Today began with a gorgeous sunrise over the Sound of Mull, followed by our most low-key day of the tour. Our bus rides were short, the weather was a stunning 23C and sunny, and the pace was relaxed.
We began by driving to Tobermory for the morning, detouring through the MacLean clan chapel and graveyard en route. Colin never misses a chance to immerse us in MacLean history!
Tobermory (Tobar Mhoire, or “well of Mary”) was named for the Franciscan nun who used the healing waters of the area to tend the sick. Since 1798, the waters of the crystal clear stream and waterfall have been used to distill Tobermory Whiskey, a different kind of healing elixir!
The town is incredibly picturesque, and we enjoyed just walking around in the sunshine, stopping for raisin scones and “banoffee” (banana and toffee) ice cream.
At noon, we boarded the ferry at Craignure, Mull, bound for Oban. This one was a huge ferry, like the ones we’ve been on to cross from Vancouver to Victoria, so there was no issue with seasicknes – in fact, I even managed to walk around on the upper deck to take some photos!
Once settled into our hotel on the waterfront, about half of our tour group headed into the centre of town for an optional tour and tasting at Oban Distillery. This was a MUST on our trip to Scotland, since #2 son had specifically requested we bring back Oban whisky. It’s absolutely incredible that only 7 operators working 5 days per week distill 1,000,000 bottles of Oban single malt whisky each year. Everything except the peat malting of the barley and coopering of the casks is done in this one relatively small building. The distillery literally cannot get any bigger, located as it is completely blocked in on all sides.
Four mash tanks each hold 7 tons of grist (milled, malted barley) and hot water.
In the next set of 4 tanks 60,000 litres of water is poured over the soaked barley in three stages at 3 different temperatures: 63C, 73C and finally 83C. The malting is what gives Oban its lightly smoky favour notes. The drained grist becomes animal feed, which explains, I guess, why Scottish beef is so good!
In the tun room, where fermentation takes place, four 36,000 litre wort tanks cool the liquid to 12.5C before yeast is added and the mixture slowly bubbles for 4 days. Our guide explained that this longer than average time is what gives Oban its orange flavour notes.
In the 18,880 litre wash still, the spirit is now heated to 86C, above the boiling point of alcohol but below that of water, so that the alcohol evaporates. It is cooled in coils mounted on the roof, and then condensed back into the 8296 litre similarly shaped spirit still. At this point it is a clear liquid.
The next process separates the spirit into 3 portions: the “head” at > 75% alcohol, which gets redistilled; the “heart” at 60-75% alcohol, which gets used; and the “tail” at <60% alcohol, which also gets redistilled. Again, nothing is wasted. The spirit is stored in a locked “spirit safe”, in accordance with UK Customs and Excise rules, so that none of it can be stolen.
In order for the spirit to become “whisky”, it has to be stored in an oak cask for no less than 3 years + one day, and must end up at 40% or more in alcohol content. In order for whisky to be “Scotch”, the entire process must take place in Scotland. So….. “single malt Scotch” is simply whisky made in a single location, from malted barley, in Scotland.
Interestingly, the oak casks used are on their third use: first used for American bourbon, second used for another Scotch, and then at Oban. The cask is what gives Oban its colour and its honey flavour notes. Storing the casks in the salty sea air is what gives Oban its sea salt flavour notes.
Oban does a 14 year old whisky, a limited 18 year old whisky, and a “flavour driven” whisky that is not specifically timed. We learned that during the casked time, about 2% of the whisky evaporates each year. That means that for a 14 year old whisky, 28% of the original volume has evaporated during aging. That loss is called “the angels’ share”.
After learning all that, how could we not buy some?
Our day ended with fresh haddock and chips at Cuan Mor (great harbour) restaurant. Really, quite the perfect day.