Clocks back; washback

Sunday the 31st of October was undoubtedly the spookiest day of the year.  Not only was there the rare occurrence of Halloween falling on the same day as the end of British Summer Time and the loss of an hour of daylight, but in our wisdom, a group of friends and I had booked a tour of the Oban Distillery for 11.30 in the morning.  Like on any other Sunday, a hangover on Halloween is just a haunting by the ghosts of last night’s whisky, and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to mess with yet more spirits by taking a trip to the distillery. 

Of all the ways I thought I would spend my extra winter hour, a Distillery tour complete with three drams of whisky hadn’t featured near the top of my list. I could have caught up with some reading, tended to some of the repairs needing doing around my flat, made a hearty pot of soup for the cold days ahead or done something else equally as productive. The reality is that I would have laid in bed until around eleven thinking of all the useful things I could have been doing with that time, before getting up and spending hours on the couch watching old episodes of Seinfeld, but at least there was the potential for productivity. As it was, by the time my bleary eyes screamed open sometime after nine, it took me all of my energy trying to determine which of my timepieces was telling me the correct information, since my watch and iPhone were showing a difference of an hour, whilst the clock on my mantelpiece was frozen at a couple of minutes to seven, the thin golden second hand dancing back and forth around the IX marker, as though suspended in an eerie memorial to time passed. The fading houseplants on either side of the clock completing the deathly scene. If only I’d had the time to water them.

We had good reason for booking a Distillery tour at 11.30 on a Sunday morning; it wasn’t just a spur of the moment act of madness.  Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, was visiting Oban for potentially the last time before departing Argyll to be with his wife in the west of Wales, and a trip to the Oban Distillery seemed a nice milestone following the experience our group had at Deanstoun in August.  Apart from all of that, the tours were fully booked on Saturday, so we had no option but to go the next morning.  In a cruel twist of fate, our guest of honour wasn’t able to imbibe any of the samples along the way since he was driving home afterwards, an outcome that was devilishly reminiscent of Deanstoun, when Adam had to bottle his tasting glasses on account of him driving us from Stirling to the distillery.  People have often asked me why I have never learned how to drive; this serves as a pretty good reason why not.

Our group of seven whisky explorers agreed that we would meet outside the Distillery on Stafford Street at 11.20, and it was remarkable to watch as each one of us arrived at 11.25.  The Oban Whisky website states that the Distillery is 208 steps from the sea, but they probably weren’t accounting for visitors in the condition we were in.  Brexit Guy was last on the scene.  We looked down George Street and caught sight of him sprinting along the pavement at what we presumed was full speed, his dirty blonde hair flopping in the breeze.  It was like watching the nineties television series Baywatch, if instead of the show being set on a Malibu beach and starring David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson it originated from a rainy and blustery town on the west coast of Scotland and featured a fifty-year-old oncologist with a taste for single malt whisky.

When we lined up on the cobbles opposite our destination, seven dreadfully hungover souls still haunted by the spirits of Saturday night, it was difficult not to view us as a tremendously underwhelming Halloween parade.  We were pale, eyes hollow, each of us carrying the demeanour of a basket of unwashed laundry, and caught in the uncertainty of two different times.  I could swear that if we didn’t go inside when we did, some passer-by who didn’t know any better would have handed us a bag filled with sweets and monkey nuts and we would have been invited to dook for apples.

The only time I had previously been in the Oban Distillery was back in September 2019 when I was invited to read from my notebook in the bar prior to local band The Blue Moon Travellers performing as part of their album launch event. On that occasion, I smuggled a bottle of Chilean merlot into the place as a prop for my set and didn’t touch a drop of our home produced golden goods the entire night, which is something I always felt a touch guilty about. Think of going to New York City and not seeing the Statue of Liberty, visiting the Louvre and missing the Mona Lisa, or Campbeltown and whatever they have there.

It was interesting being a tourist in one of the town’s most popular attractions and the producer of its world-renowned export. I have lived here for all of my 38 years without knowing that the Distillery was opened in 1794 before the town even existed. We are, quite literally, a town built around whisky. Our guide on the tour happened to be Mike, who I know as one-half of our Lorne pub quiz rivals “Texas Denied.” He was knowledgeable and funny, though I was reluctant to laugh with too much enthusiasm out of respect for Erin, our delightful Deanstoun director. Often Mike would pose our tour group some pieces of whisky trivia, and I was becoming increasingly irritated by my inability to answer them since I knew that he would be marking it down as an area of weakness for the weekly quiz. It’s damaging enough not knowing which mainline train station in London you would go to take a train to Gatwick Airport, but if the silver-haired quiz host ever decided to use any of this whisky stuff on a Wednesday, our chances of winning would soon evaporate as quickly as the Angel’s Share Mike told us about.

We were taken through the different parts of the whisky making process, guided by Mike and the intoxicating fragrance that lingers around the place. The operation is a lot bigger than I had imagined, although Oban’s production is restricted by the distillery’s location which has no capacity for expansion, and the equipment is vast. The four wooden washback containers had to be around twelve feet wide and at least twenty deep, which is a lot of wood. This is where all of the alcohol is produced, and you can really tell it from the atmosphere. We were all invited to stick our heads into the container and have a sniff, which is one of those things you should always be dubious about when it is suggested, but we all took the plunge. Your nose barely had to pass into the hatch before it was hit with the warm, putrid stench from the wash, which at this stage in the fermentation is said to be something resembling beer. Mike asked if anyone felt that they could drink the washback. Ordinarily, I would have expected that at least one person from our group would admit to having so little restraint around alcohol that they would down the stuff, but I think we were all too spooked by our hangovers to entertain the hypothetical offer.

A Sunday afternoon truly takes on a different look when you have had three whiskies before midday.  I suppose it isn’t a surprise that tasks such as filling the washing machine or blending a broccoli and goats cheese soup seem less arduous once your hangover has been displaced by the radiant sensation of whisky in your belly.  It seemed silly that I hadn’t done this before.  With my trivial chores done for the day, I retired to the couch with a cup of coffee and some television streaming services.  I glanced over at my living room clock and wondered where all the time had gone. 

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