My journey began with an e-mail from Evonne Eadie, National Reserve Brand Ambassador for Diageo India, introducing me to Aparajaita Mukherjee from their brand advocacy team, who wanted to speak with me about my nomination to the Keepers of the Quaich programme.
I was both pleased and excited no end. Many forms and e-mails later, I was finally on my way to Scotland to becoming a “Keeper”, an honour and a privilege for being a champion of Scotch whisky over many years.
I had never thought that my first visit to Scotland would be to say “I do”, to uphold the traditions and honour of Scotch whisky! But after many failed attempts, the last being in 2020 due to Covid, this finally broke the jinx and away I flew – towards a land I knew so well, without ever being there.
We drove to Gleneagles Hotel from Edinburgh airport, past the city through fields of ploughed red earth ready for barley, bright yellow rapeseed carpets and grassy knolls with sleepy cows, watchful sheep and frolicking lambs. Bursts of gorse and daffodils were everywhere.
The sun played with fluffy clouds and the occasional dark rain-soaked ones, warning that the pleasant weather was just a warm welcome. The cold, gusty winds on arrival at the hotel filled me with the promise of excitement that I was so ready for. And, of course, my first sip of “uisge beatha” in its homeland!
The pre-event welcome cocktails and dinner hosted by Ian Smith, Head of Corporate Relations, Diageo Scotland, and the Chairperson of ‘Keepers of the Quaich’, was warm and friendly. It was a deliciously paired dinner with crafted cocktails by Miran Chauhan, who heads the beverage programme at the fabulous Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience centre.
It was also an opportunity to meet with some of the other nominated Keepers, from India and around the world. And taste some very special drams – Johnnie Walker Masters of Flavour 48YO, put together by Malt Master Donna Anderson, Distillation Master Douglas Murray, Cask Master James Carson and Blend Master Jim Beveridge.
There was the Singleton of Glen Ord Cask Strength 38YO and Talisker Xpedition Oak The Atlantic Challenge 43YO finished in casks with staves from a 3,264-mile trans-Atlantic journey and accompanied by a part of the stave too! Awe-inspiring whiskies in exemplary company.
The red carpet welcome into Blair Castle, where the induction ceremony and banquet were to be held, was spectacular with the Atholl Highlanders, the only private army in the whole of Europe, standing to attention with the sound of bagpipes filling the evening air. The ceremony was private in a small chamber presided by the Duke of Argyll, Grand Master of the Quaich, and Ian Smith, chairperson of the Keepers of the Quaich.
The notes of bagpipes filled the air at the red carpet welcome into Blair Castle.
This is where we swore allegiance to protecting the honour of Scotch whisky by placing a hand on the ceremonial ‘Grand Quaich’. For those of you not in the know, the ‘Quaich’ is a ceremonial receptacle where good whisky is sipped from in celebration of everything that matters.
This was followed by the seated banquet in the grand ballroom to the sound of music peppered with stories and speeches. The highlight of the banquet was an ode to “haggis” by Robert Burns, performed brilliantly and without restraint alongside a massive whole haggis brought in ceremoniously – such is its power and that of Robert Burns alongside Scotch whisky!!
I must say, I quite enjoyed the haggis in spite of my initial scepticism. The uisge beatha sipped from my personal quaich helped no end, I’ll admit, along with my unabated spirit of adventure that was Scotland.
Ye banks and braes o’ bonie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary fu’ o’ care!
My romance with Scotland and Scotch whisky continued over the next four days. I wanted to soak in both, the spirit of the land and that from the stills, as one was firmly entwined with the other.
My weariness and care from the two years of darkness lifted as I travelled past the lofty snow-capped mountains, the ripples of the lochs – Lubnaig, Linnhe, Lomond, the Rob Roy walk – a trekker’s delight, the misty roads.
We stopped at little village cafes along the way for hot chocolate and scones, a warm Scotch pie or the occasional flapjack and pain au raisin. I imagined the carpet of purple on Rannoch Moor as the dark brown patches of heather would bloom in the summer with the peat bogs below, filling the air with the hope of honey and joy.
I paused awhile at the three sisters of Glen Coe and imagined the betrayal of the MacDonald Clan by William of Orange. Stared at the majestic Ben Nevis, wistfully at Dalwhinnnie and smiled broadly at a signboard in Buchlyvie village (Stirlingshire) that read “Village Tandoori”!!
Nessie beckoned and a boat trip down Loch Ness with a few drams of Auchentoshan 12YO did keep the cold out, but did nothing to conjure the elusive “monster” up!
I wondered at the marvel of the three bridges of Forth as I sailed under them on the river Forth and passed by the ancient abbey at Incholm, the fishing villages of Fife, mini-islands with colonies of seals lying around, little puffins bobbing up and quickly disappearing while I sipped on Highland Park, braving the upper deck, drizzles, wind and all.
Visits to Glenkinchie, Glengoyne and Deanston distilleries were just as I’d imagined: a sense of déjà vu with some fantastic tastings and extremely hospitable people. The fermentation vats where all the magic begins, the stills where the heart says hello, and the cellars where the oak and atmosphere tease the heart into playing the game and giving us a taste of real romance.
I stood at the road at GlenGoyne where the spirit was distilled in the Highlands on my left and rested in the Lowlands on the right. I pondered at the water from the Kinchie burn which cooled the condensers to give us the new uisge beatha that would become the absolutely delicious Glenkinchie. I watched the river Teith flow by Deanston, its waters powering the distillery, which was once a cotton mill!
A day in Edinburgh took me past the imposing Edinburgh Castle, Hollyrood Palace, splendid museums and theatres, memorials to local celebrities, political stalwarts and writers like Robert Burns, R.L. Stevenson, and more. There were a great many restaurants and bars which I will hopefully discover next time.
However, if you like cheese as much as I do, Ian J Mellis’s store is the place to head for. It’s a veritable treasure trove of local Scottish cheeses and that’s a story for another time. I packed a whole lot to pair with single malts from across Scotland.
I must say I could not do the cuisine justice as there just wasn’t enough time – which only means I’ll travel that road again!
In closing, I’d like to share a few very eloquent verses by Robert Burns that bring alive the spirit from grain to glass. And it truly is a great honour to be recognised for your work with Scotch whisky over the years.
To be inducted as a Keeper of the Quaich is like being enveloped in the warmth of a family of passionate people who love and respect Scotch whisky and share that with the world. I raise a glass to the spirit of those early visionaries who walked the path that bottled the spiritual sweat that changed our lives forever. Slainte!
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise;
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.
‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy;
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland.
The new inductees to the Keepers of the Quaich swore allegiance to protecting the honour of Scotch whisky. The Quaich is a ceremonial receptacle where good whisky is sipped from in celebration of everything that matters.