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Monday, August 14, 2023

Faulty Towers

Early on in my whisky journey, I stumbled upon a picture of Oban distillery in Scotland.  The distillery looked like…a distillery.  Distilleries aren’t cathedrals, they’re factories that convert grain into alcohol.  What really caught my eye was the Roman-looking amphitheatre directly above the distillery.  I knew the Roman Empire once occupied England and the southern part of Scotland, but I didn’t think they made it all the way up to Oban.  They didn’t.  The Colosseum-like structure that dominates every wide-angled shot of the town has nothing to do with the Roman Empire, at least not directly.  It was built in the late 1800s by a banker named John Stuart McCaig.  But why?

We all have our bouts of narcissism, you’re reading mine right now.  Some people love letting the world know just how special they are.  They’ll put their name or likeness on all sorts of things:  towers, hotels, golf courses, casinos, board games, even steaks.  (A little too on the nose?)  John Stuart McCaig was a very rich man, a multimillionaire by today’s standards.  He made his fortune as a banker, but he also thought of himself as an art critic and essayist.  (No essays or art criticisms have ever been found bearing his name.)  Construction on McCaig’s Tower began in 1895.  It was marketed as something that would benefit the entire community, something that would keep local stonemasons busy when times got tough.  In reality, it was a vanity project built by John McCaig to celebrate John McCaig (and, to a lesser extent, his family).

Once completed, McCaig’s Tower would be home to statues (more on that soon), a museum, an art gallery, and an observation tower.  McCaig poured 5000 pounds into the project (the average person back then made less than 100 pounds a year).  In 1902, just as the outer walls were starting to take shape, something happened.  John McCaig died.  In his will, he requested his estates be turned into rentals.  The money made was to be spent on, “Erecting monuments and statues for myself, brothers and sisters on the tower.”  Catherine, his sister, wasn’t keen on the idea, so she challenged it in court and eventually won.  Strangely enough, when Catherine died, she too set aside money for statues of, “Herself, her siblings and parents to be placed in the Tower.”  Her wishes, like her brother’s, were shot down in court.  McCaig’s Tower may be short on statues, but it does give you an excellent view of the town’s most popular attraction, the distillery.

Oban, before Oban, was nothing.  First came the distillery, then came the town.  Oban, the distillery, is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland.  Some distilleries “claim” to be old, but are, in fact, quite young:

“Tullibardine, why do you put 1488 on your bottles?  You only started making whisky in 1949.”

“Hey Ryan, how’s it going?  Would you like to try a sample of my Custodians Collection from 1973?”

“I’m not for sale Tullibardine!  James IV buying ale in 1488 has nothing to do with you!”

“I know.  I just wanted to sound old, like Oban.”

“So are you going to get rid of all the 1488 stuff?”


For those new to scotch whisky, Oban 14 is the perfect introduction to complexity.  It’s peated, but not too peated.  It’s coastal, but not too coastal.  Orange, pepper, honey.  A dash of oak.  Oban 14 isn’t a bad whisky, far from it, it’s just dumbed-down for the masses.

We, as enthusiasts, tend to think with our hearts.  There’s a right way and a wrong way to make scotch.  If one doesn’t adhere to the Holy Trinity (46%, non-chill filtered, natural colour), they must be shunned and shamed until they start making whisky “the right way.”  I have news for you.  From a business perspective, Oban is making whisky the right way.  Special releases don’t keep the lights on, Black Label does.  Most drinkers buy with their eyes, and want something smooth.  They don’t have an issue, or care, that Diageo (Oban’s owner) keeps their malts in shackles, because, as far as they’re concerned, “It tastes fine to me.”  Distilleries are businesses.  Businesses become successful businesses when they satisfy the needs of the largest possible audience.  Take a look at the bestselling whiskies in the world.  What do they all have in common?  None of them are 46%, non-chill filtered, or naturally coloured.

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...