Oban (pronounced oh-bin) is actually the name of the town where the famous and amazing distillery sits.
To be honest, I didn’t really read up prior to getting there so I pictured a romanticized small distillery high above on cliffs overlooking the town. Turns out that it was actually the center of a very developed town with the harbor litttered with small Fish and Chips restaurants and shops. This was a great contrast to our Craigellachie experience up in Speyside. Quite interesting that it was the town that grew around the distillery, not the other way around. Because of the town development, harbor, and fantastic whiskey, the distillery was a huge attraction–probably the largest tour group I’ve been on for all the distilleries with a max of 16 people, but in the opposing respect!
The tour was great and emphasized the small production of Oban, and how it is the only Diageo distillery to not go into a blend. At first I was confused why they would have such small capacity, but they further explained that because they were in the center of the town they didn’t have too much space to grow in. Also, all the elements would have to be the same to get the same taste if they were to expand elsewhere–hence no near plans to do so.
They had this really cool flavor map that you’ll find online and also in the Diageo Scotch booklets they give out:
We also had some mediocre fish and chips. Everywhere we had it in Scotland, it seemed to be rather bland with not nearly enough salt!
And finally if you are all Scotched-out, I would pick up some local craft beers, like this Oban we had, or some Scottish cheese:
After visiting five distilleries, we finally made it to chilly Dalwhinnie. Just like many of the distilleries, they seemed to take a no thrills, down-to-earth approach to the tour. It’ll be your luck what you get to see in each distillery based on timing. For instance, we saw different fermentation stages and smelled the differences of each at Glenkinchie, then we saw the working kiln and malt floor at Balvenie, and all the empty machinery and vats at Macallan which was on summer holiday. What was different about Dalwhinnie is they had the actual cattle feed that was produced from the draft (the leftovers from the original mash tun) instead of just talking about it, containers of wort and wash side by side for you to smell, and a great display of the liquid from within a cask as it was aged in different ways (sherry versus oak, etc). I love the attention to detail to the pieces that filled in all the blanks.
The real kicker aside from the great hospitality is the chocolate tasting. The distillery sources chocolates from a famous chocolatier in Scotland (the same who apparently did the Royal Wedding…?).
We had Glenkinchie from the lowlands paired with a lemongrass, Dalwhinnie paired with a plain chocolate truffle, Craggenmore paired with ginger, talisker with black pepper and raspberry, Oban with Assam tea and cardamom, and finally Lagavulin with cloves and cinnamon. ALL WERE FANTASTIC.
Glenfiddich! Upon first arrival you’ll see a massive parking lot to accommodate for the great volume of people who visit. The tour guide was extremely friendly but after so many tours at other distilleries we heard a lot of conflicting information…and at this point I didn’t know who to believe. To their credit at least our group was relatively small because there were three guides simultaneously presenting to sub-groups. Also, the grounds are beautiful.
The bathroom LOL
There was also an on-premise cafe. We had the favorites and whiskey cake! Actually, the food was quite good.
Since most of our touring has been scheduled for the bulk of afternoons it was a perfect find that we popped into Speyside Cooperage to see coopers in action in the morning. If you are as ambitious as our family and have such a lovely and willing driving father as I do, you’ll eventually want to see something new around the area other than distilleries (crazy idea, right?). This piece of our trip sewed the full process of whiskey production together after watching videos of the cask making at nearly every distillery. They also had a great set of repurposed casks around the front (photos below!)
I’m in Scotland now visiting a few distilleries and I am so impressed at how personal most of the tours have felt. Sure, there’s perks with the job, but in general all our tour groups have been relatively small!
The first two distillleries we visited were Cardhu and Glenkinchie.
Every tour has provided some conflicting information, and complimentary pieces to really understand the process of procurement and production. Of course no single person that will guide you will have perfect information, but interesting nonetheless.
At Glenkinchie they have a fantastic diorama that goes through the entire Scotch making process. Just outside of Edinburgh, it felt very homey and our guide Charlie was incredibly able to answer all my nonsensical and detailed questions on supply management and how all the distilleries were connected with blending and single malts. Most notably, they have the single malts of many distilleries that don’t get exported out of Scotland because they mostly go into Johnnie Walker blends. Very cool! They have almost the same variety at both Glenkinchie and Cardhu
Moving on to Cardhu, I realized during the tour there was a lot less conversation around Johnnie Walker and more conversation on Cardhu than I expected. I was a bit confused at first since it is branded on info pamphlets as the soul of JW and I was expecting something closer to the grandeur of big tours like Guinness or Heineken. It was a pleasant surprise to see how down to earth the folk were and how they really just wanted to share the tales of the strong women who ran the distillery.
They also had a fantastic house dedicated to JW. We took a special tour, though I don’t believe it is typically open to the public.
Here’s two fun photos from the insides–the first is a JW painting and the 2nd is a bottle of Swing designed to be steadier on a cruiseline (and actually rocks back and forth):
And here’s the lot of highland cows right above the distillery:
**EDIT: you can actually find Swing in the US, though it is not always so easy to find.