Keepers of the Quaich
An inside look at the secret knighthood of Scotch Whisky connoisseurs
By James Espey
The liquor trade is a most enjoyable industry and I have been blessed to help brands launch and thrive over the past 45 years – such as Malibu Rum, Baileys Irish Cream, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Chivas Regal, and my current baby, “The Last Drop” – seekers of the world’s rarest spirits. However, the brand that gives me the greatest pride is the “Keepers of the Quaich.”
The word Quaich is a traditional Scottish drinking vessel. In the early days, the Scottish Highlands had no pottery to speak of. These vessels were originally made of wood and not until the 17th century did they start to be manufactured in silver. The creation of the Keepers of the Quaich was, therefore, to honour those around the world who have made a great contribution to the industry by working, writing or speaking on its behalf.
The Exclusive Niche
Founded by the leading Scotch Whisky distillers, Keepers of the Quaich is an exclusive and international society that is seen as a genuine badge of honour –
almost like a Scotch Whisky knighthood. I recently read an obituary in a leading UK newspaper and under the picture of the deceased were the words “17th Keeper of the Quaich.” The number of business cards I receive with the title, “Keeper of the Quaich,” or better still, “Master of the Quaich,” is quite surprising. Once you are inducted into the society, you become a full Keeper with all the rights associated with that honour.
So where did it all begin?
In October 1982, I became the Chief Executive of IDV UK Limited, half of what is today Diageo – the world’s largest producer of spirits. Grand Metropolitan, our parent company, directly controlled a burgundy house – Geisweiler Limited – and Stanley Grinstead, the Grand Met Chairman was anxious that we should promote Geisweiler wines through the 500 Peter Dominic stores we controlled.
Accordingly, in 1983 he asked me if I would like to become a Chevalier du Tastevin – a distinguished French Burgundy Society. What an amazing weekend we had in Dijon and at the induction banquet in Beaune.
The Eureka Moment
During that event, it occurred to me that Scotch Whisky, a 500-year-old industry, did little to celebrate its great history and that we should create a genuine, prestigious society to honour those who have made a serious contribution.
In 1986, I joined United Distillers, the leading Scotch Whisky company as Deputy Managing Director, which gave me a platform to create our own society. I arranged meetings with the chief executives of the leading companies. The fundamental point we agreed on was that rank hath no privilege and to be a Keeper, no matter what your wealth or title in business, you have to have clearly made a substantial contribution to Scotch Whisky before being invited to join this illustrious society.
The working name was the “Order of the Malt,” but subsequently it was deemed more appropriate to make it truly Scottish, hence “Keepers of the Quaich.” Every aspect of the Keepers conforms to the wonderful majesty and ceremony and tradition that is uniquely British/Scottish. The Keepers has its own coat of arms approved by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms.
The Society motto, also bestowed by the Lord Lyon himself, is ‘Uisgebeatha Gu Brath,’ which is Gaelic for ‘Water of Life Forever.’ ‘Uisge’ is Gaelic for ‘water’ and the origin of the word ‘Whisky.’
The Keepers of the Quaich also has its own tartan (a crisscrossed band of colours) developed by Kinloch Anderson – which are also kilt makers to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Based on a design of the 1700s, it is woven from pure wool and the colours represent the main constituents of Scotch Whisky – blue for water, gold for barley and brown for peat. There is a management committee formed by representatives from each of the founding companies and, of course, the Keepers has its own society patrons – the nobility of Scotland, such as the the Earl of Erroll, the Earl of Elgin and Kincardine KT, the Duke of Argyll, the Duke of Atholl and many others.
How Do You become a keeper?
Membership is by invitation only, with existing Keepers putting up nominees for management committee approval. Members represent the interests of Scotch Whisky around the world and are leaders in the companies that market Scotch or writers who publicize the “water of life.”
When you are accepted for membership, you are invited to Blair Castle, in Perthshire, Scotland, the spiritual home of the society. It is a magnificent historical castle and has its own private army (the only legal private army in Europe) granted by Queen Victoria after a visit in the 19th century. Today the Atholl Highlanders are purely ceremonial with a magnificent pipe band featured strongly before and during the banquet itself. On arrival, new Keepers are offered a wee dram before being introduced to the Grand Master and the Chairman of the Society. Keepers are seated in a magnificent old room at the top of the castle before being called forward to be appointed a Keeper. The Chairman of the Society invites you to place your hand on the Grand Quaich measuring 24” across and made of sterling silver and carrying the Quaich hallmark.
In my time as Chairman, I was often surprised by how nervous extremely wealthy and successful inductees were as they placed their hands on the Quaich and participated in the induction. A brief citation is read and after, when you agree “to honour the aims and objectives of the Keepers,” you receive the Keepers badge to wear on your lapel at formal functions.
All Keepers and guests are invited to an elaborate banquet in the Grand Hall, adorned with weaponry used by the Duke of Atholl’s army. Other than the top table, all sit at round tables without any pecking order formality. It is an egalitarian gathering of people who love Whisky and are proud to be associated.
The evening is directed by the Fear- An -Tighe (Master of the House) who is always a well-known Scottish personality. He also conducts the ceremonial address to the haggis, following which the Grand Master proposes the loyal toast to Her Majesty the Queen. Among the guest speakers in my time were Ronald Reagan, whom I met in New York at a Forbes lunch and invited him to be a speaker. What a gracious and wonderful man who made a magnificent speech and kept the assembled company in awe. Other speakers in my time were F W de Klerk, the former president of South Africa, Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
How many Keepers Today?
There are 2,374 Keepers worldwide from 86 countries. The society is flourishing with a long list of people who would like to become Keepers. In its 26-year history, never more than 100 are inducted in any year at Blair Castle. There are international chapters that meet to celebrate Scotch Whisky, but unlike other societies, e.g., wine and brandy, the Keepers community is tightly controlled in accordance with a mission to promote the values and image of Scotch Whisky as the world’s finest and most prestigious spirit.
In 2013, I was humbled to be awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to the Scotch Whisky industry, and no doubt creating the Keepers was part of that. My family joined me at the ceremony in Buckingham Palace in November of that year when Her Majesty
personally pinned my OBE onto my lapel.
We adjourned shortly thereafter to the Goring Hotel, where Kate Middleton (now Duchess of Cambridge) spent her last night as a spinster, for a magnificent lunch celebrated with fine Scotch Whisky.
Cheers – or as they say in Scotland – sláinte!
LAST DROP: 120 YEARS IN A BOTTLE
The founders of The Last Drop Distillers Limited are true spirits pioneers. Between them, they have created some of the world’s most loved spirits brands: Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Chivas Regal 18 Year Old, The Classic Malts, Malibu and Baileys Irish Cream. They are passionate about the liquor industry heritage, particularly Scotch Whisky. Thus, seven years ago, instead of retiring, they created one last unique brand: The Last Drop. As self-proclaimed “rare spirits hunters,” The Last Drop Distillers team scour the highlands and lowlands of Scotland, as well as farther afield, to seek exceptionally rare and delicious old casks. Consistently award-winning, each release is unique, and truly limited. Meticulously bottled and packaged by hand, The Last Drop is a true expression of luxury for the very few.
For those fortunate to lay their hands on a bottle, the experience is truly extraordinary. The Whisky Advocate has awarded The Last Drop 50 Year Old, “Blended Whisky of The Year” (2014), and in anticipation of its launch in March 2015, Jim Murray of The Whisky Bible has just voted The Last Drop 48 Year Old, “Scotch Whisky of The Year” (2015). Only 592 bottles are available worldwide. For details, including stockists, visit lastdropdistillers.com.