Executive head chef Mark Donald is leading the team at The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant
Bumping along a Perthshire country road in a minivan en route to the opening party for The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant, I receive the answer I was expecting from a fellow passenger: “Yes, we’re all from Lalique.” The trio of elegantly suited and booted gentlemen could hardly have been from anywhere else – their accents had given them away.
The French luxury brands company Lalique Group bought a 50 per cent stake in The Glenturret in April 2019, entering into a joint venture with Swiss entrepreneur Hansjörg Wyss to acquire the tiny Crieff distillery from The Edrington Group. This takeover saw the former brand home of The Famous Grouse transformed into the epicentre of a new luxury single malt brand and, now, a fine-dining restaurant.
The Glenturret Distillery
“My mother is Scottish, so I was raised around whisky since I was a baby – it was in my bottle,” joked one of the three, a smile hidden behind his face mask, after being asked whether he had been interested in whisky before his employer moved into single malt. In truth, the luxury crystal maker had a hand in the whisky industry long before ownership of The Glenturret was on the cards. Perhaps inevitably, conversation turned to Lalique's partnership with The Macallan – a union spanning two decades that has seen some of the most prominent luxury whiskies ever released housed in distinctively ‘frosted’ bespoke decanters.
“I designed that,” he adds, when The Macallan 72 Years Old in Lalique Genesis Decanter, released to celebrate the opening of the new distillery in 2018, is mentioned. “And those, too,” he chuckles, when The Macallan’s distinctive whisky glasses receive praise, before introducing himself as Marc Larminaux, head of design at Lalique. “He always says that,” interjects one of his compatriots, teasing his colleague for taking due credit for his fine work.
Inside the still room at The Glenturret
Perhaps we should feel a little guilty that more of the journey was spent talking about The Macallan than the distillery hosting us, but it’s a hard topic to avoid. As Lalique’s collaboration with the world’s most famous luxury whisky brand is set to continue for years to come, it is small wonder that The Glenturret has taken a little time to begin stepping out from the shadow of its former ‘big brother’ distillery in the Edrington family.
Though the first of its own ‘in Lalique’ whiskies, the elegant Provenance Decanter, hit the shelves last year, The Glenturret is still a relative unknown outside of whisky circles – not least because the volume of mature stock it’s currently able to bring to market is tiny, even for a niche Scotch whisky brand. However, it’s exactly that scarcity that is driving Lalique’s plan to create an aura of authentic exclusivity about the brand.
The Lalique Provenance Decanter
Compounding the regularity with which the ‘M’ word crops up is the fact that any mention of The Glenturret’s master blender, Bob Dalgarno, who spent 30 years with The Macallan, invariably prompts further comparison. Though it seems for now that one can’t be discussed without mentioning the other, in truth, the two distilleries could not be less alike: The Glenturret is so small that its mash is roused by hand, with aid from the cutting-edge technology that is a large wooden spoon; The Macallan is so futuristic that the site practically runs itself and looks more like an airport or spaceship than a Scotch whisky distillery.
Arriving in the car park, there is a noticeably empty plinth where a 10-foot-tall avatar of The Famous Grouse once stood. Perhaps one day it will be replaced with a 15-foot Lalique decanter. Milling around not far away are the hosts and more guests, including Lalique Group founder Silvio Denz, his business partner Wyss, The Glenturret’s managing director John Laurie, Davidoff Cigars’ head of innovation Sam Reuter, a couple of Scottish politicians, and outgoing Scotch Whisky Association CEO Karen Betts, among other notable whisky industry higher-ups and also spirits entrepreneurs.
Ian Renwick, distillery manager at The Glenturret
“You know, they make Famous Grouse here,” says Laurie with a cheeky wink as I pass him on the threshold to the lobby, before distillery manager Ian Renwick leads a tour of the production areas. This is pretty much the only place where nothing much has changed in the past two years, though a few of the more whisky-inclined guests look nervous when Renwick mentions the upcoming challenge of doubling the site’s production capacity.
Famously, The Glenturret is squeezed onto a site of postage-stamp proportions, and there are limited means by which such an increase could be realised. Scrapping the tiny mash tun and bringing in something bigger would be a start (say goodbye to hand-rousing), shortening fermentation times the next step, and running the stills faster the last straw. Renwick will have his work cut out to manage all that without a change in distillery character, but he seems pretty relaxed about it.
The bar at The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant
Ushered out of the distillery, we hurry up the ramp to the restaurant door – though not without a short stop to pay our respects at the statue of Towser, the distillery cat who lived in the still room for 24 years. We take a brief detour into the Lalique boutique to admire shelves packed with attractive glassware, perfume bottles and sculptures. “I need these wine glasses,” says someone, longingly. Amusingly, the selection includes little crystal anime-style cats. Before anyone has a chance to comment on the novelty, we’re ushered upstairs into an opulently remodelled bar for a welcome drink.
“They’ve done a great job here, haven’t they?” says Marek Szoldrowski, president of Dictador, shortly after recognising me in the queue. His Colombian rum brand recently had its own bottling in Lalique – named Generations – which housed a blend of rums distilled in 1976. It tasted as good as it looked, attracting a lot of attention at the time of release. “I’m hoping we can do another soon,” he adds enthusiastically.
Approaching the bar, everyone is drinking whisky highballs – a refreshing sight at any Scotch whisky event and a sure sign of changing times. An invention of executive sommelier Julien Beltzung, the cocktail is fruity, with a sweet-and-sour zing and a pleasingly prominent whisky character.
Julien Beltzung, executive sommelier at The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant
“I’m working on a new-make spirit Martini,” he confides in me later, eyes twinkling behind round, gold-rimmed glasses. If that creation reaches the same heights as his impeccable wine selections and delicious highball, it’ll be a drink worth travelling for. Unusually, there isn’t a neat whisky to be seen anywhere, even after we’ve taken our seats under spectacular Lalique crystal chandeliers in the 26-cover restaurant.
“Our goal was to create a menu that reflects the terroir and heritage of the distillery,” explains Laurie, after taking his seat. “We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want this to be the kind of place that puts whisky in or alongside every course. This is no ‘whisky sauce on your chicken’ establishment.”
Instead, executive head chef Mark Donald has taken a more meta approach. One course is served on an artistic recreation of a distillery mill room ‘shoogle box’, a tool used to check the proportions of flour, grits and husk in the grist. Another course is made using a cooking technique that mirrors the temperatures of water used in the mash tun. The maltose-glazed bread – an unexpected highlight – is made with draff (the spent barley from the whisky-making process) and home-cultured butter smoked with peat.
Mark Donald, executive head chef at The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant
A veteran of Restaurant Andrew Fairlie at Gleneagles, Hibiscus in Mayfair, and former head chef at Number One at The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, where he earned a Michelin star, it was during his time at Noma in Copenhagen that Donald honed his flair for kitchen fermentation. “He’s even been using the distillery’s yeast to ferment his own miso in whisky casks,” says Laurie, proudly. “Although it’ll be seven months until we can taste it.”
We’re told that each meal takes up to three days to prepare. Given the spectacular presentation and complex combinations of ingredients, it’s a wonder it doesn’t take longer. Raw cherrystone clam is followed by courses featuring langoustine, caviar, Highland wagyu, and cod. At the best of times, it would be a dizzyingly hedonistic experience; after 18 months where most of us have eaten nothing but home cooking in our pyjamas, it’s almost overwhelming. Only a few courses in, it’s clear we’re eating in one of the UK’s finest restaurants.
Raspberry and liver
Despite the evident sophistication of the food, the atmosphere is one of relaxed luxury. A surprising number of the dishes early on are finger food, which is a great icebreaker. From across the room, someone mentions that the cheeses had been flown in that day on a private jet by Bernard Antony. “He’s like the king of cheese,” they continue, before describing his legendary cellars in Alsace. “His company is the cheese supplier to the stars.” It begins to dawn on anyone who hadn’t noticed that this is no ordinary restaurant, at no ordinary distillery, and no ordinary event. I suspect that even proceedings at the exclusive Skibo Castle might look a little run-of-the-mill in comparison.
Each spectacular course is paired with wines of such striking quality and variety that I start to feel a little sorry for Dalgarno, whose job it is to ensure The Glenturret’s whiskies provide a fitting climax for such a gastronomic and oenophilic tour de force. “It’s a challenge, like any new project,” he admits to me later on, over a dram of his Triple Wood expression.
“There were challenges at The Macallan too, of course. But what made this interesting was getting to know the stock and going from a standing start.” Nevertheless, he too seems relaxed in the face of pressure. That he must now achieve the same level of rave reviews, or higher, for the second of the distillery’s now-annual releases doesn’t seem to trouble him much.
North Ronaldsay mutton
Mid-way through our conversation, he stops to bid farewell to Edrington CEO Scott McCroskie, who’d been seated at the top table and, perhaps, taking mental notes that might help inform a few course corrections at his own flagship distillery’s restaurant, which also aspires to culinary fame. Or perhaps he was just enjoying a dinner among industry friends. “We’re still on good terms, of course,” Dalgarno reassures me, unnecessarily. After all, the Scotch whisky industry is notoriously amenable to a little blending of talent, and people tend to move between companies – even to competitors – without much friction or eyebrow raising.
With dining concluded, Denz, dressed in yellow chinos, navy blazer and an open-collar shirt, introduces chef Donald and his international team, proudly announcing that members hail from as far afield as New Zealand, South Africa and Motherwell. Particular applause is reserved for multi-award-wining pastry chef Kayleigh Turner.
“It is important to us that we have a Scottish chef,” Denz declares, describing his vision to blend the best of Scotland and France. Speeches from Denz and Wyss concluded, Donald, dressed in immaculate chef’s whites, does a round of the tables while coffee and peat-smoked chocolates are served. His visit reveals that, like many talented creators, he is no fan of the limelight – though he deserves all the attention and praise heaped upon him.
John Laurie, managing director at The Glenturret
“We’re pretty sure we’ve already had our first Michelin inspection,” admits Laurie, explaining that they will need to be rated at a ‘star level’ by that anonymous judge in order to receive a second visit, which would be announced and involve an interview with Donald and his team. Only if that second judge concurs with the first would the restaurant be in with a chance of achieving an award. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens, but it’s what we’re aiming for.”
That Michelin-calibre eateries are thin on the ground in Scotland would make the opening of The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant significant; the fact that it’s housed within a distillery visitor experience blows the whole thing into the stratosphere. It’s been evident that the world of Scotch whisky has been steadily ‘premiumising’ for some time now, and high-end whisky dinners for private parties are nothing new. However, a permanent installation of this calibre is a real turning point not only for The Glenturret, but the whole Scotch whisky industry.
The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant
For too long have distillers been hosting their most prestigious launch events at venues in central London. Brand homes can do better. Scotland can do better. One can only hope that The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant’s blend of Scottish flavour and French flair will make other distillers sit up and ask if they really know what a luxurious Scottish food and drink experience feels like. If they have any doubt, clarity is now only a reservation away.Update: On 16 February 2022, just seven months after opening, it was announced that The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant has been awarded a Michelin Star. The Glenturret is the first distillery in the world to hold such a title.