Distillery makes case for its claim that it's officially Scotland's oldest licensed whisky distillery

It’s one of the most debated subjects within the Scottish whisky industry. Now, new evidence being put forward states that a popular Lowland distillery, which last produced whisky in the early 1990s, is officially the oldest licensed whisky distillery in ­Scotland.

Published 9th Apr 2019
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

Littlemill Distillery, at Bowling on the banks of the River Clyde near Glasgow, was said to have originally been built nearly 250 years ago, with a date stone on the gable end of one of the distillery’s warehouses carved with the date 1772, offering the best suggestion as to the age of the original production site. However, there has been no documentary or legal proof that this was the case – until now.

"This license to sell excisable liquors amounted to a licence to distil as we understand it today." - Charles MacLean

The recent discovery of the local Justice of the Peace’s records for Dumbarton, dated 2 November 1773, states that “Robert Muir of Littlemiln” was granted the first ever licence by the Government of King George III to “retail ale, beer and other excisable Liquors”.

Coupled with this find is the fact that accommodation was built next door to the distillery to house the Excise officers who represented the King – and ensured any ­distillation was duly recorded and the relevant taxes calculated and paid. Colin

Matthews, CEO of Loch Lomond Group, which owns the Littlemill brand, said that until the ­discovery they were unable to prove conclusively that the distilling site was in fact the oldest.

He added: “We have now uncovered conclusive documentary ­evidence to confirm these rumours and claims as reality, having ­commissioned detailed research to establish the facts.

“We are thrilled and excited to have discovered these clear and unambiguous documents dating back to 1773 that confirms ­Littlemill was indeed the very first Scottish distillery to obtain a licence to sell ‘excisable liquors’.”

Charles MacLean, whisky historian and author, added that it was a “significant find and could finally solve the conundrum of which distillery was officially ‘the oldest’.”

He said: “There have been several claims before, based on the fact that illicit distilling took place on the site prior to a licence being granted.

"The Dumbarton Justice of the Peace records, referencing Littlemill, does not refer explicitly to distilling, since prior to 1781 private distilling was perfectly legal so long as the spirits were not offered for sale.

“So, this license to sell excisable liquors amounted to a licence to distil as we understand it today. What a shame Littlemill itself burnt down in 2004, but thankfully some ­limited stocks remain.”

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Brothers George and Archibald Buchanan – the original owners of Littlemill – are described as “trailblazers for the tradition of Scottish whisky production”, by the Loch Lomond Group with the firm ­stating that Littlemill continued to lead the industry for more than two centuries.

Notably, it was one of the first ­distilleries to have a female ­licensee, Jane MacGregor, in 1823. Later, in 1931, under the stewardship of the American Duncan Thomas, ­Littlemill was at the forefront of still innovation with technical designs that could create three styles of single malts from full-bodied to light.

Whisky production at Littlemill continued until the distillery fell silent in 1994 and was subsequently destroyed by fire in 2004, never to produce a drop again.

However, Loch Lomond Group have continued to release what is left of the distillery’s precious ­liquid with the last being the Littlemill 40-Year-Old Celestial Edition.

Only 250 bottles have been produced, each displayed in a stunning presentation box capturing the exact map of the night sky seen above Littlemill Distillery on the night the spirit was barrelled.

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The latest addition to the Littlemill range will be released in September 2019. Littlemill 29-year-old (RRP £2,500; 47.3% ABV) is the third release from the Private Cellar Collection, comprising only 600 bottles which will be released across the world.

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Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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