Sometimes it seems as though a lot is small about Oban single-malt Scotch whisky—from its clipped name to its matchbox distillery to its single pair of tiny stills. Reinforcing the miniature theme, it now releases a small-batch whisky, aged in small casks and entitled Little Bay.
Nothing is minor about the taste, however. True to form, it's a fitting partner to the Oban 14 year old, which was an original member of Diageo's Classic Malt Collection. While the newest variant has no age statement, it is distinguished by the use of small casks to marry select mature whiskies after they have been mixed. For whisky, small-volume maturation translates to more contact between liquid and wood.
Oban is one of Scotland's oldest legal whisky distilleries. It was founded by John and Hugh Stevenson as a brewery, licensed for whisky in 1794 and refurbished by new owners a couple of times in its life. Nevertheless, its onion-shaped stills have retained their shape and size (among Scotland's smallest). Their diminutive dimensions require that they be rested between each still run in order for the copper to recover. Nevertheless, the distillate is not at all the heavy affair one expects from squat stills.
The facility is located in a harbor town (also named Oban, which is Gaelic for "little bay") in the Western Islands. Shoehorned between other buildings and a cliff side, there is little danger that the quaint venue will be expanded. It has been noted that the whisky's crisp and fruity style bridges that of the Highlands and the Islands regions.
A note on pronunciation: while the name is short and certainly not one of the tongue-twisting, alphabet-soup spellings that Scotland offers up in number, it's still often mispronounced. You'll want to clear that up before visiting your spirits provider. The accent is on the first syllable (O-bun), not the second (o-BAN).
We sampled Little Bay alongside the classic 14-year-old for comparison.
Oban 14 (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume; 14 years old; $75 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Honey/amber color with quick, thick legs.
NOSE: Flowers and honey meet vanilla, a wisp of peat and a hint of sharp cheese.
PALATE: After a burst of spice, it becomes honey on toast. While kind of viscous, with orange marmalade, it keeps its tang throughout.
FINISH: Strong finish. Early on, it's all honey. But then the spice and toast return, along with pronounced vanilla.
Oban Little Bay (86 proof, or 43 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $75 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep amber, with quick, very thick legs.
NOSE: Complex nose, despite lacking the peat of the 14. Very candied with pears, apple and honey. Its spicy and floral notes lurk within.
PALATE: Layers of deep flavor, with fruit, savory and spice. Vanilla melds with pear and orange for a creamy candy. The honey, toasted bits are right out front. Mint and pine are understated.
FINISH: Spicier nuances (mint, eucalyptus, citrus) shine on the finish, but the toasty, fruity elements repeat and linger.
CIGAR PAIRING: Illusione 4/2G Slam (7 1/2 inches by 49 ring gauge, $10.20, 90 points, February 2015 Cigar Aficionado) Box-pressed and gleaming, this dark double corona leaves sweet, cider-like impressions on the palate along with touches of earth, cedar and anise. Pairing like apple notes was admittedly an attraction when we chose this cigar, but mainly we were hoping the contrast between earth and fruit would prove felicitous.
With Oban 14: Peat and toast appear at once on the whisky. The cigar gets a boost to its earthen and tobacco flavors. Fruit notes from the Oban 14 add like flavors to the cigars charms. The Illusione gives back some of its fuller characteristics to round out the whisky.
With Oban Little Bay: Once again, toast rushes in on the whisky, this time with a good bit of orange marmalade. There's smoke here, but it's more campfire than peat. The cigar's touch of saffron melds with the Little Bay's fruit for a pleasant mix of sweet and savory. The whisky gets some heartier, vanilla flavors as well. A very successful pairing.