Keepers of the Quaich

Industry association or elitist club?

Horst Lüning, May 2016:

Only a few connoisseurs of our favourite Scottish drink know about the Keepers of the Quaich. On the occasion of my admission into the circle of Keepers, I want to shed some light on this Scottish society, which currently has 2,500 members.

The Keepers of the Quaich were founded in 1988. Caused by the Great British Recession at the end of the 1970s into the 1990s, Scotch whisky sales declined worldwide. Many distilleries had to close simply because there was no money to produce. Some distilleries were lucky and were able to reopen after the recession ended. Others, however, had to stay closed for good.

In 1912, the Wine and Spirit Brand Association was founded. It was later renamed the Whisky Association and is now known as the Scotch Whisky Association. However, it is purely an industry association for businesses. The Keepers of the Quaich was formed to provide a link between industry, trade and individuals to promote the sale of Scotch Whisky through a worldwide network, irrespective of individual interests.

Ultimately, Keepers of the Quaich was formed in 1988 by Ballantine's, Chivas Brothers, United Distillers, Edrington and Justerini & Brooks, with the aim of bringing together Scotch tradition, whisky and a certain exclusivity under one roof. The result was a mixture of connoisseurs and lobbyists combined with a touch of spirituality.

You cannot apply for membership of the Keepers of the Quaich, you have to be invited by two existing members. There is also a cost for joining, but not for the new member as membership is free for life. The recruiting member has to pay for the admission. This ensures that only people who can bring a financial advantage to the Keepers are elected. This is the classic lobbying perspective of the Keepers of the Quaich. However, you have to admit that the companies involved do have some vision and reward idealistic goals as much as writing books and organising tastings.

However, most of the new members at the 2016 Spring Ceremony wore nice management and sales titles from multinationals. It was nice to see globalisation in action. Asia and South America, the emerging regions for the Scotch whisky industry, were well represented. Even people from non-extremist Islamic countries like Turkey and Lebanon were made Keepers this time. The number of Keepers of the Quaich is currently increasing, with almost 50 new Keepers joining. Of course, nature also takes its toll every year. It is sad, but that is life.

Besides the Keepers, there are the Masters. This higher rank was introduced a few years ago to honour many years of membership and activity in the Keepers of the Quaich. To qualify as a Master of the Quaich, one must have been a member for at least ten years and active in a very prominent way.

Ultimately, Scottish tradition is integrated through location and ritual. The Society meets twice a year at Blair Castle, the seat of the Duke of Atholl. The Duke is head of the Murray Clan and commander of the Atholl Highlanders, the only legal private army in Europe. The Atholl Highlanders form the guard of honour for the guests.

The society has its own coat of arms and its own copyrighted tartan. This tartan dates back to the 17th century and is based on the colours blue for water, gold for barley and brown for peat - the key ingredients of our beloved whisky.

In a ceremony not open to the public, each Keeper swears with his right hand on a giant handmade silver quaich to uphold the spirit and aims of the Keepers of the Quaich. All this is accompanied by a eulogy and everyone signs the membership list, which already bears illustrious names such as former US President Ronald Reagan. The rest of the evening is a sumptuous, classic Highland dinner, with whisky, haggis, Robert Burns poems and bagpipers, of course.

My wife, who runs a successful German whisky retail business, has been offered membership of the Keepers for more than ten years, but has always declined. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, with the German mentality, it is morally difficult to be a member of the Keepers and at the same time a fierce competitor of colleagues in the market. That doesn't mean it's impossible, but in Germany it's easier to keep a little more distance. The second reason is human nature. Among the early German members of the Keepers, there was a certain reluctance to commercialise our beloved whisky. Larger whisky importers were accepted as a necessary evil, but a small, up-and-coming whisky merchant? Absolutely not! This culminated in a book author saying that Mrs Lüning would only become a member over his dead body.

Fortunately, those days are long gone and so I gratefully accepted my invitation to join the Keepers for my life's work. The reasons why I have become a member of the Keepers of the Quaich are twofold: On the one hand, I am being honoured for my 1,000 Scotch Whisky videos on, which have contributed significantly to the sales of Scotch Whisky in German-speaking countries. On the other hand, I am being honoured indirectly for the great success of The Whisky Store, which, however, is mainly due to the achievement of my wife. And if you look at it that way, the Keepers of the Quaich were able to honour my wife indirectly through my inclusion.

What will the future hold? With a little confidence, my wife will also become a Keeper. And if I manage to be similarly successful internationally with my English videos, I could be elected Master of the Quaich after ten years. Until then, I will remain true to my oath, which I have taken with my right hand on the big silver Quaich.