On the Trail

The Curious Case of Oldmeldrum

David Driscoll

The morning we first drove up Scotland's east coast was wonderful.  The rain clouds had given way to sunshine and blue skies, the North Sea looking much like the Pacific Ocean outside Santa Barbara.  We drove around Edinburgh for about a half hour before we found our way north to the bridge towards Perth, where we eventually turned east to the sea.  After Aberdeen the road went northwest towards Huntly and we could see the snow-capped Glencairn mountains to our left.  One year we mistakenly took the longest possible route to the Eastern Highlands, which led us through those very peaks, into the snow, and one of the most beautiful drives of our lives. While it was heavenly to see we were on a schedule this time around. It was March 27th, 2013, and we had a lot of whisky to taste, beginning at Glen Garioch distillery in the town of Oldmeldrum.

Before entering the distillery for our scheduled appointment, we dropped into Morris's restaurant on the main drag for a quick bite to eat. I noticed that one of the options was a roast chicken sandwich with cranberry and something called "mealie." I asked our waitress Margaret about the foreign term. She not only told us what "mealie" was, she also gave us a free sample with her own personal recipe. You take a finely-chopped onion, fry it in oil, and then gently add in some oatmeal.  You finish it off in a steamer until the consistency comes together and, voila, you've got mealie.  It has a semi-hard texture, almost like Grape Nuts after they've soaked up a bit of milk. Apparently, it's wonderful with chicken dishes as well as with mince and tatties. Margaret adds bread crumbs as well. Little did I know at this moment that "mealie" would come to encompass the essence of Oldmeldrum. 

Glen Garioch is one of the oldest single malts still in production. The current facility was founded in the mid-1790's, but it had been in a different location before. While Strathisla usually claims to be the oldest distillery in Scotland, Glen Garioch could probably make a claim for that title because there has been licensed distillation in Oldmeldrum since the early 1700's; they're simply not sure where the original distillery was, how long it was in operation, or if that licensing applied to the original Glen Garioch owners. No matter where you are in the distillery, or in the town of Oldmeldrum for that matter, the smell of sweet grains tingles your nostrils. There's no escaping it. The entire town smells like oatmeal and butterscotch because of the distillery (and perhaps because of Margaret's mealie production). The whisky at Glen Garioch is both a product of that environment and a reminder. The malt tastes like Oldmeldrum smells. It's as close to terroir in whisky as I've ever experienced. 

Glen Garioch's blender and figurehead is Rachel Barrie, formerly of Ardbeg, and originally from Oldmeldrum. She had plenty to say about mealie, the smell of sweet grains, and the lovely flavors of Glen Garioch as she guided us through available cask selections. We picked out a delicious fifteen year old cask from the Morrison-Bowmore stocks. We toasted to a successful journey, placed our order, and left with a smile. Then a funny thing happened in between the time our cask was bottled and the time our cask was due to be received: Suntory and Beam merged, Campari (who was acting as an importer to the U.S. for Suntory) was given the boot, and all hell broke loose. We never got our cask. We never knew what happened to it. 

I spent the next three years wondering what happened to that cask, thinking about our experience in Oldmeldrum and how unique that Glen Garioch whisky tasted. I longed for the flavors of and the aromas of that particular malt, the explosive notes of stone fruit and sweet grains, the baking spices, and—of course—the mealie and oatmeal notes. "Oh well," I would say to myself from time to time; apparently it wasn't meant to be. Then a curious thing happened. The cask was discovered by one of our Beam-Suntory reps in a remote distribution warehouse. It had been sitting there for years, waiting for us, adorned with our name and the date on which we selected the barrel. I opened a bottle immediately upon delivery and I was instantly transported back. The smells of Oldmeldrum permeated my nose and at 55% the intensity of the cereal and biscuit notes was overwhelming. I savored the finish and remembered clearly where I was on March 27th, 2013, the day we first tasted this whisky. Now I can finally share the experience with our customers, three years and three months later.

-David Driscoll