Secret Scotch Society

An elite society in Scotland honors international leaders in the Scotch whisky industry.

WORDS Max Rubin
November / December 2019

Photography by Shannon Tofts

Scotch whisky was first distilled in the 1400s, and since then the stereotypical image of a Scotch drinker has remained frustratingly static: wizened, distinguished, male. When Melissa Linehan, a general manager of spirits sales for Pernod Ricard, considers the historical context, she says, “It’s almost like it’s not even appropriate for women to be drinking it.” She sees her work as a challenge to that status quo. “It’s about breaking those stereotypes.”

Linehan is the first female general manager of sales in Pernod’s history, and when she was promoted to the position three years ago, she immediately outlined a plan to broaden the reach of Scotch beyond its traditional demographic. “We are trying to open up the category,” she says. “So that’s a lot of education. It’s a lot of trying to speak directly to the consumer.” Linehan calls this a multipronged, data-driven approach, one that involves steps like partnering with female retailers in specific markets and having a presence at food and wine festivals. Ultimately, it culminated in the recent radical rebrand of The Glenlivet, Pernod’s flagship Scotch and the best-selling single malt in the United States. “It’s working,” says Linehan. “We see it in sales. Trends are good. Really good.”

This work has not gone unnoticed in the Scotch industry. One day last winter, Linehan received a phone call from a man named Peter Prentice, who introduced himself as the chairman of a society called Keepers of the Quaich. Linehan had heard whispers of this group for years, vague proclamations of its prestige, that it was something along the lines of a Scotch whisky hall of fame. But beyond that, the Keepers were shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Prentice was calling to inform Linehan that she had been nominated and unanimously confirmed for induction into the society, all without her prior knowledge. He then invited her to the Keepers’ biannual ceremony that April at Blair Castle, up in the Scottish Highlands, where induction of new members would take place.

Keepers of the Quaich inductees Melissa Linehan and Nicole Olivier.

Prentice offered Linehan something more, too. At the end of their call, he gave her the opportunity to put forth another name for nomination, a privilege ordinarily reserved for members of the society. One person came immediately to mind: Nicole Olivier, a veteran spirits distributor, founding board member of the Women’s Beverage Alcohol Symposium, and recipient of the Golden Bar award for her efforts with Johnnie Walker. The two are longtime friends, and Linehan credits Olivier with leading her to realize that the image of a Scotch drinker was worth redefining in the first place. “She actually has more experience over the years in spirits than I do,” says Linehan. “Nicky was a no-brainer for me.”

The Keepers took Olivier under consideration, and she quickly received an official nomination from an existing member, followed by confirmation from the management committee as a whole. And so, last spring, Linehan and Olivier set out for Scotland to become Keepers of the Quaich.

Keepers Chairman Peter Prentice.

The modern era of Scotch began in 1823, when the British Parliament made it easier for distillers to produce licensed, legal whisky. Before this, much of the industry operated on an illicit basis, meaning the market for most producers was often intensely local. Once Parliament eased restrictions, however, a sort of informal trade network opened up amongst the country’s distilleries. Historically, Scotch whisky did not travel particularly well—the roads proved perilous for the transport of round barrels, and Scotland’s plenteous rivers are not robust enough to support waterborne trade. But in a serendipitous bit of history, the beginning of the modern Scotch era coincided in both time and place with the beginning of the modern locomotive era. According to Prentice, “The rise of the railway system played a key role in bringing all the distilleries together.” In fact, he says, up until the ’60s or ’70s, “all distilleries would have been connected by a railway network.” This enabled players in the industry to begin mixing together whiskies from various distilleries, leading to the invention of blended Scotch. “That was the light-bulb moment.”

By blending whiskies from various distilleries—and by combining traditional malt whisky with grain whisky—Scotch producers were able to create distinct flavor profiles. You could, for instance, lace the vanilla and pear notes of a Speyside whisky with the smoke and sea spray of an Islay malt. This practice of blending came to dominate the industry, and today blended whisky accounts for about 90 percent of the Scotch market. A bottle from a well-known name like Johnnie Walker will typically contain whisky from up to 40 different distilleries. This means that, in the Scotch industry, the health of your competitor’s business is essential to the health of your own.

Scotch is unique in this regard—with no other spirit is there such a tradition of collaboration. And it is this tradition that led a man named James Espey to found Keepers of the Quaich in 1988. At the time, Espey was CEO of what is now Diageo, one of the world’s largest alcohol companies. A Scotch connoisseur, he wanted to create a society that would promote the welfare of the industry and honor individuals who’d made outstanding contributions to it. Espey wanted the organization to transcend competitive business aspects, so he brought the idea to James Bruxner, the CEO of J&B and one of his chief rivals. Espey and Bruxner established the Keepers, choosing as their symbol the quaich, an ancient Scottish drinking vessel with two flat handles that is pronounced “quake” and fittingly translates from the Gaelic as “cup of friendship.” Espey and Bruxner soon got the entire industry on board, and Keepers of the Quaich was born.

Prospective members must meet two prerequisites in order to be eligible for consideration. One is a minimum tenure of seven years in the Scotch industry. The other is a contribution that goes above and beyond the ordinary.

Because the second requirement is not quantifiable, only an existing Keeper can nominate someone for membership, and the nomination must receive unanimous approval from the management committee. Every year, the society inducts about 90 new members—45 in April and 45 in October.

Blair Castle in the Scottish Highlands, where the biannual induction ceremony of Keepers of the Quaich is held.
The induction ceremonies are held at Blair Castle, and these evenings have acquired a reputation of legend. Keepers has a worldwide membership, counting more than 100 countries in its ranks. The list of former guest speakers is a who’s who of royalty and heads of state, including Ronald Reagan, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, to name just a few. Blair Castle itself is the ancestral home of the Clan Murray and its chief, the Duke of Atholl, who commands the only legal private army in all of Europe. They are called the Atholl Highlanders, and serve as the honor guard for the events.

This much can be learned about the society from poking around the Internet. Other than that, information is pretty hard to come by—the Keepers are historically tight-lipped and press-averse. In fact, in the 31 years since Espey and Bruxner established the society, this is one of the first times they’ve allowed a journalist to witness their ceremony.

I first meet Linehan and Olivier at Ballathie, an estate nestled on the River Tay about 55 miles north of Edinburgh, where the Pernod Ricard party is staying. It is Sunday, the evening before the banquet, when the companies that comprise the Keepers each host dinners in honor of the individuals they nominated. In addition to Linehan and Olivier, there are eight other Keepers-to-be among us, whose roles in the industry range from distillery manager to bottle designer.

Prentice delivering a speech in the Ballroom.

After a cocktail hour of resplendent Scotch, we are seated to a four-course dinner hosted by His Grace, Torquhil Campbell, the Duke of Argyll. His Grace is one of several members of the Scottish nobility who comprise the patrons of the Keepers, along with two other dukes, four earls, one lord and a viscount. Like so much about the Keepers, the support of these patrons represents the collaborative spirit of Scotch whisky itself. As Prentice puts it, “It’s just a great coming together of the good and the great and the magic and the charm of Scotland, through the spirit of Scotland.”

As a country, Scotland has always had a culture greater than the relative size of its geography and population. It is a land of lochs and moors, castles and clans, tartans and bagpipes. It is the home of golf, the home of Robert Burns. Scotch whisky is, literally and metaphorically, the distillation of this country and culture. So if you were to find yourself in the situation in which Olivier found herself—an American, seated next to the 13th Duke of Argyll as he toasts to your contribution to Scotch and Scotland—you might also find it “surreal.”

The next morning is spent in emphatically Scottish recreation—golf and archery—alongside whisky legends such as Alan Winchester, master distiller for The Glenlivet, and Colin Scott, master blender for Chivas Brothers. After a lunch of Highland barbecue on the River Tay, the group prepares for the induction ceremony, the women in ball gowns, the men in kilts. A caravan of black cars arrives at Ballathie and transports us north, into Cairngorms National Park, where Blair Castle sits at the confluence of the River Garry and the River Tilt.

It is difficult to imagine a courtlier estate than Blair Castle. Its white facade climbs into a panoply of turrets and parapets. The molding is gilded, as are the four faces on the freestanding clock tower. A red carpet spills out the front entrance, flanked by the Atholl Highlanders armed at attention.

Interior of Blair Castle, ancestral home of the Clan Murray. / Alamy
Blair Castle has 30 rooms, each named and numbered. After a photo session in the Entrance Hall, the induction ceremony itself takes place in room 16, the Drawing Room. The walls are a deep scarlet, with gold-framed oil portraits and ivory-white mantels. Once everyone is seated, the quaich itself—24 inches across and sterling-silver—is paraded in with much ballyhoo, including the sound of bagpipes and a cadre of Highlanders. It is then placed on a pedestal at the front of the room.

Years ago, Scotland’s king of arms presented the Keepers with custom heraldry, including a tricolored tartan representing the elements of Scotch whisky: blue for water, gold for grain, brown for peat. The quaich’s pedestal is draped in this official tartan, which many of the veteran Keepers also wear in the form of a sash or kilt.

Surrounded by the management committee and several Highlanders, Prentice appears before the quaich and welcomes those in attendance. When the inductions begin, he calls forth the nominees in alphabetical order, a gesture meant to demonstrate equality among the Keepers. With each name, Prentice reads out a citation of the candidate’s accomplishments as articulated by the nominating Keeper. Both Linehan’s and Olivier’s stand out for their focus on expanding the profile of a Scotch drinker and their successes in directing the category to a female consumer. As each new inductee comes forward, Prentice grips one handle of the quaich and the inductee grips the other. The oath is then sworn: “Do you undertake to uphold the aims and the spirit of the Keepers of the Quaich?”

At night's end, attendees share bottles and bonhomie.
These inductions are the official business of the evening, but the night really starts afterward, down in room 29, the Ballroom. The space is adorned with hundreds of antler racks, ceremonial arms of Atholl Highlanders past, and towering paintings of legendary Scots. One of them is a portrait of Niel Gow, the most famous fiddler in the country’s history. Over the next five hours, the 200 attendees feast through five courses of traditional Scottish fare and more bottles of whisky than can be counted. When the haggis is presented, the master of ceremonies performs what everyone agrees is the best version they’ve ever heard of Burns’ legendary toast. Deep in the evening, a student attending the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on a Keepers scholarship takes the stage with her band, playing a set with the very fiddle Gow holds in the portrait, and the Atholl Highlanders perform rousing bagpipe and dance numbers.

A succession of toasts is given that ends with everyone in the room standing on their chairs and tables, and then everyone remains standing, joining hands and belting out a spirited rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

As midnight approaches, a final round of whisky is circulated. Each table is presented with a different bottle, and the master of ceremonies provides instruction: “In the true spirit of the Keepers, please feel free to share amongst the tables.” And before the night ends, Linehan and Olivier have reshuffled, the bottles have been passed, and members of companies and distilleries ordinarily in competition with one another are all sharing in a cup of friendship.


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