By Janice Hopper

A new food and drink experience has launched that has already scooped the Best Food & Drink Tourism Experience at the North East Scotland Food and Drink Awards. The Legends of the Garioch Experience is a unique day out for anyone with a passion for local produce and a dram. 

The day starts at the atmospheric Glen Garioch Distillery in the small North East town of Oldmeldrum. If you’re not familiar with this market town you certainly will be by the time you depart: the pride and enthusiasm for this peaceful rural landscape, which emanates from the tour guides, is genuine and contagious. 

For those expecting another humdrum distillery tour, think again. First off we board a minibus and head into the great outdoors, driving to a viewpoint of Bennachie and Mither Tap. At this blustery but scenic stop the butteries are whipped out. These North East morning rolls, often described as delicious, compressed, salty croissants, are from local baker J G Ross in Oldmeldrum. Known as Premnay Butteries they’re made with traditional lard, rather than butter. Along with a warming cup of tea, we were offered our first whisky of the day, a Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve. Sláinte! It’s announced that we’ve just had our ‘fly cup’, a North East term for a quick break and cuppa.

Back on the bus, we’re told the story of Glen Garioch distillery’s founders, the men who put Oldmeldrum on the whisky map back in 1797. Our second viewpoint calls for a second dram, and it’s only 11am. As we sip on a ‘1991 Cask 4557’ from the tiny portable whisky glasses, which we carry on lanyards around our necks, the local history is explained to us, including the Battle of Barra. Fingers of shortbread, from Deans of Huntly, are dished out as we take in the scenery.

Next we drive through rich farmland, listening to the agricultural links to the distillery. We pass Kilblean Farm where the founders, John and Alexander Manson, grew up. The First Statistical Account of Scotland in 1794 summed up the fine land in the region of Oldmeldrum, ‘The soil is strong rich loam above clay, which, when properly manured bears luxuriant crops … a considerable quantity of grain is sent each year from this parish to the Aberdeen market. The inhabitants of Oldmeldrum are well supplied with fine spring water.’ It’s hardly surprising a distillery flourishes here. The tour guide refers to the endless fields of cereals, referring to the area as the Grain Store of Aberdeenshire. 

We take in Coutens Farm where, after an unexpected water shortage in the 1960s, a rich new source of pure water for the distillery was found in 1972. We pass Barra Berries, known primarily for its strawberries. Rich, red juicy fruits are passed around the bus for us to savour. The tour guide also points in the direction of Barra Bronzes, the free range turkeys that are making a name for themselves every Christmas. Glen Garioch guides don’t just push their own products, the generosity with which they celebrate and highlight other local producers is admirably collaborative. 

Finally we reach the distillery itself, feeling that we understand the land, the people and the context that make the whisky possible. In the Malt Barns we sample a ‘1999 Cask 1420’, fully matured in a former red wine barrique. Even if you don’t know your whiskies, the red wine notes really hit you. The distillery is a flurry of Mash Tuns, Low Wines, Wash Backs and Spirit Stills, and a dram of the newly relaunched Virgin Oak goes down smoothly. Soon we’re nibbling on a whisky infused dark chocolate by Mackie’s of Scotland, as we hear how soaring fuel costs in the 1970s led to Glen Garioch developing a trailblazing waste heat recovery system. This heat was also used to warm over an acre of polytunnels where local Oldmeldrum resident and renowned BBC gardener, Jim McColl of the Beechgrove Garden, grew tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and cucumbers. Such renewable energy was ahead of its time, and even featured on the BBC’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’.

As the tour wraps up, participants get an opportunity to hit the gift shop. As well as picking up a favoured bottle of Glen Garioch, it’s possible to purchase a range of goodies from the local larder, including Huntly Herbs Chutney, or honey from Udny Provender.

Our final stop was the treat of the day, arriving for a whisky tasting and lunch at the luxury Meldrum House Hotel, which just won Boutique Hotel of the Year Award at the Luxurious Lifestyle Magazine’s 2018 Readers’ Travel Awards. Meldrum House is indulgent and contemporary but it’s more than just a stylish setting. The hotel dates back over 800 years, it features an atmospheric Cave Bar, and it runs an exclusive whisky club where members store their treasured single malts in personalised lockers.

At Meldrum House the chefs have pulled together an innovative whisky inspired lunch, featuring a range of local flavours and ingredients, accompanied by the ‘2000 Legends Dram’. Admittedly the meal has a wow factor, and in an attempt to retain some mystery, attendees are requested not to share images or too much information regarding the dining experience. Again, the local passion of the staff shines through. When the team initially discussed how they’d like the meal to look, Meldrum House’s Head Chef Walter Walker, went home and, in his shed, in his own time, created a unique dish in which to serve the collaborative meal of Glen Garioch Distillery and Meldrum House. As we dined Chef Walker popped out of the kitchen to briefly discuss the menu with us. He is an exuberant, larger than life character with great tales to tell, and if there’s ever a man to sit and have a dram with then Walter Walker fits the brief perfectly. 

The experience concluded when guests receive their ‘Legends of the Garioch’ certificate. It was a light-hearted touch, but I’d genuinely learned so much about the local food, land, whisky, history, and the founders of Glen Garioch, all explained with such pride and passion by our guide Fiona Marshall, that a certificate didn’t actually seem that misplaced. 

For any whisky enthusiast this tour goes above the beyond the usual distillery experience. It would be a hugely novel ‘Away Day’ for any businesses looking to reward staff with something a little different, it’s an imaginative event for any foodies or those who care about the Scottish countryside, and finally, the good folk of Oldmeldrum can rest assured that Glen Garioch are great ambassadors for the town. It was hugely refreshing to hear Scots sing the praises of their surroundings with such pride and passion. 

Clearly, after several drams, driving home isn’t an option, so the biggest decision at the end of the day is choosing between jumping in a cab, or spending the night in Meldrum House and whiling away the afternoon with a round of golf. Choices, choices…

The Legends of the Garioch Tour costs £150 per person, and can be booked for two people upwards.

A room at Meldrum House starts at £165 per room per night including full Scottish breakfast -