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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Single Malt Report: Oban 14 year old

Distillery: Oban
Ownership: Diageo
Age: minimum 14 years
Maturation: refill American oak hogsheads
Region: Western Highlands
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

Oban 14 has long been a favorite of mine.  Once I'd tried the Johnnie Walkers, the Glenfiddichs, the Glenlivets, the Glenmorangies, and The Macallan 12, my next step was Oban.  My fall down the single malt rabbit hole quickened from there.

I've probably bought more bottles of Oban 14 than any other single, despite its often unfortunate pricing.  My current bottle came from an unanticipated purchase last December when I found a bottle that was considerably mispriced.  Sadly that liquor establishment has since learned of and corrected its error.

I opened the bottle more than a month ago and have since been trying to figure out how to report on it.  I mean, I am so familiar with the whisky that taking tasting notes became a profound challenge.

It's like trying to describe the sky......It's blue and it's up there.


Unlike the sky, Oban 14 isn't blue, but its color is screwy.  Here's a crummy picture that I took yesterday of the liquor in the bottle:

That's the color.  To establish why it is "screwy", let me take a step back and explain the whisky a bit.

The Oban spirit is not aged in ex-sherry casks which provide dark maple syrupy and reddish hues.  It is not aged in first-fill bourbon barrels that provide light golden tones.  Instead it is aged in hogsheads (more than 50% larger than normal bourbon barrels) that have previously held maturing whisky.

So the whisky doesn't have an enormous amount of contact with the oak.  The oak's tannins have been previously incorporated into other whisky.  And the spirit hasn't aged that long in the oak to withdraw darker tones.

So the color should be even lighter than Laphroaig 10's.  Something along the lines of chardonnay with the faintest gold highlights.

Now take a look at that color in the photo above.  That pigment is due to a heapin' helpin' of artificial coloring, aka caramel e150a.  Diageo adds the coloring because it makes the whisky look lovely.  But it's an industrially-designed food additive.

There's a debate in the whisky community about whether or not this dye can be tasted in the palate.  I personally don't know.  It just bugs me because the colorant is unnecessary.  It's like a beautiful young woman getting botox treatment.  You don't need it, Baby, you're gorgeous already!


Here's where I get back to the good news.  Because the oak isn't bourbony or sherried, because the oak has been previously used, what we taste and smell when we sip Oban neat is (mostly) the spirit itself.  There are some oak notes and water has been added to bring the whisky down to 43% ABV, but that salty peppery creaminess is its very malt.  The sturdy spirit not only survives the colorant and filtration and water but it thrives.

Some notes:

The nose is salt & malt first.  A little oak, but no bourbon.  A bit of an ethyl prickle.  Salted caramel candies.  Not quite a whisper of smoke, but rather a memory of smoke.  And if you let it sit for a while, an oaky buttery note does form.

The palate is sweet on the start.  Caramel (the sauce, not the colorant).  Toffee.  Apple flesh.  Salty, but within reason.  Pepper rather than smoke.  Substantial creamy texture.  So adding that all up (salt + caramel + cream), it's almost dulce de leche, but also totally not dulce de leche.  Let's just go with the salted caramel candy.

WITH WATER (approx 35% ABV)
The nose logically gets lighter.  Very malty and bready.  A little oak develops with time.  Some gin-like herbals.  And if you sniff really deeply you may find some fruity sweets in there.

The palate becomes very fresh and clean.  Creamier, fruitier.  Less of the salted caramel.  A hint of notebook paper.  But the spritely malt spirit remains.


Yes, I left the finish out of the notes above.  Why?

I once heard two women moan when the Oban finish hit.  Yes, the good kind of moan.


Oh, so you want actual finish notes?  Here's some vagueness for you.  When neat, Oban 14 has a very hearty finish.  Sweet but not saccharine.  Feels like the natural sugars from the malted grain.  And it lingers for a good amount of time.  Adding water quiets it down, bringing out some of the saltiness.  But the sweet note still lingers on.


I'd last tried Oban 14 several months before I started these single malt reports.  So there's been a considerable amount of whisky sampling since.  My experience hasn't necessarily lowered Oban 14 in my esteem, just changed it a bit, laterally.

I love experiencing its coastal spirit.  That finish is terribly enjoyable.  And the whisky is like an old (inanimate) friend.  But I have found others.  Other grand spirits, some challenging some easy some warming some thrilling.  So when my Diageo boycott begins next summer, I will be ready to move on.

But maybe one more bottle before then.

Availability - All liquor specialists
Pricing - Not great.  Clynelish 14 (another Diageo single) is $10-$20 cheaper.  If you can find Oban at $60 or less, grab one.  If you find it for more than $70, look elsewhere.
Rating - 88