It is a strange thing to say but there are only two countries in the world where Scotch whisky is more than just an alcoholic drink. The first is, of course, Scotland. Scotch is that nation’s greatest product, its finest export and the one drink that places a relatively small country in the top league of the world’s nations.The other, oddly enough, is India. We like to think that the Raj bequeathed us the legacy of Scotch-drinking, but I’m not so sure.
The British drank a lot of gin when they were in India (tonic water was invented here and so was that great mixed drink gin and tonic) and yet there’s not much gin consumed in India these days.
We prefer vodka which has no British connection. Prohibition in the post-independence era made Scotch seem like the forbidden fruit. Despite police raids and anti-smuggling drives, the Indian thirst for Scotch was so insatiable that the smugglers found it worth their while to persist.
And often they mixed Indian whisky with Scotch and passed it off as the real thing. In the process, Scotch became much more than a mere drink. It became a measure of several other things.
Torquhil Campbell (well, his full title is The Thirteenth Duke of Argyll) came here in the Nineties from London to sell Chivas only to find that Indians had not been allowed to develop a taste for it because the smugglers steered clear of Bronfman-related products.
Peter Prentice started out selling J&B Scotch, which nobody in India had heard of, but by the time he switched to marketing Chivas, he found that Indians were more receptive to quality.
And a new generation which had no memory of the dodgy so-called Scotch sold by ‘smugglers’ showed a genuine interest in learning more about blended Scotch and rare single malts.
It was Peter who put me up for membership of The Keepers of the Quaich. This is a body in the heart of the Scotch whisky establishment with about 3,000 (at best) members from around the world who are chosen for their appreciation of “the great cause of Scotch whisky.”
Something like 95 per cent of the Keepers are whisky professionals and after 10 years of membership the most distinguished Keepers are chosen as Masters of the Quaich.
The society is taken very seriously by the whisky world, membership is subject to rigorous screening by the management committee and every big name in the whisky world is a member.
For instance, this year, they made Diageo boss, Ivan Menezes a Master and the Keepers included people like Andrew Lindsay who supplied the finest quality grain to Chivas Brothers for their whisky.
So I was somewhat sceptical when Peter made me fill in a nomination form. But obviously their selection process is not infallible and so I found myself at Blair Castle, near Edinburgh for the investiture ceremony.
This turned out to be more elaborate than I had imagined. The guests were in evening dress, which in the case of the Scots meant kilts and in the case of Torquhil, meant full Ducal regalia including the silver salmon symbol that has been the mark of his people for over a thousand years.
Foreigners wore black tie (except for Ivan Menezes who carried off his kilt with style – clearly he’s been doing this for a long time!) and the women were expected to wear long gowns with the sash of the Quaich.
We were led to a large room in the castle where we lined up till each of us was called to put his hand on the Quaich (a large silver bowl, basically) and to take a solemn vow to uphold the traditions of the Keepers.
Then, they pinned a medal on each of us, we shook hands with Lord Dalhousie, the Grandmaster of the Quaich (it all sounds vaguely Masonic in the retelling, I admit) and then we wandered off for a full-on banquet in the Scottish style with marching soldiers, military bands (bagpipers etc) an ode to the haggis (a Scottish delicacy that, regrettably, has limited appeal to non-Scots), formal toasts and finally entertainment which ended with Lord Bruce keeping up his family’s tradition of leading the Keepers in a performance of ‘Scotland Yet’.
From HT Brunch, November 9
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