The Secret Scotch Whisky Society You Never Knew Existed

As with any good secret society, one of the main goals of the Keepers of the Quaich is to maintain its secrecy.

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Jun 5 2016, 4:00pm

There's an exclusive secret society carefully keeping vigil over the Scotch whisky industry. Known as the Keepers of the Quaich, the organization maintains a very low public profile. A password-protected website offers only brief descriptions, peppered with words such as "exclusive," "influential," and "powerful." It says only that its members have shown "outstanding commitment," that they are "dedicated and passionate," and that collectively they represent the "beating heart of the industry."

So what in the world is it? Are we dealing with an imbibing Illuminati? A Scotch-soaked Skull and Bones?

As with any good secret society, one of the main goals of the Keepers of the Quaich is to maintain its secrecy. The first of the four stated aims and objectives of the Keepers of the Quaich, as seen in a member's introductory booklet obtained for this story, is "to maintain the mystique and exclusivity of the Keepers." Secret societies seem to be unanimously strict on that front.

Keepers of the Quaich

Holding the quaich aloft. All photos by Shannon Tofts.
Chevalier du Tastevin

The Keepers of the Quaich was founded in 1988 by James Espey. "The idea of the Keepers came to me when I was chairman of IDV UK [International Distillers and Vintners, which would later merge with United Distillers to become Diageo] in the early 80s and was invited to become a in Burgundy," says Espey. "This led me to think that this amazing, 500-year-old industry needed an award of stature and substance to honor those who have made a serious contribution toward building this great industry, no matter what their rank or station in life."

The idea came from Espey, but he needed the industry to get behind it so that it didn't become a brand-specific enterprise. "I was then with United Distillers and did not want us to be seen as a dominant force, so I canvassed the industry and, with a few exceptions, received great support, " he says. "Little did I realize, some 30 years ago when the foundations for the society were laid, that it would eventually be held in such high regard."

Espey has spent a lifetime in Scotch, helping to create hosts of notable brands, including Johnnie Walker Blue Label. In 2013, he was appointed to the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and he's currently the founder and chairman of The Last Drop Distillers, which bottles exceedingly old and rare whiskies. In terms of his accomplishments, though, the Keepers of the Quaich tops his list.

"When I look back on my career of some 46 years in the industry, I am proud to have been involved in creating a number of successful brands and to have been involved in marketing Scotch whisky in exciting and emerging markets throughout the globe," he says. "However, the brand I am proudest of, without doubt, is The Keepers of the Quaich."

A total of 2,502 members, representing 103 countries, have been inducted into the Keepers of the Quaich since the organization was founded nearly three decades ago. Only existing members can nominate new ones, and nominees must be approved by the management committee.

Keepers of the Quaich3

Bagpipers, naturally.

To be eligible, nominees must have a minimum five years of experience in the industry making "a contribution of note," although in practice the barrier to entry is typically far higher. After being inducted as a Keeper, with another ten years in the industry, he or she will be eligible for nomination as a Master of the Quaich.

The induction ceremony itself is a crucial and highly veiled component of the Keepers' culture. "Now I hope you understand that I can't go into too much detail, as what happens during the induction ceremony is a closely guarded secret," says an otherwise forthcoming Donald Colville, global Scotch whisky ambassador with Diageo's Classic Malts.

What is known is that biannual ceremonies are held at Blair Castle in Perthshire, in the Highlands of Scotland. According to that members booklet:

"This is the ancient home and fortress of the Earls and Dukes of Atholl, and has the only legal private regiment in Britain. The Atholl Highlanders play a pivotal role in the banquets held only twice a year at Blair Castle.   "The banquets are attended by our Patrons who support the Society, recognising the legacy and tradition of our Scottish history. They represent our own royalty."

The Lord Lyon King of Arms, a member of the Great Officers of State of Scotland who's responsible for heraldry in the country, bestowed on the Keepers a shield, crest and coat-of-arms, and an official motto: Uisgebeatha Gu Brath, Gaelic for "Water of Life Forever."

"Every single aspect of the Keepers was put together to reflect the very best of Scotland, Scotch whisky and our very rich heritage," says Espey. For instance, the official tartan of the Keepers is said to represent Scotch—blue for water, gold for barley, and brown for peat.

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The quaich itself.
donald colville keepers Donald Colville.

Photos of the induction ceremony reveal little beyond traditional, ornamental attire, food and drink, and the sterling silver, 24-inch Grand Quaich. One is left to imagine a Stanley Cup-style celebration, topping the Grand Quaich with some grand whisky and passing it around among new members, bagpipes wailing in the background.

The most recent induction was held in April. "As we are in the 200th anniversary year of the iconic Lagavulin distillery on the island of Islay, [Diageo] focused our nominations on not only people who had made a difference to Scotch, but also to Lagavulin," says Colville.

One such representative of the virtues that the Keepers extol is Iain McArthur. He's a 45-year industry veteran who began his career as a cask stenciler at Port Ellen Distillery. He's passed the decades since as a warehouseman at Port Ellen and then Lagavulin, where he's now a malt advocate and warehouse charge hand.

Certainly, he's no power broker, but rather is the type of behind-the-scenes player who's vitally important to the industry. "We are all honored but equal, no matter what our rank [is] in the business world," says Espey.

For McArthur, being inducted was a massive honor. "It is something I will never forget," he says. "It was a great surprise!" After nearly half a century plying his trade in the Scotch world, it's the culmination of his career. "Definitely a lifetime ambition fulfilled," he says. "One of the best days of my life."

That's a common sentiment. "Genuinely, one of the best moments of my life," says Colville, who was himself inducted in October 2013. "I always aspired to one day be nominated, to have done enough, to be recognized for contributing to this great product that means so much to the country I love."

People of all walks of life are welcomed into Keepers, as long as the life they're living is one that's intimately tied to Scotch. It's why Colville refers to the Keepers and to the whole industry as "family," while Espey says he couldn't think of a "nicer business" to be in.

"Scotch whisky is the smallest big industry in the world," says Colville. Everyone knows each other; everyone loves what they do; and everyone is a lifer.

It goes back to those first descriptors of passion, dedication, and commitment. It makes a super-secret Scotch society more wonderfully inclusive than anyone could have imagined.