The wild wild west

The wild wild west

Touring the pretty west coast of Scotland? Gavin D. Smith looks at what's on offer for the whisky enthusiast

Places | 23 Jul 2010 | Issue 89 | By Gavin Smith

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The West Highlands are undoubtedly one of the most spectacular areas of Scotland, embracing breathtaking mountains, forests, lochs and seascapes. Little wonder, then, that they are extremely popular with visitors, offering a wide variety of leisure activities and facilities.

With the principal population centres of Oban (www.oban.org.uk) and Fort William (www.lochaber.com/www.visitscotland.com) each being roughly 100 miles by road from Glasgow, the West Highlands are less remote than is supposed.

Although the west of Scotland offers far fewer distilleries for the ‘whisky tourist’ to visit than the east, due primarily to the fact that the climate has never been ideal for the cultivation of barley, both Oban and Fort William are home to traditional, whisky-making operations steeped in history, and both provide very worthwhile visitor experiences.

Oban is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, having been founded in 1794 by members of the Stevenson family, and it is unusual in having a town centre location, although in this instance the settlement really grew up round the distillery. In the ownership of Diageo, Oban is one of the original Classic Malts, selected to represent the Western Highlands in 1988, and around one million bottles of the 14 Years Old expression sell each year.

Oban is equipped with just one pair of stills, producing some 700,000 litres of spirit per annum, so all production is reserved for single malt release rather than for blending purposes. Indeed, Oban has been bottled as a single malt since the 1880s.

Typically professional and well informed Diageo tour guides lead groups through the various phases of production, and at each stage a large, illustrated panel serves as a reminder of the four key flavour elements of Oban single malt, namely ‘smoky,’ ‘sea salt,’ ‘orange peel’ and ‘honey.’

The filling store provides a venue to sample whisky straight from the cask, and back in the dramming room at the end of the tour, small pieces of ginger act as an excellent accompaniment to the 14 Years Old single malt. Visitors are also handed an engraved souvenir Oban Glencairn tasting glass as a tour memento. Additionally, the distillery has benefitted from its owner’s recent decision to release a number of new Classic Malt expressions exclusively through the relevant distillery visitor centres (see ‘A Rare Pair,’ below).

Away from the distillery, Oban serves as a bustling economic and tourist hub, with a strategic location on the A85 trunk road, at the railhead from Glasgow, and beside a fine natural harbour, which links the mainland to many of the Hebrides by vehicle ferry, including the island of Mull, with Tobermory distillery at its heart.

The town markets itself as the ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland,’ and dining out in the port is a rewarding experience, with restaurants such as Ee-Usk , the phonetic Gaelic for ‘fish’, (Tel. 01631 565 666 – www.eeusk.com), located on the North Pier, Coast (Tel. 0161 569 900 – www.coastoban.com), situated on George Street, and The Waterfront (Tel. 01631 563 110 – www.waterfrontoban.co.uk) all majoring in locally-landed seafood. The Waterfront is on the redeveloped Railway Pier, which is also home to a number of specialist fish stalls, should you prefer to do your own cooking.

The Waterfront Bar hosts regular live music events, while the Skippinish Ceilidh House (Tel. 0631 569 599) on George Street is the place to enjoy traditional Scottish music.

Located between the Ceilidh House and Oban distillery is Cuan Mor (Tel. 01631 565 078 – www.cuanmor.co.uk), a restaurant and bar with a contemporary, Scottish feel to it. Cuan Mor is home to Oban Bay Brewery, which opened last year and allows thirsty customers the opportunity to try a Skinny Blonde or a Kilt Lifter.

South of Oban, off the Lochgilphead road, Seil Island is joined to the mainland by the dramatic, hump-backed ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’ and provides a tranquil contrast to the hurly burly of Oban itself. In the village of Easdale, famous as a former centre of the slate trade, the Oyster Bar and Restaurant (Tel. 01852 300 121) offers a menu rich in local produce and a fine pint of Oyster Ale.

Meanwhile, a dozen miles north-east of Oban, on the A828 to Fort William, the Scottish Sea Life Sanctuary (Tel. 0871 423 2110 – www.sealsanctuary.co.uk) is a favourite with visitors of all ages. Continuing on the A828 and A82, Fort William lies some 45 miles north-east of Oban, located on the shores of Loch Linnhe, and standing in the shadow of Scotland’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis. While Oban is promoted as the ‘Seafood Capital’ of Scotland, Fort William and the surrounding Lochaber area is marketed as ‘The outdoor capital of the UK.’

Ben Nevis gives its name to the local distillery, owned by the Japanese Nikka Whisky Distilling Co Ltd (now a subsidiary of Asahi Breweries Ltd). It is located a couple of miles north-east of the town on the A82, and was founded in 1825 by ‘Long John’ Macdonald.

In 1955 Ben Nevis distillery was acquired by the colourful entrepreneur and distillery owner Joseph Hobbs, in whose ownership some unusual practices were undertaken. These included the use of concrete washbacks and the process known as ‘blended at birth,’ whereby spirit from the distillery’s four pot stills was mixed with grain spirit from the on-site Coffey still and filled straight into casks. Not too surprisingly, results were variable, but a 40 Years Old bottling, distilled in 1962, won many plaudits when it was released, and though now sold out, distillery manager Colin Ross promises that a single cask release from the same parcel of whisky will be available in the near future.

Ben Nevis is very much a working distillery, and a visit commences in the ‘Legend of the Dew of Ben Nevis Visitor Centre,’ where an audio-visual presentation introduces the mythical giant Hector McDram. Subsequently, a tour of the distillery is conducted by friendly and knowledgeable guides, though sadly for the connoisseur of distilling rarities, the Coffey still and concrete washbacks are gone.

Back in the town of Fort William, the Nevis Centre (Tel. 01397 700 707 – www.neviscentre.co.uk) is a popular events venue, offering sports facilities and regular live music performances, while the Ben Nevis Inn at Claggan, by the foot of Ben Nevis, is another popular venue which hosts regular live folk, blues and jazz musical entertainment (Tel. 01397 701 227 - www.ben-nevis-inn.co.uk).

As in Oban, local seafood features strongly on the menus of the town’s restaurants, most famously the Crannog, overlooking Loch Linnhe (Tel. 01397 705 589 - www.crannog.net).

For those visitors wishing to push the boat out, the five-star Inverlochy Castle Hotel and Restaurant (Tel. 01397 702177 – www.inverlochycastlehotel.com), offers a high-end stay.

As well as enjoying good rail links to Glasgow and the south, Fort William is the southern terminus during the summer months for West Coast Railways’ steam train, the Jacobite Express. A trip on the Express is a must-do for anyone with children of a certain age, as the train doubled in the Harry Potter films as the ‘Hogwarts Express!’


Distillery essentials



Oban Distillery

Stafford Street, Oban, Argyllshire PA34 5NH
Tel: 01631 572004
Email: carol.j.bennett@diageo.com
Website: www.discovering-distilleries.com
Admission: ‘Sensory and Flavour-finding Tour’ - £6.00.

Ben Nevis Distillery

Lochy Bridge, Fort William, Inverness-shire PH33 6TJ
Tel: 01397 700 200
Email: colin@bennevisdistillery.com
Website: www.bennevisdistillery.com
Admission: tour – £4.00

Both distilleries can become busy during holiday periods, and advance booking is advisable.


A rare pair



Ben Nevis

25 Years Old, 56.0% ABV

A cask strength, single cask Ben Nevis expression distilled in December 1984, filled into freshly-dumped ex-Bourbon barrels, and subsequently vatted into ex-sherry butts in October 1998. 628 bottles from cask 98/35/1 were released in January 2010.

Nose: Smoky sherry, printer’s ink, cocoa, maraschino cherries.
Palate: Full-bodied and fleshy, with plums and prunes. Steadily drying with a hint of smoke.
Finish: Lingering, with dry sherry, fruity oak and a tang of liquorice.


Oban

‘Distillery-Only’ Single Malt, 55.2% ABV

This cask-strength expression carries no age statement and has undergone a secondary period of maturation in Pedro Montilla Fino-treated American oak casks.

Nose: Warm honey, lightly citric, with rich fudge, sherry, cloves and a hint of wood smoke. Water releases orange fondant cream notes.
Palate: Full bodied, smooth and gently spicy, with candied peel, Jaffa oranges and a developing edge of subtle salt.
Finish: Spicy oak, persistent ginger and a hint of cloves.
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