Defeat was staring right back at me laughing, or at least with a cheeky wee grin and a foreign accent. What had started life, as a simple wager had become a war of attrition with the stakes on both sides rising higher than the value of the Macallan whisky stock exchange. It seemed my own chances of victory were plummeting faster than Highland Park’s reputation as a vicious whirlpool formed.
Rewinding the clock back a couple of hours to earlier that afternoon. Some jovial banter and a touch of Dutch versus Scotland had led out to a poorly maintained lawn. Here was the arena in which the pride of Malt – or at least the northern representative – was at stake. My opponent was the apparently undefeated garden Jenga master herself, Noortje, and on home turf it was the perfect opportunity for a takedown. Except after a few drams the realisation of physics and a devilish opponent had blighted my confidence and lady luck had long since sailed.
The prize was not merely the honour of victory but the acquisition of several bottles of Littlemill. Yes, that’s the tenuous link for this piece suddenly revealed. This wee Dutch maestro has a particular addiction for releases from this now sadly lost Lowland distillery. Upon hearing details regarding some of my own Littlemill stash earlier that evening, the opportunity to pillage and snatch from my Jenga-busted hands was too great. A plan was concocted and after a couple of whiskies, the trap set. A challenge efficiently unveiled midway through the session and the bait was taken. Only after an hour into this Jenga marathon did I finally understand the enormity of the situation.
After a sterling rear-guard effort, I had at least saved some respect for the northern hordes, but there was no denying this fiendish opponent victory. Eyes firmly fixed on the prize of more Littlemill. That ill-fated side assault was the final undoing for Scotland. The Dutch wizard had seemingly planned out her blocks in meticulous fashion. After revealing my own hand – or tactics – the blocks came crashing down and so did the realisation of defeat. A muted cheer reverberated around this garden wasteland, whilst I slowly sank to my knees clutching my head in utter horror.
In many ways, the despair of the end game is a reflection of the sad end that surrounded and ultimately claimed Littlemill. Potentially on paper this small enterprise in Bowling, West Dunbartonshire, was Scotland’s oldest distillery. These are always hard things to prove given the illegal distilling activities that some sites harboured. Many prime sites were selected by those in the know for their perfect positioning, whether it was an early form of whisky or to engage in brewing. The sludge of rumours, stories and few hard facts often covers up or disguises the real date of significance.
Tullibardine, for instance, likes to utilise the year 1488, which in reality is when a brewery did exist on site. The actual whisky component didn’t transpire until December 1949 when the first spirit flowed from the stills. Not as sexy a year to proclaim on anything we’ll grant you, but at least some honesty is required. If there’s one by-product from the current boom in distilleries in Scotland it might be the realisation that 1949 in this case is worth trying given much of the competition will be 2015 or thereabouts.
Littlemill itself is now being proclaimed by its final owners who have some stock that is being packaged up for those with more money than sense. Entitled the Private Cellar Edition, it’s proved popular despite being the most expensive Littlemill ever release – to date – retailing at a ridiculous £2000 and featuring the best casks from the distillation dates of 1989 and 1990. These casks were so good that they had to be vatted together and then finished in 1st fill Oloroso sherry casks for an unspecified period. This brings the question why? The end result was a hybrid Littlemill that felt as if its distillery DNA had been tampered with.
The ironic aspect is that as the final owners, Loch Lomond distillery did not really have much time for this historical site. Acquiring the distillery in 1994, there was some debate as to its future with even a museum being floated. However, by 1997 the internal equipment was stripped out and the site fell into disrepair. Ideas came and went before the feared enemy of any distillery – fire – caused widespread damage. Faced with a remnant of a distillery, what remained was demolished and the space formerly known as Littlemill was sold for residential housing development.
The distillery DNA that I often refer to is the character of the whisky, or what traits you expect from this producer.
There are some obvious examples such as Clynelish with its wax, Bowmore with its perfume, Brora with its farmyard ethic, Tomore with its orchestral procession of fruits and Jura with its depiction of the dirtiest toilet in darkest, deepest dungeon in hell itself. Point being, some casks mask or erode the features that are welcomed by enthusiasts. For Littlemill it’s mainly all about the fruits and yes, I’ll grant you that the official releases until recently have been hugely variable. Thank goodness for the independent bottlers and the onslaught of casks from all distilleries. There is no fashionable ethic here – except the premium some distilleries are priced at – only when a cask is ready to be bottled.
For a booby prize I was kindly given a couple of samples from Littlemill by the victorious champion of this encounter. These come from the classic ex-bourbon casks and one of the oldest bottlers in Berry Bros & Rudd, along with the splendid Archive series from Whiskybase and we’ve reviewed a few more of their Archive series previously. Wounds healed and ego somewhat battered and bruised, it was time to engage with the spoils of war.
Littlemill 1992 Berry Bros & Rudd – review
Bottled in 2014 at 21 years of age for the Anchor Distilling Company in San Francisco, this comes from an ex-bourbon cask (number #14) and it’s unchillfiltered and natural coloured.
Colour: a lovely light honey.
On the nose: leaving to stand for longer than expected this turned into a real splash of fruit upon arrival. Juicy pears followed by ripe red apples – some pineapple in the background – Kiwi fruit, then an unexpected but enjoyable Play-Doh characteristic. Marzipan leads us towards subtle spices from the cask with vanilla and nutmeg. There’s a sense of honeycomb, a twist of lemon and a hint of apple cider.
In the mouth: it’s more muted and less flamboyant. A pulped apple with a light dusting of cinnamon that moves into a cereal base with creamy oats. White grapes add a touch of zing and sharpness from the spirit before pencil shavings and a dulled vanilla form the main body. A lemon drizzle cake adds to the freshness of this whisky that is easily consumed and doesn’t tax your brain greatly. The finish takes us into the realm of a slightly drying chalky finish with toasted almonds.
A lovely middle of the road Littlemill with just that element of sparkle that lifts it up into the above average realm. Enjoyable, but now a firm resident on the secondary market and arguably at today’s prices this doesn’t represent value for money.
Littlemill 1990 Archives 26 year old – review
This Littlemill was bottled on 4th April 2017, after being distilled on 20th December 1990. Residing in hogshead #32 for 26 years, an outturn of 267 bottles, at 53.8% strength promptly sold out.
On the nose: a wonderful balance is my initial impression, one of immense confidence. There’s your traditional fruit with red apples, grapefruit and mango, but balanced by curls of freshly trimmed orange peel. Butterbeans oddly, almonds and an oily buttery aspect that I’m enjoying that gives is an almost Clynelish beeswax characteristic. Rubbed brass, lemon syrup, vanilla custard and sweet cinnamon all come and go.
In the mouth: mesmerising layers of fruit here with your usual assortment of apples, pears and grapefruit but it’s the tropical slant that captures the imagination with mango and papayas. Lemon cuts through it everything, melon revives the angle and then towards the finish green olives. Beneath the body is cereal, digestive biscuits and more of the vanilla but with hazelnuts.
Frankly, this Littlemill is one of the finest I’ve experienced from this distillery without question. A wonderful assortment of flavours and aromas, I almost gave it a 9 and even now I’m debating it. Yes, it’s just that close… oh feck it.