A spring evening in 2008 at Blair Castle in Perthshire provided the setting for First Minister Alex Salmond's welcome to the society, as part of the Keepers' semi-annual banquet, at which he described himself as "honoured" and added, "The global character of the Keepers of the Quaich is a true reflection of the international appeal of whisky. Scotland's whisky is not only an excellent ambassador for the quality and distinction of Scotland's produce, it plays a vital role in sustainable economic growth." But who are the Keepers of the Quaich, who garner such high praise?
Keepers of the Quaich
The Keepers of the Quaich are a society formed by Scotland's whisky distillers in October 1988 to advance the industry and raise funds for charitable causes in Scotland. Membership is by invitation only and is reserved for individuals judged to have made a significant contribution to the Scotch whisky industry. The Keepers currently boast over 1,900 members hailing from 84 countries around the globe. It is named for the Quaich (from the Gaelic cuach), the shallow, two-handled cup that is Scotland's traditional drinking vessel.
The quaich originated in the Highlands, where its history stretches back for many centuries. Originally they were painstakingly carved from wood, perhaps in imitation of a scallop shell from which drams of whisky are believed to have been drunk in the early days of Scotch distilling. The practice of making quaichs from pewter and silver started in the seventeenth century, by which time the use of the cup had spread from its home in the Highlands to the fashionable gentry of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and even to Royalty: King James VI gave a quaich, or "loving cup", to Anne of Denmark on the occasion of their wedding. The quaich's two handles make it an ideal cup for sharing, whether between lovers, friends, or well-met strangers. The Centenary Quaich is the trophy presented to the winning team of Scotland's annual match with Ireland in Rugby Union's Six Nations tournament.
A tapestry of tradition
The ritual surrounding the quaich is just part of a rich tapestry of folklore and wisdom surrounding the production and consumption of Scotch whisky. If there is one thing whisky is not short of it is well, its flavour. But if there are two things whisky is not short of they are flavour and tradition!
Whisky making in Scotland dates back many hundreds of years. One legend tells that it was Saint Patrick who brought the craft of distillation to Scotland and Ireland in the course of his ministry to the Celts. Modern historians doubt this origin, preferring to believe that the secret came to our shores from the Arab world in the Middle Ages, but the very fact that the legend has survived and been re-told for so many generations attests to the unique place of whisky in Scottish culture.
With water or without?
A subject that comes up time and again when whisky lovers discuss their favoured tipple is the vexed question of how it is best enjoyed. Those who take their dram with water will enthuse about the wonderful release of flavours and aromas when the spirit is tamed by dilution the most fervent devotees even insisting on water from the same spring that brought forth the water used in the whisky's production while others may counter that the only thing that should be added to whisky is more whisky! Drinking Scotch whisky with ice, or "on the rocks" is regarded as a positively barbarous innovation by some purists, though their criticism fails to answer for the method's consistent popularity with drinkers.
Whisky is used as a base in many well-loved cocktails and long drinks too. The practice of mixing cocktails first shot to popularity in the United States during the prohibition era, when skilled bartenders in underground speakeasies would compete to mask the unappealing flavour of the low-quality bootlegged spirits their patrons were forced to endure by creating ever more inventive combinations. When the ban on alcohol sales was lifted by the Twenty-First Amendment, and Americans were once more free to enjoy the real deal, it did nothing to diminish the popularity of cocktails: it meant that they could discover how much more delicious their favourite mixes were when made with genuine Scotch whisky. Classic whisky cocktails include the Rusty Nail, in which equal measures of Scotch and Drambuie whisky liqueur are poured over crushed ice; the Whisky Mac, made from whisky and ginger wine and often cited as a cold remedy; and the perennial favourite, the Highball.
The Highball comes in a number of guises, but the classic recipe calls for a shot of whisky in a tall glass topped up with soda or ginger ale. The name is reputed to come from the early days of rail travel, when a ball raised on a high pole signalled that a train was running late. The signal meant "hurry up", and the term evolved into a name for a refreshing drink that could be made in haste without fuss.
The real answer to the debate over how to drink whisky is however you prefer it. There is no one "traditional" way to sup the water of life, and its long history and worldwide popularity mean that you can be assured that whatever way you find of drinking whisky, someone else will have thought of it a long time ago. And if you don't know how you like it best, you can have a lot of fun finding out.
Last updated 2 Apr 2015