OBAN: WELCOME TO WALT DIAGEO LAND
We left a misty Islay this morning on the ferry from Port Askaig back to Kennacraig, ready to drive north to Oban. The drive was reasonably scenic, uneventful and over surprisingly quickly. Compared to Australia, Scotland is such a small place; everything seems so close together and there’s so much ‘stuff’ packed into it. I’m used to driving through nothing for hours to get from place to place; I may as well be using a teleporter here.
Oban is a great little town, perhaps a bit bigger than I was expecting. It is known for its seafood, as a gateway to the Hebridean Islands and of course, Oban distillery. We had booked a late tour, so we had plenty of time to explore – I even let Dad go it alone while Brian and I climbed a hill to check out McCaig’s Tower, a circular stone structure modelled on a Roman aqueduct that overlooks Oban. Dad made it back alive, so perhaps I don’t need to keep him on such a tight leash…Famous last words?
Oban distillery is steeped in history; it was founded over 220 years ago, predating the town of Oban which built up in the surrounding area and making it one of the oldest distilleries in the world. Since the town grew around it, expansion is all but impossible. So, despite now being owned by Diageo, there is little the distilling giant can do to expand operations.
But that hasn’t stopped Diageo wrecking what otherwise should have been a decent tour.
Being a Diageo-owned distillery, Oban distillery tours follow a familiar format. You aren’t allowed to take photos and you have to turn your phones off because unlike many other distilleries, this one may blow up if you get a text message apparently. You begin with a little history before being told how barely is malted and ground into grist and how Porteous went out of business by making such a great malt mill – again! On the wall is a massive poster of smoke, sea salt, orange peel and honey. This is what Diageo want you to think of when you drink Oban – it’s hard to forget because that poster is in every room of the distillery and even on the packaging for Oban-branded whisky glasses.
I was resigned to the fact this would be just another cookie-cutter tour, but when we walked into the mash room I couldn’t believe my eyes. The outside of the stainless steel mash tun and water tanks had been covered in a textured material and painted copper. Reality check, the average person would not even notice or care about what I’m saying right now, but I found the colour choice mindboggling. Copper plays an integral part in the distilling process making the metal copper synonymous with distilling. I feel like someone on the Diageo design team thought so too and painted all these random parts of the distillery that often aren’t and don’t need to be copper, that familiar copper colour. What I thought when I saw it, was “Fark! That looks fake a shit.”
If they had painted it any other colour, I would not have even noticed.
I admired the morale board in the mash room, where apparently no one has had a bad day for a while and reaffirmed the four flavours that Oban must taste like when I passed under another massive poster. The wash room was a standard affair, except for another flavour poster, but when we reached the still room, my fake-as-shit-onomer started pinging again.
Next to the spirit safe was an electric motor, painted entirely in metallic copper paint. Attached to the spirit safe were a bunch of what I’m pretty sure were steel pipes – painted copper. Long tracks of these pipes ran all over the walls of the room in parallel copper lines. It just looked off. Painting pipes and equipment is not unusual in a distillery, it’s good for protecting against corrosion, but the choice of metallic copper paint made it feel like someone was trying to make the distillery look like something it wasn’t.
The tour finished in a room that was ‘dressed’ to look like part of a warehouse, if warehouses had massive posters of smoke, sea salt, orange peel and honey in them. I say dressed because the only casks I could see were quite obviously empty since there was about a finger-thick gap between the metal hoops and the wooden staves. Once again, my fake-as-shit-onomer went nuts.
This whole experience left me feeling strange. Why did I notice these things and why did I make such a big deal about it? Why do you need to dress up a 220+ year old distillery that should be oozing with character? Why can I not take photos in a Diageo distillery?
I don’t know the answers, but I can tell you that Brian and I spent pretty much the whole tour pointing out fake stuff to each other rather than listening to the tour guide. If all those things had been painted some other colour, I would not have noticed but instead, I walked around that distillery expecting a fake wall to fall over like I was on a Hollywood film set. I don’t think I will do another Diageo tour.
Tomorrow, we part ways with Brian and continue north to Loch Ness.