They were directly heated by fire and the rummager on the wash still was driven by water flowing from the worm tub.

When the distillery closed in 1968 it was due to its size being ‘too small’ and unable to be extended due to its location in a town centre and with cliffs behind.  A reprieve was granted in 1972 when a new still house was built and the stills were changed to steam coil heating.  The two stills are now just under 19,000 and just over 8,000 litres, a similar 2:1 ratio as before.  The stills have unusually short Lyne arms and the spirit is condensed in a single rectangular worm tub as it had been in Barnard’s time.

Oban Distillery from cliff behind showing tall warehouses
There were four warehouses, two of which had been built recently, and Barnard notes that although not of large dimensions they are of great height both being three stories high, the upward growth required due to the small footprint of the distillery in this crowded end of town.  He describes “fixed gauntrees (sic) on every floor…arranged so that any cask can be removed without affecting its neighbour” and a total of 3,500 casks.  Is this the first mention of a racking style warehouse?

Today, like many Diageo distilleries, most of the production is matured in centralised warehouses although some casks do still lie here.  Oban has the second smallest production volume of all the Diageo distilleries at 720,000 litres p.a., compared to just 159,000 litres produced from those small washbacks and stills when Barnard visited.

In 1898 Higgin sold the distillery to Oban and Aultmore Distilleries Ltd during a period of growth in the industry, although a downturn was just around the corner.  It separated again in 1923 and after a brief ownership by John Dewar & Sons it joined the Scottish Malt Distillers portfolio in 1930 and thence into Diageo.  Apart from that short closure from 1968 to 1972, Oban has flourished and became the West Highland whisky in the Classic Malts range in 1989.

Barnard describes Oban whisky as “not only pure Highland Malt, but a good self whisky” and today the output is kept solely for bottling as single malt.  Oban may have been the first bottle of single malt that I bought with a view to enjoying whisky in earnest.  It was certainly one of the first two and I remember enjoying it immensely compared to the blends I had known before.  The combination of flavours (orange, salt, a little smoke and honey are the key notes explained on a ‘tour of the senses’ at the distillery) with not too much of any one thing dominant may have been the key at that early stage.  That was in the mid 90s so I don’t recall anything more specific, and this was a couple of years before those Ardbeg aromatics came to sweep me away.

The standard bottling is an uncommon 14yo and will give your senses a wee workout trying to spot the flavours.  The tour at Oban is one of the most interesting and well planned that I have been on, the warehouse sample from a cask and a wee piece of crystallised ginger with your dram at the end are nice touches that set it apart from other tours.  The warehouse also contains an interesting display showing the development in the colour of whisky at different ages and from different types of casks and refill levels.

I had toured Oban twice before so only stopped by for another photo on this stage of my journey, and my thanks go to Distillery Manager Brendan McCarron for answering my later questions by telephone to help fill in some of the gaps.