Steeped in grandeur and tradition, the Keepers of the Quaich awards ceremony has long been known as the Oscars of the whisky industry.
Twice a year, members of the exclusive – and highly secret – society are invited to Blair Castle, Perthshire, for the prestigious event, which celebrates the virtues of Scotch.
It’s an evening of opulence and celebration, an opportunity for industry professionals from all corners of the world to unite over a lavish banquet – and the finest blends and single malts, of course.
Established in 1988, the society has its own tartan and merchandise and the guest list is invariably an impressive affair, peppered with lords and ladies and earls and viscounts. Previous guest speakers have included HRH The Prince of Wales, Princess Anne, Prince Albert of Monaco and Ronald Reagan.
But the problem is, because the Keepers is so heavily cloaked in mystery, nobody outside the whisky industry has heard of it…until now
Since taking over as director of the society last year, Edinburgh-born event organiser Annabel Meikle has been making some changes in order to raise the society’s public profile.
In an interview with EventsBase, Annabel takes us beyond the doors of Blair Castle to reveal what goes on at the society’s clandestine banquets – and shares a few industry tips on how to organise such an upmarket event.
“There is no point something so huge being an incredible secret because being made Keeper of the Quaich is an enormous honour in the whisky industry,” she said. “But it’s only an honour if people respond with, ‘Oh, you’re a Keeper of the Quaich’…because they know what that means. I’ve seen grown men walk out of that ballroom at Blair Castle and cry. That’s how much of an honour it is to be a member of The Keepers of the Quaich.”
The title – Keeper of the Quaich (Gaelic for shallow drinking cup) – recognises the outstanding contribution of individuals to the Scotch whisky industry. Master of the Quaich is the society’s highest honour.
New members are appointed at a ceremony held in Blair Castle’s grand ballroom, hosted by Keepers’ president, the Earl of Dalhousie. The banquets are held in April and October – and always on Monday evenings.
Annabel said: “It’s an amazing spectacle because Blair Castle is beautiful. There’s something about it that makes my heart flip when I drive up the A9. And it’s home to the Atholl Highlanders, the only private regiment in the country. They have a fascinating history: when Queen Victoria set off on her honeymoon she decided she wanted to stop off to stay at Blair Castle, but she needed a private army to look after her – and that’s how the Atholl Highlanders were formed.
“On the night of the banquet the army is there, lining the red carpet leading to the castle. All the guests are chauffeured to the site and are then walked into the castle by the Highlanders. The whole process is extraordinary; I’ve been working in events a long time but I’ve never seen or experienced anything quite like it. The guests are greeted in the hall, where they’re photographed.”
The society currently has 2,500 members worldwide. Companies put people forward for the title by submitting an application form, which is scrutinised by Annabel and her team. The rules stipulate that new applicants must have worked in the industry for at least five years – and ten years to be eligible for the Master of the Quaich award. Just 45 new members are inducted at each banquet.
“We only induct five masters at each event,” explained Annabel. “It’s like a knighthood. An incredible guy was awarded the gong at our last banquet. At just 5ft 1 he’d worked as a warehouse man for 45 years on Islay. He’s an absolute legend.
“As soon as the new Keepers arrive at the castle they are taken upstairs for a naming ceremony. It’s done alphabetically, not by rank or status or age. A citation is read out, then the new members are asked to touch the Quaich and swear allegiance to be a good Keeper.”
Next comes the banquet – a five-course feast of fine Scottish produce, each course paired with a different malt, hand-picked by Annabel.
Throughout the evening guests are also entertained by the society’s Fear an Tighe (Man of the House) and master of ceremonies, Robert Lovie, who counts HRH The Prince of Wales among his closest friends.
“Robert’s amazing. He’s the golden thread that runs through the ceremony. What he does is so crucial. He reads out taster notes for each whisky and introduces them. He does the address to the haggis. Then after the main course he sings. There’s no end to his talents – he plays piano, sings… he’s quite extraordinary.
“There’s no dancing, no room for that. But at the end of the banquet we have a series of toasts, which is the most terrifying part. On the first toast you stand up. On the second toast you stand on your chair. And for the final toast you place one foot on the table. It’s great fun, everyone ends up banging into one another – even lords and ladies in their 90s join in.
“After the toasts the Highlanders’ pipers and drummers perform which is phenomenal – it makes my heart leap out of my chest. Then, when the clock strikes 11.15pm, everyone departs. There is a real military aspect to it.”
Annabel is now preparing for the next banquet in October and has already lined-up some top guest speakers, including former Scottish Conservatives’ leader Annabelle Goldie and former Prime Minister Sir John Major. She’s also approached crime writer Ian Rankin, Irish golfer Paul McGinley and Scots actor Sam Heughan.
“Sam’s a big fan of Scotch whisky but he started as an actor at the Lyceum. I also like the idea of Keepers being more philanthropic; we’re nurturing young talent and I want to expand on that. Every year we award a scholarship to a student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. There’s lots to look forward to. At the next banquet we’re also going to have the inaugural release of our first single cask bottling for Keepers of the Quaich.”
But the biggest headache for Annabel is devising the table plan.
She said: “It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle, trying to work out who to put next to who.
“All of the companies and members are competitors. Every day of their working lives they’re fighting for market share. But incredibly, for two days each year, they put all of that behind them.
“They leave their swords at the door, they sit down and chat like old friends, break the bread, drink the drink and, at 11.15pm they go home. The next day they’re back to being market rivals. It’s extraordinary – I don’t know any other event quite like it.”