A Visit to Oban and How Whisky is Made

Oban Distillery

This blog was written by ex-Roberson employee Marc Ditcham

A trip to Scotland is not complete without a visit to one of the many whisky distilleries distributed throughout the country, so it should come as no surprise to hear that I found myself at the door of the Oban distillery on a recent holiday to the North.

Sharing its name with that of the town where it is located (which is commonly referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Isles’) Oban lies on the south-west coast of Scotland. Being one of the the oldest distilleries in Scotland, Oban has played an important part in the town’s history and is a dominant feature on the quayside. With its black and white brickwork complete with stone chimney the building exudes Celtic charm and, even if it were not for for the treasure inside, would still manage to generate intrigue. Fortunately the distillery manages to deliver on both counts. Proving an equally popular destination for bewildered tourists with money to burn and whisky connoisseurs looking to tick off the yet another box in their quest for ‘distillery domination’ the building is a hive of activity. With my WSET spirits exam looming it was a fine opportunity to take the tour and brush up on my knowledge of whisky production. Here follows a summary of the key points…

Firstly, the main rules that define what makes Scotch Whisky are as follows:

  • It must be made at a Scottish distillery using water and malted barley.
  • It must spend at least three years maturing in oak casks.
  • The whisky must be matured in Scotland.

And now to the ingredients and the process itself:

Main Ingredients

  • Water – the softer the water the better. Malted barley will absorb more soft water than hard water. In Scotland soft water is common.
  • Malt – malted barley or ‘malt’ must be used in all Scottish malt whisky. Grain or maize can be used to make whisky but it is a cheaper alternative.
  • Yeast – used to trigger the chemical process that converts sugars in the malted barley into alcohol.
  • Peat -peat is basically decayed vegetation. It adds a smoky flavour to whisky which is usually associated with, but not exclusive to, island malts.

Step 1 – Malting

Once the barley has arrived at the distillery it is steeped in water to allow the germination process to begin. Before the germination can go too far it is heated in a kiln to halt the process. It is at this stage that peat is used to introduce its flavour. The malting process can take between 20 and 48 hours. From here the malt will be ground down, or milled, ready for mashing.

 

Step 2 – Mashing

Warm water is added to the malted barley which is then fed into a large, circular vessel called a mash-tun. Mashing is the stage where the starches in the barley convert to sugars which will later be fermented into alcohol. The mash-tun will contain either mechanical rakes or rotating blades that stir the mash. Slots in the base of the mash-tun allow the now sugary liquid, called ‘wort’, to run off before it is allowed to ferment.

 

Step 3 – Fermentation

In a device called a wash-back the wort has yeast added to it to encourage the chemical reaction that converts the sugars to alcohol. Washbacks were traditionally made of wood (imparting flavour), although some distilleries now use stainless steel.

 

Step 4 – Distillation

Scottish whisky distilleries use pot-stills (usually copper) to distill the spirit. Pot-stills offer a means of evaporating the alcohol, which turns to vapour before water does, which is then condensed and collected after escaping through the neck of the still.The liquid will typically be distilled twice, first in a larger ‘wash’ still, then in a ‘spirit’ still in order to collect the ‘heart of the run’ which is deemed the best spirit for maturation.

 

Step 5 – Maturation

Scotch whisky is always matured in old oak casks, usually sourced from America (old Bourbon casks) or Spain. Some distilleries will mature in a second barrel to add a different edge to the whisky, for example using casks from Madeira and Port. Three years is the legal minimum but most will spend much longer. When the distillery sees fit, the whisky will be bottled.

And finally, a couple of tasting notes from my visit:

Oban 14 Years Old

The flagship Whisky of Oban. A delicious mellow whisky that showcases citrus notes, particulary orange zest. Sea-salt and peaty smokiness.
The finish is of good length with fruit and dry oak.

 

Oban 1996 ‘The Distillers Edition’

Partly matured in Montilla fino casks and released as a special Distillers Edition. The Whisky is rich and smooth with notes of chocolate, dried fruit and the salty tang prevelant in all Oban Whisky.

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