Whilst barely a week goes by without some distilleries announcing a new expression, new bottlings from Oban are few and far between. The 14 year old has been in the Classic Malt line-up since its inception and is regularly stocked as a go-to option in many bars the world over – likewise, the Travel Retail ‘Little Bay’ can be regularly spotted whilst wandering aimlessly around airports – but, in general, Oban fans have it hard – and there’s little to no juice in the hands of independent bottlers. It therefore stuck me as small surprise that the Oban Bay Reserve bottling from the Game of Thrones series seemed to be the expression that sold out on pre-order the quickest last week. Popular show meets popular but rarely sighted new Oban.
Despite being a widely recognised whisky, Oban is a relatively small distillery possessing just 4 washbacks and 2 stills. This results in a production capacity of around 670,000 litres each year – rather paltry for a 19th century distillery. To provide you with a comparison point - this represents 1/3 the volume of the lesser known Ben Nevis some 50 miles NE up Loch Linnhe – or just 5% of the output of Speyside powerhouse Glenfiddich. The capacity it not limited because of an unwillingness to expand the distillery – rather, the town-based location prevents any expansion of its stillhouse.
For many years, the distillery has set aside around 300 barrels to create its annual Distillers Edition (finished in Montilla fino sherry casks). But, it was not until 2008 that owners Diageo deemed that they had enough stock to release an older unfinished expression. Oban 18 year old was initially released as a limited edition – just 8778 bottles – and for the US market only. Fast-forward to 2011 and the 18 year old is now a permanent fixture in the Oban line-up – but still only for our friends over in the States.
The whisky is 100% matured in ex-bourbon American white oak casks and will set you back (if you scout around) around $100 (£78 given today’s exchange rate) – though you’ll be looking to pay nearly 50% more if you decide to nab this at auction. It’s bottled similar to the 14 year old at 43%.
Nose: Inherent maltiness meets orange zest, garden apples, melted butter and freshly baked pastries. After a little resting, gummy bear sweetness develops alongside grilled bananas, baking spices (ginger and allspice) and caramel. Reduction unlocks some inherent nuttiness with hazelnuts, as well as adding bready dough and rolled pastry.
Taste: The arrival is velvety smooth and delivers a combination of soured fruits and sweetened yoghurt – sharp apples, tart orange and citrus with creamy parfait and yoghurt mousse. The development introduces some underlying Oban malts – ripe barley and roasted cereals alongside dark chocolate and brown sugar, before offering an unexpected bite of coastal salinity. Far from unpleasant, but it really does seem to come out of nowhere. The addition of water offers a similar hazelnut nuttiness of the nose, whilst adding in some background chopped garden herbs. However resting proves to be the great leveller here - diminishing sourness and adding tinned juicy fruitiness into the mix. A considerable improvement.
Finish: The long side of medium with plenty of salinity, bitter steeped tea, chocolate and late fading charred oak.
Oban 18 year old offers a step up from its younger sibling – but not as much as you’d expect for its level of maturity, nor hope from its price. Whilst the nose delivers a lovely (if straight-forward) sweet, fruit-forward nature, the palate is rather more divergent. There’s some characterful Oban orange maltiness, but this is enveloped in cask-induced sourness and comes with a rather strange leftfield salinity.
But don't take our word for it..
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