On our voyage through Scotland’s distilleries currently in operation or lost to time, we’ve reached the story of the much maligned Littlemill. This distillery was located in the village of Bowling in Dumbartonshire making it a Lowland representative and able to trace its roots back to 1772, if not beyond. Records are sketchy and originally the site played host to a brewery or small distillery initially as far back as the 1750’s potentially making Littlemill Scotland’s oldest distillery if it was still in existence today.
The date that is officially recorded is 1772 as this is when the founder and owner, George Buchanan a former Glasgow maltster, built accommodation on site to house the Excise officers who represented the law and ensured any distillation was duly recorded and relevant taxes calculated. This suggests that something was already afoot onsite, but today it gives us an opening chapter in a colourful history. Firstly, the list of owners is arguably longer than any other distillery as Littlemill passes through a series of owners either by acquisition, bankruptcy or investment.
It’s a difficult history for any distillery, as changing hands on a regular basis leads to problems internally and new directions. The distillery was rebuilt in 1875 and in 1923 it is purchased by an Edinburgh blending company. It’s around 1930 when the Lowland tradition of triple distillation comes to an end on site, this was practiced at Rosebank and continues today at Auchentoshan. Shortly afterwards the distillery is purchased by an American, Duncan Thomas, before becoming a joint owner in 1959 with Chicago based Barton Brands Incorporated. In 1971, Barton Brands takes on full ownership before the distillery along with many across Scotland closes in 1984. Fortunately, Littlemill is revived in 1989 under the ownership of Gibson International before halting production in 1992. A couple of years later the owners file for bankruptcy, prompting the acquisition by Glen Citrine Bonded Warehouse Company in 1994 who have links with the Loch Lomond Distillery company.
The intensions of Citrine were to create a whisky museum much like that seen today at Dallas Dhu distillery on Speyside. The historical importance of the site to Scotland’s distilling heritage was obvious however these plans never came to fruition and instead the production equipment was dismantled and removed in 1996. The existing warehouses on site were demolished and what remained was sold to residential developer in 2004. A fortunate fire on site destroyed much of what was left of Littlemill and prompted the demolition of the site. Planning permission was approved for a residential development that exists today where this distillery once stood and now only exists as a street name.
With that brief outline of Littlemill there are some interesting aspects to focus upon. Firstly, you may see bottlings of Dunglass and Dumbuck linked to Littlemill. These were experimental malts with Dunglass being a lightly peated spirit made mainly in the 1960’s until 1972. It’s exceptionally rare and has been bottled by independent firm Signatory as a single whilst most stock went into blending. Dumbuck in comparison was more heavily peated and intended once again for blending stock. The official Littlemill’s that were bottled in recent decades were of the unpeated Lowland variety and aged mainly between 8-12 years in age. These have a variable quality and for many years Littlemill was not highly rated by many enthusiasts. This has changed in recent times with a series of excellent bottlings from independent companies such as Cadenheads and Gordon & MacPhail.
In 2015 these were joined by an official bottling from the last owners of the distillery, who vatted 10 casks distilled between 1989 and 1990 before finishing them in sherry casks. Known as the Littlemill Private Cellar Edition, the 25-year-old sold out with a retail price of £2000. It was a tasty whisky but not representative of the true Lowland style thanks to its cask finishing. However, it does confirm a marked upsurge of interest in all things Littlemill comprising with Cadenheads bottling the oldest seen yet at 40-years-old as part of their 2017 175th celebrations. Maturation time has been kind to Littlemill and allowed a healing of its reputation when it comes to whisky. Most of the Littlemill’s now being bottled date from the early 1990’s which were the final chapter of distillation on site. The characteristics show a lovely summer whisky, a gentle vanilla and floral flourish with the sweetness of honey and tablet. This approachability continues onto the palate with the classic Lowland fruit flavours coming through. Thankfully, we are still seeing Littlemill’s coming to market occasionally but it’s only a matter of time until the casks run dry and bottles become scarcer if you want to experience one while you can.