To Oban for the Classic Malts Cruise

I have come to Scotland for a whisky cruise. Actually, to be honest about it, I have come to Scotland for the whisky. Every year, in late July, a hundred boats of every size and shape imaginable gather in the sheltered harbor of Oban, the gateway to the Inner Hebides, for a week-long sailing tour, known as the Classic Malts Cruise, of a half-dozen or so Hebridean distilleries.

Oban Harbor

Oban Harbor

It sounds like something for the rich and famous, I know, but it’s not. All you need is a boat; any sort of boat, really, as long as it can handle the churlish Atlantic. After that, the entry fee is about the equivalent of a bottle of a good single-malt whisky and with that you get some hundred free whisky tastings, or nosings as they’re called. Sometimes you get to taste single malts you can’t even buy. Of, if you could buy, couldn’t afford. Which is reason enough to be here as far as I’m concerned.

So with little more damage than smushing over one or two small, gray rodent-like animals that foolishly dart in front of us on the road, Michael gets me to Oban just in time to throw my bags aboard the Chantilly, my ocean-going home for the next week or so.

Oban is a popular resort town with what I’d call a somewhat pimply complexion of fish and chip shops and tartan kitsch, but the biggest draw in town is the distillery which sits scrunched up against a steep hill just a block away from the Chantilly’s moorings.

Pipe band at Oban Distillery. Photos by Christine Spreiter.

Pipe band at Oban Distillery. Photos by Christine Spreiter.

Maybe I’m just imagining things, but as I walk along the Oban docks to the distillery, past the dreary War & Peace Museum which, thankfully, isn’t open, and Nevis Bakery, which displays the awards it has won for its bridie and Scotch pies, and smell the air—full of brine and seaweed, smoke and tarry rope—it’s the same pungent smells I inhale minutes later when I stick my nose into a glass of 14-year-old Oban single malt at the ceilidh held at the distillery to celebrate the start of the cruise.

It’s a lovely dram. I close my eyes and take another sniff and once again, there’s very much of a smell of seaweed. It’s as if I had put my hands in wet tidal sand and then smelled them. That’s what Oban—both the town and the whisky—smells like.

The ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee) is a marvelous affair, full of food and music and, of course, whisky. It’s a bit like a large family reunion picnic in the Deep South on a hot summer day with your uncles Clarence and Billy Bob standing off to the side smoking joints and drinking Southern Comfort out of paper bags while a boom box blares “Sweet Home Alabama.” Except in Oban it’s cold and rainy and Uncle Clarence and Billy Bob are a couple of bearded Scots in kilts and the music comes from a bunch of bagpipers and everyone is getting plootered on a briny 14-year-old single malt whisky.

As I said, other than that, it’s pretty much the same thing.

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