The Keepers of the Quaich
Industry Association or Elitist Club?
Only few connoisseurs of our favourite Scottish beverage know about the society of the Keepers of the Quaich. On the occasion of Horst Luening's induction into the Keepers of the Quaich, today I want to shed some light on this Scottish society that currently has 2.500 members.
The Keepers of the Quaich were already (or only, depending on your point of view) founded at the end of the eighties of the previous century. Caused by the great British recession from the end of the 70s until well into the 90s, global Scotch whisky sales were on decline. Many distilleries had to be closed simply because there was no money for production. Some distilleries were lucky and could be reopened towards the end of the recession. Others, however, had to be closed for good.
In 1912 the Wine and Spirit Brand Association was founded. It was later renamed Whisky Association and is now known as the Scotch Whisky Association. However, this industrial association only represented companies that produced whisky in Scotland. The Keepers of the Quaich were founded as a beacon of our favourite drink, which brings together industry, retailers and individuals. The aim at the end of the 80s was to create a global network that promotes Scotch whisky independently from the goals of individual companies.
Eventually the society was founded by the companies Ballantine's, Chivas Brothers, United Distillers, Edrington and Justerini & Brooks in 1988. The aim was to unite Scottish folklore, whisky and a certain exclusivity under one roof. The result was, if I may say so, a mixture of connoisseurs and lobbyists combined with a splash of spirituality.
You have to be invited to become a Keeper of the Quaich; you can't apply for membership. And an induction costs money. Not the money of the inductee, whose membership is free for life. No, the member who proposes a new member must also pay for their induction. This ensures that whoever proposes a new member only chooses persons whom they hope to benefit from financially. That's the classic lobby side of the Keepers. However, you have to acknowledge that the companies involved here are really far-sighted and also honour idealistic help such as writing books and organising tastings.
Still, most new members at the spring ceremony 2016 bore nice management and distribution titles from multinational corporations. It was nice to see globalisation in action. Asia and South America, the emergent regions for the Scotch whisky industry, were well represented. Even active people from non-extreme Islamic countries such as Turkey and Lebanon were made Keepers this time. The number of Keepers of the Quaich is increasing at the moment. Almost 50 new Keepers were inducted. Of course nature takes its toll, too, each year. It's sad, but that's life. Becoming a Keeper doesn't mean finding the proverbial right daily dose of whisky to become immortal.
Beside the Keepers there are the Masters. This higher rank was introduced some years ago to honour long-time membership and activity in the Keepers. To qualify as a Master of the Quaich you have to have been a member for at least ten years and to have been active in a very prominent way.
At last, the Scottish spirituality is brought in through the location and the ritual. The society meets twice a year at Blair Castle, the seat of the Duke of Atholl. The Duke is chief of Clan Murray and commander of the Atholl Highlanders, the only legal private army in Europe. The Atholl Highlanders form the honour guard for the guests.
The society has its own coat of arms and its own, copyrighted tartan. This tartan reaches back to the 17th century and is based on the colours blue for water, gold for barley and brown for peat - the most important ingredients of our beloved whisky.
In a ceremony not open to the public each keeper swears with his right hand resting on a giant handmade silver quaich to uphold the spirit and aims of the Keepers of the Quaich. All that is accompanied by a laudatory speech, and everybody signs the members list, which already features illustrious names such as the former US President Ronald Reagan. The rest of the evening is an opulent, classic Highland dinner, of course with whisky, haggis, Robert Burns poems and bagpipers.
My wife, who runs a successful German whisky retail business, has been offered membership in the Keepers for more than ten years, but has persistently declined to accept it. This has two reasons: On the one hand, with the German mentality it is morally difficult to be a member of the Keepers and to be a fierce competitor of your colleagues on the market at the same time. That doesn't mean it's impossible, it's just easier in Germany when you keep a bit more distance. The second reason is of human nature. Among the early German members of the Keepers there was a certain aversion to the commercialisation of our beloved whisky. Larger, whisky-importing companies were accepted as a necessary evil, but a small, upcoming whisky retailer? No way! This culminated in the statement of a book author that Mrs. Luening would only become a member over his dead body.
Those times are fortunately long gone, and so I gratefully accepted my invitation for my lifetime achievement. The reasons for my becoming a member of the Keepers of the Quaich are twofold: On the one hand, I am honoured for my 1,000 Scotch whisky videos on whisky.de, which have helped considerably to promote Scotch whisky in the German-speaking countries. On the other hand, I am honoured indirectly for the big success of The Whisky Store, which, however, is mainly my wife's achievement. And when you look at it like that, the Keepers of the Quaich still managed to honour my wife indirectly through my induction.
What will the future bring? With a little confidence my wife will become a Keeper, too. And if I can manage to be similarly successful internationally with my English videos, I might be elected a Master of the Quaich after ten years. Until then I am going to fulfil my pledge with my right hand on the large, silver quaich.
Horst Luening, May 2016