Throughout this incredible journey into the world of single malt whisky, there have been a few spirits that have managed to capture my heart and soul above the rest. From the rugged coast of Islay to the mystical mountains of Japan, it’s nearly impossible to name a favorite. I do suppose, however, that in life one never forgets their first true love. My first love was the Oban 14 Year Old.
My introduction to Oban came at a time when I was just getting started. Browsing through my local whisky shop was like touring a museum. Like all new whisky drinkers, packaging mattered and as someone who appreciates a harmony between vintage and contemporary, I was immediately drawn to the Oban 14 Year Old. It’s outer appearance had everything I thought a single malt scotch whisky should have: smooth, elegant lines, parchment-colored label, plenty of script visible only through a magnifying glass. And of course, a respectable age statement. I assumed at the time that older is better (not necessarily true) and 14 years seemed like a decent amount of time for a spirit to age in an oak cask. It was priced at $70 USD (about what it is today) and to me, the price suggested that the whisky was “premium” but also relatively attainable. As someone new to the world of single malt Scotch whisky, this seemed to have everything one could ask for.
As excited as I was to try this whisky, I didn’t actually fall in love until I brought it home to taste. That is exactly what we will be doing here today. The Oban distillery was established in 1794 (aka a million years ago) on the western coast of the Scottish mainland. It is nestled beneath rocky cliff in the heart of a small port town that bears its name. Being just a stone’s throw away from the sea, Oban is often referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Isles’.
What I appreciate most about Oban, which I am excited to get into here very shortly, is that the flavor profile of its whisky resembles its own unique geography. The Highland region is known for producing soft, elegant whisky while the Scottish islands often (but not always) produce a bold and smoky spirit that is in essence, very different from anything else in Scotland. Situated between the two regions, the Oban spirit delivers a sweet and spicy character with a distinct coastal influence and hint of peat smoke. I liken it to all of Scotland in a glass but unlike a blended Scotch whisky, Oban maintains its own unique character.
One thing to note – while geography and microclimates can literally influence a distillery’s finished product, much of a distillery’s style comes from social influences. In other words, before the days of the internet or even the telephone (we’re talking 1794 in this case), distillers simply turned to their neighbors to understand how they make whisky. From distilling methods to cask selection to shared coppersmiths, much of a distillery’s style came from its neighbors. Now, I do not know exactly why Oban tastes the way it does but as an enthusiast, I simply appreciate that its flavor profile and characteristics serve as a gateway between two very different whisky regions.
The 14 Year Old is the introductory expression from the Oban distillery. It is regarded as a classic in the world of single malts having recently won a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2016. Given that the 14 Year Old is slightly older and produced in a smaller quantity than the majority of introductory single malts, it is priced higher at around $70-$100 here in the USA. It is bottled at 43% ABV and I am afraid it is slightly colored and chill-filtered as well. Will that bit hinder our newly-hyped Oban experience? It has been a while since I have visited this old friend so let’s get to it…
Uncorking the bottle, oh yeah! A wonderful aroma of dried fruits, some rich toffee and spicy oak. On the nose there is a hint of coastal influence with a faint smoky note but it only seems to exist to add a layer of complexity. There is no actual peat smoke in this one and the aroma is nothing like the scotch whisky of the islands. Theres some freshly cut grass and a slightly floral note but wow, this is somewhat difficult to discern. Very complex.
On the palate, very smooth and warming with sweet vanilla and spicy wood tannins. Smooth yes, but a powerful impact nonetheless. Surprisingly strong for only 43% ABV. There’s a nice citrus flavor but it is different than the fresh orange you get in other Highland malts. This is more of a burnt orange peel that plays very nicely with the bittersweet oak. There is a hint of saline and a bit of saltiness but only for a brief moment. The sweetness and the oak are most dominant. It’s chill filtered but I have to say the mouth feel is not bad. It’s rich and creamy and overall very pleasant. The finish is of average length. Nothing lingering too long. It’s somewhat drying which is a shame really. I would love for this one to continue a bit longer. Great earthy notes with a final rush of spice.
Overall, a wonderful single malt. It is elegant but not as sweet as the typical Highland malt and it is slightly smoky but not heavily peated like the coveted Islay malts. For me, it’s just right. A very versatile whisky that can be enjoyed on its own, with food or with a nice cigar (Cuban or Nicaraguan leaf). A must-have for every single malt connoisseur and for the money, one of the very best. It would be nice if it were naturally colored and non-chillfiltered. I think it would push it into elite status but as long as Oban keeps making it, I’ll keep buying it.