Define rarity. Seems simple enough. But when we’re talking about whisky—especially single malt scotch—it’s a particularly pesky task. Everybody want’s something special. Something that’s hard to find; something that you have that others simply cannot get. Marketers are keen to capitalize on that innate desire, of course, and so we’re constantly bombarded with small batches and limited releases. Even if the capacity exists to release a lot more of it than what we see on shelves.
In fact, a lot of times we don’t even want something until we think it’s scarce. Observe the hoopla surrounding many a mothballed distillery. Old stock from shuttered facilities can fetch thousands of dollars per bottle. But if that sort of feverish demand existed back when they were actually in operation, why would they have ever closed to begin with? And if they never did shutdown shop, could the production levels have reached a point where it wasn’t precious enough to substantiate a cultish following? Call it the “Port Ellen Paradox.”
We’ll collect more empirical data on this in the years ahead as Diageo reignites stills at the historic site on Islay. As well as at Brora—another formerly-mothballed object of obsession. Rarity for these brands will eventually become a thing of the past. Then we’ll know once and for all if people only wanted the liquids because they couldn’t get them.
But when it comes to Littlemill, rarity feels a touch more real. It once stood as the oldest operation in all of scotch. Way back in November of 1772—along the banks of the River Clyde—the Lowland distillery was the first to be granted license by King George III to “retail ale, beer and other excisable Liquors.” Which already gives it an air of exclusivity. Then there’s the unfortunate circumstance of it having burnt to the ground 232 years later.
Ever since, Michael Henry, master distiller of the Loch Lomond Group, has stewarded the last surviving casks. We don’t know precisely how much stock remains, but we do know that whenever Henry authorizes a release it is in extremely limited quantities. The latest is the most significant in a generation: a 45-year-old offering marking what would have been the Lowland distillery’s 250th anniversary. To match, 250 individually-numbered bottles hit shelves in August at a cool price of £9,500 per unit.
The liquid within was drawn from a single distillation on October 4th, 1976. It was re-casked in 1996 into American oak Hogsheads, before undergoing a six month finish in Oloroso sherry casks just before bottling. And yet you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the first sip. Absent are the tell-tale dark fruit markers, replaced instead by an insistence of umami. If anything, the sipping experience could be defined as quite rare, indeed.
Meanwhile, the packaging is the result of a collaboration with world-renowned photographer Stefan Sappert. The decanter sits in a cabinet which echoes a Victorian bellows camera box. Sitting in a draw beneath is a silver-on-black glass photographic plate, manufactured by Sappert. It features an image of a section of the River Clyde near where the distillery once sat. Each plate is visibly unique and bears the artist’s signature and fingerprints on the reverse.
The messaging here is quite clear: this is a snapshot in time. Littlemill holds a unique place in scotch history. One that can never be fully re-created in the future. Thankfully its surviving stock allows us an opportunity to step back in time—one dram at a time. How rare is that, exactly? That’s up to you to decide.
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