The Glenturret Lalique restaurant is one of the most ambitious projects in Scottish hospitality. Just seven months after opening its doors, the dining experience earned a Michelin star, the first time a distillery has been awarded the distinction. The culinary aspirations in the kitchen reflect a wider renaissance for the whisky produced there. 

It may be the oldest working distillery in Scotland but The Glenturret has traditionally gone about its business quietly, with over half of its production going to make Famous Grouse. In December 2018, Edrington sold The Glenturret distillery to Silvio Denz, chairman and main shareholder of Lalique Group, and Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss.

The purchase aligned the whisky with a French luxury brand that encompasses jewellery, crystal, perfumes, interior design and art. Lalique’s portfolio also includes the two Michelin-starred Villa René Lalique in Alsace, and the one Michelin-starred Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey in the region of Bordeaux. The time had come to define and assert the distillery's identity.

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"I think the ownership structure is really important in understanding the direction we have taken over the last few years" says John Laurie, Managing Director of The Glenturret. "You have Lalique with luxury credentials already, then both Silvio and Hansjörg own vineyards.

"We set about refurbishing the distillery. We knew putting a fine dining restaurant in there would add something special. During covid we were able to put the work into the new brand and brought in Bob Dalgarno from Macallan as our whisky maker."

Mark Donald was approached to lead the first distillery fine dining restaurant. He had been head chef at the Balmoral Hotel's restaurant after over a decade outside of Scotland, working at restaurants including Claude Bosi’s flagship Hibiscus restaurant in London, Noma in Copenhagen and Bentley Restaurant and Bar in Sydney.

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"Mark had time to work with the team and refine ideas" John says before making the comparison to the way vineyards consider terroir, the soil and climate that influence the flavour of the grape. Whisky is defined by where it is made, so the ambition was for the distillery restaurant to reflect the produce of Crieff and Perthshire, then tell the story of the spirit through the menu.  

"We're not about pouring whisky sauce on a chicken breast like you might expect at a distillery restaurant. We're not having whisky with every course. We wanted a genuine standalone gastronomic experience that reflected the terroir of the distillery and surrounding area.

"Mark gave the chefs a little bag of barley from the whisky production and that sparked some cool creations in the early days. It's about bringing the distillery to life through the food. We're attracting an audience that's perhaps not whisky fans but they can unpack the flavours.

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The Glenturret projecting out from the distillery as an emerging luxury Scottish brand has an impact on the region as a destination for whisky tourism. "We are passionate about Perthshire and Crieff, we support the local community and we want them to be proud of us."

The nature of the maturation process makes whisky a business where return on investment is over a long period of time. What did the new owners see in The Glenturret? "When I first met Silvio, he flew me to his Sauternes wine estate, Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey. It was designated Premier Grand Cru class by Napoleon. He had added Lalique elements to that vineyard but he wanted me to see that he would respect the history and handcrafted nature of the business.

Some of our workers, their families have been here for generation so it's important to have that respect and to see the whisky come to life. It's about a legacy."

Whisky has a growing part to play in how Scotland attracts more visitors and John believes the industry as a whole is rising to the challenge. "I hope we serve as a signal to other distilleries that there are other ways to treat guests. The age of walking through a distillery to buy a bottle in the gift shop then leaving needs to end.

"I think we have done incredibly well out of distillery tourism but we need to keep on growing. The next generation are looking for experiences. We can show what makes whisky different the same way the Champagne region or Napa Valley approaches things."

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Mark Donald grew up in Torrance, a farming village on the outskirts of Glasgow. He considered studying drama after school before settling on the dining room as his stage of choice. "In the menu there's puns and humour and surprises. I like to make people happy and you can do that with food. I think at the level we're working at now you can be more provocative. A bit tongue in cheek without being contrived. 

He describes his cooking as a memory map based on his travels, flavours he has discovered and people he has met along the way. "Kitchens are very international places. A dish that someone from Korea makes up for staff food can spark an idea or a conversation. I don't try to do fusion cooking at all. I will use techniques from world cooking where I think they can uplift or improve what I'm doing with Scottish produce."

"I have travelled a lot over the course of my career and encountered so many different cultures. If you are going out for dinner now, especially with the prevalence of cooking shows and everyone's exposure to good quality food, people want the flavours to be interesting and intriguing and bright."

Inspiration can also be found close to home. The honey served with the bread in the restaurant is supplied by Mark's neighbour. The wagyu beef is local, the region is a thread that runs through the procession of dishes.

"My neighbour just introduced herself one day, she said she had honey and asked me to taste it. I put that, smoked butter and the bread together and it's a killer combination. There's been a lot of chance encounters as well as searching and discovering things.

"It's something we are thinking about more. Complications with Brexit has made us default to building relationships with more local people. Before I might have ordered fruit and veg from London without thinking about it, now I'm using an organic farm down the road and they are amazing."

His initial expectation of distillery food was "haggis bon bons and shortbread". When he first visited and saw the investment in the dining room, he started to see how the concept could work in a different, elevated direction.

His team in the kitchen craft the tasting menu in the evening while also having responsibility for the bar menu, afternoon tea and the cafe for guests finishing the distillery tour. "The price for premium produce has gone through the roof so we are smart in how we use ingredients across what we do. It does maybe split your focus a little bit having the other menus but it makes you a better cook."

I ask about favourite dishes and he pauses for quite a while before settling on one of the first things you taste in the restaurant, a snack that's a reimagined version of a tattie scone, "I knew it should be crispy then chewy on the inside, eventually I settled on frying it and when we tried it it was infinitely better.

"It's a decadent little bite that elevates a very basic Scottish breakfast staple into something elegant in a dinner setting. I think my goal is to smash people's expectations with surprises from start to finish."