Review: Oban Little Bay Single Malt Whisky

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Oban Little Bay
Oban Little Bay

Diageo has a funny relationship with the single malt distilleries it owns. On one hand, their malt distilleries primarily exist to help quench the never-ending thirst for Johnnie Walker. Brands like Caol Ila have had entire offerings, like Caol Ila 18, wiped off the map to feed the thirsty Walker beast, and had their entire distillery re-tooled to keep up with Walker’s demands. On the other hand, Diageo has presented their malt distilleries as something special, with great reverence and respect, especially under their annual Single Malt Special Releases Collection. Diageo’s malt approach has been a little bi-polar, but it’s nice to see them swing back around and give their malts more time and attention in the marketplace.

Oban is a great little distillery located in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Compared to the time and attention given to some of their other malts, Oban really hasn’t been in the spotlight for Diageo. That changed recently when Oban was included in Diageo’s big viral video series, My Tales of Whisky, starring comedian Nick Offerman. The video series featured a couple of Diageo’s malt brands, but it focused primarily on Lagavulin and Oban (in one of the videos, Offerman plays the various maker’s of Oban Whisky).

While Oban 14 Year Old Single Malt Whisky has been on the market for some time, there’s been little fanfare over it from Diageo. In late 2013, Diageo saw some solid success with a refresh of another of their malt brands, Talisker, with the release of Talisker Storm. Storm served two very important purposes for Diageo: it helped breath new life and excitement into the Talisker brand while showing that a non-age statement release could actually be good.

There been a lot of controversy over non-age stated Scottish Single Malt Whiskies, and Diageo has done a solid job of navigating that storm with Talisker Storm. Now with Oban Little Bay, Diageo looks to see if they can again refresh one of their malt brands and continue to move the malt market toward offerings that don’t bear an age statement.

Oban Little Bay (43%, 86 Proof, $75) – labeled as “small cask”, this non-age stated release takes “mature small batch Oban single malt and gives it time in small oak casks”. While Diageo doesn’t disclose the age of this mature Oban or specify the small casks, we’re assuming they took inspiration from Laphroaig’s immensely successful Quarter Cask product for Oban Little Bay.

Dark amber in color, Oban Little Bay has a rich and vibrant malty nose with dried apple, dried plums, caramel, honey, allspice, and oak. There’s a solid balance between the rich and spicy characteristics. The entry is very flavorful and expressive, matching the nose quite well with toasted malt, green apple, dried apricot, salt, chocolate, and orange peel. In the midpalate the real impact of the small cask finish is quite apparent as the spice elements noticeably increase with clove and oak without abandoning the sweet dried fruit underneath. After the peak of the midpalate, Oban Little Bay backs off quite a bit for a lightly acidic and slightly spicy finish. It’s a fairly light and slightly dry finish that ends fairly clean.

Side by side with Oban 14, Oban Little Bay does a good job of holding its own. Oban 14 has a richer, deeper mouthfeel, spicier midpalate and longer, stronger finish, but Oban Little Bay adds more complexity to the mix. It’s slightly sweeter, more fruity, and better balanced. While the finish on Little Bay is a little drier than we prefer, it’s a perfect example of how taking the handcuffs off on age allows a blender to create a new, complex, balanced, and interesting product.

The old adage used to be that a movie sequel was never better than the original, then The Godfather Part 2 came around and changed the game. The Godfather Part 2 was followed by The Empire Strikes Back, and then Toy Story 2, and eventually, people stopped saying that sequels are always inferior. That’s what’s happening in the non-age stated Scotch Whisky space – first there was Laphroaig Quarter Cask, then Talisker Storm, now Oban Little Bay. It’s a pretty compelling argument that you can have offerings without an age statement that are just as enjoyable and enticing as ones that do. 90 points.

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+Geoff Kleinman, is the founder, and managing editor of DrinkSpirits.com. He is a nationally recognized spirits columnist and staff reviewer for Whisky Advocate Magazine. Geoff’s work has appeared in dozens of major magazines including Playboy Magazine, Black Book, and Mixology Magazine. He is a current sitting judge for the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, the founder of the Society of Modern Journalists, holds BAR certification from the Beverage Alcohol Resource Group, is a Certified Cognac Educator, and a Kentucky Colonel