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Old, Older, Oldest? Iain Russell unpicks tales from the Scotch whisky industry

Old, Older, Oldest? Iain Russell unpicks tales from the Scotch whisky industry

Marketers cannot resist an opportunity to bestow the title ‘first’ or ‘oldest’ upon their whisky brand’s distillery. Such claims add romance and intrigue to the distillery’s story, setting it apart as a trailblazer. They enhance the perceived value of its products to consumers – as well as the prices that those consumers might be willing to pay for a bottle!

Over the years, however, competing claims have left whisky aficionados confused and bewildered. How can there be more than one ‘first’ or ‘oldest’ distillery?

The debates about ‘Scotland’s Oldest’ have rumbled on since Victorian times.

One reason is that claims to being ‘first’ and oldest’ are often heavily qualified – one might be advertised as the ‘oldest licensed distillery’ for example. Another might declare itself the ‘oldest working distillery,’ or the first to be founded in a particular whisky region such as the Highlands or on Islay. However, it is also true that whisky companies are often over-eager to seize upon a local legend, a tall tale or simply a misunderstanding of historical sources, to make a claim that does not stand scrutiny.

Let’s look at some of the better-known examples and discover just what evidence exists in support of them.

During the 1980s and 1990s, The Glenlivet was often mistakenly advertised as Scotland's oldest licensed distillery.

The Glenlivet and Royal Brackla

Some assertions of ‘first-hood’ are iron-clad, based on easily verified historical evidence. For example, surviving records of the Scottish Excise Board and among the Duke of Gordon’s estate papers confirm that George Smith was indeed the first to acquire a distillery licence in Glenlivet [but not in Scotland!] in 1824. Newspaper reports and advertisements of the day, as well as records of the Royal Household itself, indicate that Captain William Fraser of Brackla was the first distiller to obtain a Royal Warrant for his whisky, in 1833.

Sadly, other claims are not so clear cut.

The Glenturret

The Glenturret is one of the most assertive claimants, declaring unequivocally that it is ‘Scotland’s oldest working distillery', established in 1763. To the credit of the owners, they commissioned a research project to establish the evidence for this bold statement and have been happy to share some of its findings on their website. 

The investigators discovered a document in the Ochtertyre estate papers from 1763 referring to a distillery called Thurot. According to the brand’s website, ‘Thurot is the earliest known name for The Glenturret’. 

The document records that no rent was paid for the distillery in 1763 as it had ‘been waste for several years.’ Not only had it closed by 1763 however, but no record has been found to indicate it started up again under that or any other name. Is there evidence to suggest that today’s The Glenturret was subsequently built on the site, or is in some other way the direct descendant of Thurot? 

Unfortunately, no one yet has been able to establish the precise location of Thurot Distillery on the extensive Ochtertyre estate in Perthshire. Many distilleries had opened along the Turret by the 1820s, including Hosh, Hosh Mill, the first Glenturret and Turret Bridge, and at Quoig and other locations on the estate. No evidence has been found to link any one of them with the 18th century Thurot Distillery. Which prompts the question - what are the known origins of today’s The Glenturret?

The Glenturret stands on the site of the old Hosh Distillery (its name was changed to Glenturret in or shortly after 1873, the original Glenturret Distillery having closed). The journalist Alfred Barnard gave the foundation date of Hosh as 1775, presumably based on a conversation when he visited the place more than a hundred years later, but no evidence has been found to support the legend.  Hosh appears in Excise records from 1816. It had a chequered history and closed several times over the years, most recently in 1923: the stills and other equipment appear to have been removed in the 1930s and one of the buildings was subsequently repurposed as a mushroom farm. In the late 1950s, businessman Andrew Fairlie refurbished and re-equipped the derelict distillery buildings and reopened what we know today as The Glenturret. 

So, The Glenturret Distillery has a long and intriguing history which has been traced to the early 19th century. It has no known connection with the Thurot Distillery which had closed some time before 1763 and the location of which remains unknown.    

What about the other claims?


Littlemill Distillery was closed in 1994. Nevertheless, the brand owners have continued to release special bottlings to appeal to connoisseurs and collectors and proclaim that Littlemill is ‘Scotland’s first and oldest licensed whisky distillery’, with a foundation date of 1772. As with Glenturret, some of the documentary evidence gathered to support the claim has been shared on the brand website. Sadly, these facts don’t back up the story.

Littlemill's labels and packaging have carried the 1772 foundation date for decades. Image courtesy of Royal Mile Whiskies.

Logically, Littlemill cannot be Scotland’s oldest distillery – for the simple reason that it burned down in 2004 and no longer exists. Nor can it ever have been Scotland’s oldest even if it had been founded in 1772 - any number of other ‘lost’ distilleries were founded before that year, including those at Kilbagie, Gilcomston, and, from at least the 1690s, in Ferintosh in Easter Ross.

Meanwhile, the historical documents that have been discovered by the owners fail to support the claim that a distillery at Littlemill existed and was licensed in 1772.

Their key evidence was found in the minutes of the Dumbarton Justice of the Peace Court, referring to licences granted in 1773 to ‘Robert Muir of Littlemiln’ and others. But distillers’ licences were granted by the Scottish Excise Board, under Government legislation of 1784 and 1786. JPs were responsible for the licensing of local inns, shops and other outlets to sell beer, spirits and other alcoholic beverages.

Like many other men named on the JPs’ list of licensees in 1773, Muir’s occupation is given as ‘change keeper’, not distiller. In those days, change houses were establishments which provided travellers with facilities for rest and refreshment, as well as a change of horses to enable them to continue on their journeys. In other words, Muir was not granted a licence to distil whisky on his premises at Little Miln, but (in the words of the document) to ‘retail Ale, Beer and other exciseable Liquors’ in what we still call ‘licensed premises’ today.    

While a building at Littlemill is said to have exhibited a datestone for 1772, it is presumably on one of the old mill buildings which stood on the site. The location of an Excise office nearby would be consistent with the role of the Excise in collecting duties on goods manufactured by local industries such as cotton printing. 

Like Glenturret, Littlemill has a proud and eventful history which can be traced back in the Excise records to 1816.  But no historical records have yet been shared to prove it is either Scotland’s first or its oldest licensed distillery. 

Bowmore distillery, from Alfred Barnard's The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887).


Bowmore, reputedly founded in 1779, has long been described as the oldest distillery on Islay, and might be touted as the titleholder for all of Scotland if the claims of Glenturret are found wanting. Unfortunately, no contemporary documentary or any other evidence from the 18th century has yet come to light to indicate there was a distillery in Bowmore from that date. The man said to have founded the distillery, David Simson, does not appear in the lists of rentals in Bowmore in the 1770s and 1780s, finally appearing in the 1798 records as the tenant of ‘McCuaig’s Acres’ in the town. There is another tenant called Simson listed in 1778: Miss Lily Simson occupied a public house there.

Islay distillers were notoriously unwilling to take out licences to distil after the collection of duty was transferred to the Scottish Excise Board in the 1790s, and distillers on the island appear to have worked illicitly (and therefore ‘off the record’) for many years. A distillery at Bowmore is listed in the Excise records in 1816 (the owner is not identified) and the Scottish Excise Board Minutes in January 1824 recorded that John Johnston’s distillery is ‘about to commence’ in Bowmore.

It would appear, therefore, that Bowmore’s foundation date of 1779 remains unproven. There may even be grounds for handing the title of ‘Islay’s oldest working distillery’ to Lagavulin!

The iron gates at Strathisla Distillery display the 1786 foundation date.


Strathisla’s claim to be the oldest working distillery in the Highlands would be contradicted by the Glenturret story if the latter were accurate, as both distilleries are in the Highland whisky region. But while The Glenturret has not been able to establish its 18th century credentials, Strathisla’s claim is a convincing one. It is especially strong because there is reliable documentary evidence that it was founded in 1786.

A charter from 1785, held in the National Records of Scotland, relates to a tack (lease) of land at Milton in Keith, Banffshire, to Alexander Milne and George Taylor. The site was to be occupied by a distillery. Recently, researchers discovered a document at the University of Aberdeen, ‘Account of the expenses laid out by George Taylor for the distillery at Milton’ which contains details of the costs incurred in the building the distillery and carrying on its business. The document contains a detailed record of the building costs incurred during 1786, and those for sending out the first consignments of whisky at the start of the following year. 

The Milton Distillery was subsequently renamed Strathisla. Like most of the old Scottish distilleries it has had a chequered history, falling silent on a number of occasions over the centuries. It has been a well-known feature of the Chivas Brothers roster of Speyside distilleries since 1950.

As there is no known evidence to support the claims of Glenturret to have been founded at some time before 1763, and none to back up Bowmore’s supposed foundation date of 1779, should the title of Scotland’s oldest distillery pass to Strathisla?

An advert from the Aberdeen Press and Journal, December 1785.

Glen Garioch, Lagavulin et al

Inevitably, there are some jokers in the ‘oldest’ pack. Glen Garioch, for example, claims only to have been founded in Oldmeldrum in Aberdeenshire in 1797.  However, there were at least two distilleries in the town in the 1790s. One was worked by John Manson, the other by Thomas Simpson. The distillery’s current owners believe Manson was the founder of the distillery, but the historians Moss & Hume reckon that John Manson & Co were originally proprietors of Strathmeldrum Distillery. Intriguingly, someone named T. Simpson advertised in a local newspaper in December 1785 that he would begin selling whisky from his distillery in Oldmeldrum that month. Could this be evidence that Glen Garioch was actually founded by Thomas Simpson in 1785, perhaps before Milton/Strathisla? The evidence is certainly not conclusive, but who knows what information might emerge in the future?

Meanwhile, Lagavulin’s current owners claim the distillery was founded in 1816, the year it first appears in the Excise records. But an inventory from the 1780s of the possessions of Archibald Campbell, one of the tenants at Lagavulin and the tenant of the mill, included a still, worm and stand. Might there be an 18th century connection with the current distillery? 

As with all claims regarding the first or the oldest Scotch whisky distilleries, we can only be guided by the available historical evidence. Today, Strathisla certainly appears to have the strongest case to be identified as Scotland’s oldest. But who knows what records and game-changing facts might be uncovered by researchers in future?

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  • Great article!
    Love to see this subject being discussed through data and evidence not marketing.

    Pedro Menezes
  • Another fascinating read, Iain!

    Bill Lumsden
  • Brilliant, Iain,
    So good to have the foundation claims explored by a scholar. I have repeatedly begged for evidence and have been met with film-flam or silence.
    Keep up the good work,


    Charlie Maclean

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