Distilling Wisdom under the Folly
First Society bottling in 1995.
Phillip Hills goes to Oban to find a malt lover's enlightenment
The first glimpse of Oban is spectacular, no matter how you approach the town. From the North, the A85 descends through a cleft in the ridge and, as it winds down the hill, the town with its bay spreads out below. The railway is no less dramatic, for it emerges from a cutting suddenly into the middle of the town, and the trains come to a halt a few paces from the shore. But the best approach is from the sea, by way of Kerrera Sound or, from the North, by Dunollie Castle on the point. Then the town appears as a semicircle; an amphitheatre whose terraces are streets of grey Victorian villas backing on to a cliff surmounted, improbably, by what appears to be a minor coliseum. Although this is the principal entrepot of the West Highlands, it is important to grasp the scale of the town.
From MacCaig's Folly (the Coliseum affair) the cliff falls seventy feet or so, and to walk in a straight line from its foot to the shore will take you all of three minutes. Between cliff and strand are a sea wall, a road, some shops and a distillery. The distillery is a range of fine, warehouse-like buildings surmounted by an iron-banded chimney. The buildings are of grey granite like the villas, and they are subject to what seems a local obsession with architectural form, for the surrounds of windows and doors are painted, as if in emphasis of their function. The chimney is red brick, painted red.
It is a very urban distillery; economically, spiritually and geographically. If the bay were a lamp, its light would be the distillery and the island of Kerrera the focus of its illumination. About two centuries ago, distillery and town were founded by the Stevensons, a family of entrepreneurs of startling ambition and energy. The present distillery offices are housed in their former residence.
The distillery is one of the largest employers in the town and the distilling staff are the aristocracy of local labour. The water for the whisky comes from a loch in the hills behind the town. The name of the loch is easy to say but, in the true tradition of Gaelic orthography, almost impossible to spell. The malt, which is lightly-peated, is not made locally, but is delivered by truck from a central maltings. It is steeped in a stainless steel mash tun and fermented in four wooden washbacks: vessels which, like the whisky casks themselves, are made by a cooper and depend for their impermeability solely upon the fit of stave against stave. The staves are twenty feet long.
The still house is tiny: a wash still and a spirit still proceed at a leisurely pace in a finely-balanced distillation. Both are swan-necked and the spirit still has a lyne pipe which bends at a curious angle as it passes through the wall to the worm condenser - which is not a worm at all, but a series of copper pipes which run back and forth, the length of a stainless steel tank. They do not look like a worm, but they do the work of one, and Ian Williams, the manager and distiller, explains that the bent pipe and the stretched worm are only two of the individual features whose influences combine to produce a highly-distinctive distillate. Not least among those influences is Ian himself. A tall, fair Aberdonian, he has worked in the whisky industry since shortly after leaving school and has been at Oban as manager since 1983.
Two things are immediately evident: his total dedication to his distillery and his confidence in his company. The latter is well-justified, for Ian has found ready support in the upper echelons of the company for his determination that every idiosyncrasy of the distillery be preserved, despite the continuing cost of doing so. This is worth mentioning, for large distillery groups often take stick for actions which appear to reflect the short-termism typical of so much of British industry. In fact, the whisky industry has always had long perspectives: they are intrinsic to a product which needs ten years between production and sale. Nonetheless, it is good to be able to report that United Distillers,the proprietors of Oban distillery, appear to be well aware that the individuality of the distillery is essential to the character of the malt, and are prepared to sacrifice profit in the long-term interest of quality and identity.
It is a view which will support both tradition and innovation. When the mashhouse needed to be rebuilt, Ian asked that it be kept traditional: no automation, no computers, just the attention of a conscientious mashman. This was duly done. On the other hand, when he sought to respond to the growing demand for distillery tours, he was able to convert the old filling store into a highly-successful visitors' centre. Its tableau of caveperson eating fish is a useful illustration of the advance in table manners since the Upper Mesolithic, but a bit over the top as an introduction to whisky. That apart, however, the whole thing is well done and the punters love it. They love the whisky too, and with reason, for it is good stuff. It is matured in refill casks for fourteen years and the result is an excellent dram of considerable character.
One's only grouse, from a Society point of view, is as regards the casks. These are supplied by the parent company's cooperages. They are well-chosen to ensure a consistent maturation of high quality but of course their very consistency leaves little scope for the kind of variation which we in the Society are normally able to exploit. Ian Williams is in no doubt: this is the best sort of cask for the maturation of his spirit. It would be churlish to disagree with such conviction.
On the question of the cask, members may judge for themselves, for the latest Society Bottling List has two casks of Oban malt: one pale, from a refilled cask, and one very dark, the first- fill of a sherry cask. Both are excellent, and both are quite different from the proprietary bottling. We said we would send Ian Williams samples of both for his opinion.
Ian's assurance on matters to do with his distillery is balanced by a becoming modesty in most other things. It is a characteristic which has universal appeal and no doubt is a factor in the demand abroad for his services as one of UD's brand ambassadors. A Scottish distillery manager is the genuine article and is regarded as an exotic in places like Japan and America, hence the proliferation of requests for Ian's presence. It is not uncommon for such celebrity to go to the head and it is pleasing to be able to report that Ian Williams seems to be largely immune. He rations his overseas visits quite severely, arguing that his value and his authenticity lie in his being the manager of Oban Distillery, and that he can't claim to be that if he is all the time traipsing off to foreign lands.