The Secret Scottish Drinking Society That’s Basically Akin to “Whisky Knighthood”

Meet the Keepers of the Quaich, the people preserving and honoring Scotch whisky

December 21, 2021 9:27 am
A traditional Scottish cup, a quaich, with a dram of single malt whiskey.
A traditional Scottish cup, a quaich, with a dram of single malt whiskey.
Amunsie / Getty Images

Centuries-old ritualistic drinking vessels. Twice-yearly meetings in a castle. A membership strictly off-limits to outsiders. 

Scotch has its own secret — well, more like exclusive — society. It’s called the Keepers of the Quaich, and the 2,800 members (“Keepers”) exist to honor, protect and uplift the legacy of Scotland’s finest export. 

“As a Keeper of the Quaich, it is our job to support the society, and to recognize the legacy and tradition of Scottish History and Scotch whisky,” as Aberlour Master Distiller Gramae Cruickshank tells us. “To qualify, new Keepers must have worked in the industry for a minimum of seven years, and the accolade is recognition of their personal contribution to the Scotch whisky industry.”

Since neither you or I will likely ever be a member, we gathered some insider knowledge from both Cruickshank and veteran whisky writer/aficionado Ian Buxton (author of 101 Craft and World Whiskies to Try Before You Die), both of whom are Keepers, to get the scoop on what it means to be part of the club.

The quaich used in the Keepers of the Quaich
Aberlour’s Master Distiller Gramae Cruickshank holding a quaich
Courtesy of Gramae Cruickshank

First, what’s a quaich?

A quaich (which is sort of pronounced like “quake”) is a two-handled drinking cup or bowl. Traditionally made of wood, these shallow vessels were later crafted out of precious metals — either way, they often featured intricate carvings and designs, and eventually became more of an ornamental gift (because two-handed drinking vessels are kind of awkward). 

They were popular in Scotland starting around the 17th century, but the vessels pre-date that period by hundreds if not thousands of years. As an article on Rampant Scotland suggests, during the Celtic period, druids filled quaichs with blood from the hearts of sacrificed humans. Even centuries later, some quaichs featured glass bottoms so drinkers could keep a wary eye on companions and/or enemies. 

More recently, the quaich represents something a little more gentle. As Cruickshank notes, “It’s been long associated with friendship, trust and the enjoyment of Scotch.”

Ok, so what are the Keepers of the Quaich?

It’s a professional association, founded in 1988. According to their website, “The Society recognises outstanding achievement in those who work, write or evangelise about Scotch Whisky by honouring them with the title Keeper of the Quaich.”

As founder James Espey once noted, being honored as a Keeper is “almost like a Scotch whisky knighthood.”

Buxton offers a more pragmatic view: “Essentially, it exists to acknowledge people — mainly in the [drinks] industry, but not exclusively — who have made a significant contribution to Scotch whisky over a sustained period,” says the author. “Mostly it is companies honoring their own, but from outside you probably have to do a little more to get noticed. Nominations are made by the member companies and vetted by a management committee. Once in, you don’t really have to do anything. It’s more a recognition of achievement.”

Alas, no sacrifices or secret whisky cabals here. As Buxton adds: “I don’t think [the society] does much else other than run the dinners, which is great for networking and industry gossip, and then print a glossy magazine afterwards.”

So this isn’t a secret society like the Illuminati or the Stonecutters?

Given that they have an official website and the aforementioned glossy magazine, no. But it is an invitation-only membership.

What are the rituals? 

Mainly a twice-yearly dinner, held at Blair Castle in Perthshire, Scotland. “And yes, we dress up!” says Cruickshank. “In fact, we have our own tartan — it’s woven from pure wool and the colors represent the main constituents of Scotch whisky: blue for water, gold for barley and brown for peat.” (The Keepers also have their own coat of arms.)

It’s here where new Keepers are introduced and a few distinguished members are honored as a “Master of the Quaich” (the latest one took place in October; it’s happened more than 60 times). A pipe band plays before and after the ceremony, and after enjoying a “wee dram,” newly honored Keepers place their hand on a silver Grand Quaich measuring 24 inches across. 

The nitty gritty for getting in: Keepers, which number just over 2,800 (from over 100 countries) must have worked in the whisky industry for a minimum of seven years. Five Masters of the Quaich are honored during each dinner; they must be inducted as a Keeper at least 10 years prior and have made an “exceptional contribution” to Scotch whisky, according to The Drinks Business. And the Society motto is “Uisgebeatha Gu Brath,” which is Gaelic for “Water of Life Forever” (uisge is Gaelic for “water” and also the origin of the word “whisky”).

So are there secrets?

Unfortunately for you, there are. And it’s with the whisky itself. “The Keepers of the Quaich are blessed with having access to some of the finest expressions of Scotch — both malt and blended whiskies — and the regions are equally represented,” says Aberlour’s Cruickshank. “There are exclusive bottlings presented at each banquet. But that’s between the Keepers.”


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.