Nearly a decade ago, I was introduced to an incredibly well balanced Scotch Whisky that struck my palate at a level much higher than anything I have I had previously sampled, and nearly as well as anything I’ve sampled since in a comparable price and availability. Oban 14 was just that Whisky, and I’ve never found myself without a bottle ever since.
Fast forward to about 5 years ago, when Lee Bullock and I met. Within the first few conversations he and I had, we both learned of our genuine appreciation for Scotch, and in particular the Oban 14. Together, he and I have had numerous opportunities to try together Oban 14, and its brethren, Oban 18, Oban Distillers Edition and Oban Little Bay. Given the opportunity to do it again, we elected this time to share with you our tasting notes.
But first, a bit of background on the whiskies themselves.
Oban is a distillery in the town of Oban, Scotland, near the western sea. It was established in 1794, 20 years prior to the town of its name. Oban offers a unique style of whiskey, known by its subclassificaiton of “West Highlands,” which seems to be influenced as much by the sea as its eastern Highlands cousins.
The original owners operated the distillery until 1866. It changed hands again and again. It was torn down and rebuilt in the late 1880’s. It soon suffered from lack of success, and was sold to the Dewars company in the 1920’s, and with Dewars, joined the company that would later become Diageo a few years later. It has not operated continuously since this time, having shuttered its doors twice. It last closed in the 1960’s-1970’s, after which time a new still house was constructed, which has operated ever since.
Oban 14 was introduced to market around 1989 (Oban previously produced primarily a 12-year product). Diageo utilized this new 14-year offering as part of its newly introduced Classic Malts series. The 18-year bottling appeared in the national market in 2011 (previously, available as a distillery-only release). Oban introduced Little Bay in 2015. “Little Bay” is the English translation for the Gaelic “Oban.” Little Bay is barreled in smaller barrels than the other Oban products, and thus is believed to age faster and can be marketed as a non-age-stated (NAS) product. Oban also offers a Distillers Edition, which is offered in varying ages and finishes.
Oban Little Bay (NAS) (86 Proof) (locally around $40)
Nose: Heavy sweet citrus, with natural notes of tangerine and blood orange, along with some artificial orange drink; seawater; hay/earth and light peat/smoke.
Palate: Much like the nose, but lighter than expected; sweet, with heavy sweet citrus and fruit; briny; dry oak.
Finish: Long; heavy fruit and citrus; fresh chopped pineapple with some spice and cayenne pepper; salt; smoke; oak.
Oban 14 (14 year) (86 Proof) ($60-$80)
Nose: Classic balanced scotch nose, with deep fruit notes; pear and tropical fruit; sea salt; floral with light baking spice; some light vanilla and caramel, light peat and some minerality that is reminiscent of the ocean.
Palate: Rich vanilla and caramel; crème brûlée, but not overly sweet; pear, citrus and tropical fruit; spice; sea salt (but not briny).
Finish: Medium length; lasting sea salt; some initial apple cider that ends with cocoa powder, drying the tongue and leaving you thirsty for more; light peat to round out the flavors.
Oban 18 (18 year) (86 Proof) ($130)
Nose: Complex dark sugar sweetness of butterscotch, brown sugar and salted caramel; peach and citrus fruit; plum and fig; tart Granny Smith apple peel; fresh baked apple pie; sea salt.
Palate: Smooth and less complex than the nose would imply; caramel and red apples, but not caramel apples; sea salt that is a bit briny; some nice spice/floral after a moment on the tongue; all somewhat muted and hidden.
Finish: Medium to long; Fruity, with apple cider and orange marmalade; salty; limestone; pipe tobacco (like smelling a pipe).
Oban Distillers Edition (Double Cask Matured; 1998-2013; OD 162.FX) (86 Proof) ($130).
Nose: Sweet sherry with under-ripe cherry and other red berry; light brown and turbinado sugar; floral.
Palate: Subtle; chewy caramel candy; sea salt; baking spice; green apples.
Finish: Long and delectable; green apple; some lingering candied caramel; baking spice; sherry fruit; mineral/stone.
Overall: Four very successful releases by Oban. Each bottle contains the signature Oban character, while providing unique experiences. At an entry price point (around $40), the Oban Little Bay is just about as good as anything gets at that price range. It isn’t overly complex, but it is rich in fruit and flavor, with just the right amount of sea salt and smoke. The Oban 14 is a real standout, in terms of price and availability. For each of us, it is the perfect combination of the best characteristics from the neighboring Scotch regions. The Oban 18 and the Distillers Edition are both complex, with balanced and refined sugar sweetness and fruit. In the end, we discussed that one might create the perfect whisky by combining the nose of the Oban 18, the palate of the Oban 14, and the finish of the Distillers Edition. If it were only that easy….