History

Bowling for Littlemill

Gavin D.Smith investigates the lost fortunes of Glasgow's other distillery.
By Gavin Smith
Littlemill distillery stood on the north bank of the River Clyde at Bowling, 12 miles from Glasgow, and just a short distance from Auchentoshan.However, the contrast in recent fortunes of the two distilleries could hardly be more different.While Auchentoshan is a thriving, Lowland malt whisky region survivor and the last distillery in Scotland to practice full triple distillation, Littlemill has vanished into the pages of whisky history.The first official record of Littlemill dates from 1772,when the wealthy Glaswegian maltster George Buchanan of the Auchterlonie Estate built accommodation for the distillery’s excise officers. It has been suggested that Littemill was a working distillery when Buchanan purchased the estate in 1750.What seems more likely is that Littlemill was developed within a former brewery which had been established in the 1750s,and distilling commenced in 1772.A date-stone with 1772 engraved on it, which could be seen on a gable in the east block of the distillery until its demolition.But distilling on the site may actually have been taking place as long ago as the 14th century, predating the first surviving attestation of Scotch whisky in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland (1494) by more than a century.What is certain is that by the time of its closure in 1992, Littlemill could justifiably lay claim to the title of Scotland’s oldest active distillery.From 1825 to 1835 Littlemill was licensed to Jane MacGregor, one of the first women to have a legal involvement in the Scotch whisky industry, and the distillery then had a variety of owners and licensees during the 19th and early 20th centuries.In 1923 Littlemill passed to the Leith blending companies of Charles Mackinlay & Co and JG Thomson & Co Ltd, and eight years later it was purchased by the American businessman Duncan Thomas.He established the Littlemill Distillery Co Ltd,and proceeded to carry out some radical redevelopment work within the plant.Triple distillation had been abandoned the year before Thomas acquired Littlemill,and new stills were installed which were equipped with rectifying columns instead of normal pot still necks, and had outer necks constructed of aluminium.The aim of this bizarre still design was to create a whisky which would mature more quickly than traditionally distilled pot still spirit.The floor maltings were also replaced with Saladin boxes at this time.In 1959 Barton Brands Inc of Chicago bought a share in Littlemill Distillery Co Ltd, going on to assume full control in 1971, when it began to trade as Barton Distilling (Scotland) Ltd.During its regime, the idiosyncratic stills installed by Duncan Thomas were used to produce the experimental, lightlypeated Dunglas whisky and the heavily-peated Dumbuck from 1967 until 1972.Dunglas has occasionally been marketed by independent bottlers, but to date no Dumbuck appears to have been bottled.Littlemill fell silent in 1984,when the crisis of surplus whisky stocks was at its height.However, production recommenced five years later,by which time Barton Distilling had been re-branded as Gibson International.Gibson distilled at Littlemill until 1992, filing for bankruptcy two years later, at which point Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse Co Ltd (sister company to Loch Lomond Distillery Co Ltd) bought Littlemill.In 1996 the distillery’s death sentence was signed when all production equipment was stripped out and the warehouses were demolished.Plans to restructure Littlemill as a working distillery museum came to nothing, and the site was sold to Newstead Properties for redevelopment in 2004.In September of that year, a fire started by juveniles destroyed much of the surviving distillery.The distillery was demolished during late 2005/early 2006,and the site is now occupied by a residential development.For many years, the principal bottling of Littlemill was a decidedly variable eight-year-old, but in 2005 a new and well regarded 12-year-old ‘house’ expression was released by the Loch Lomond Distillery Co Ltd.