Keepers of the Quaich

The Keepers of the Quaich is a Scotch Whisky society with membership by invitation only. Along with others, James Espey founded it to acknowledge those who have contributed to the Scotch Whisky industry.

As an aside, James has held very senior positions in the liquor industry including at UD, IDV, Seagram and others. He’s known for the creation of Bailey’s and Malibu, among other brands, and is the consummate marketing and managerial professional.

He also has a great sense of humor so it comes as no surprise that he would help found a 500-year-old society in 1988.

This is a Quaich (pronounced kweix). It is the classic small drinking bowl of Scotland and the centerpiece of the society and the induction ceremony.

Everything about the society and its induction process is serious and worthwhile but in my humble opinion it’s a hoot, especially the stories surrounding the event and ceremony.

On the serious side, while I’m not sure how it works today, the people who ran the society when I was inducted put on a great event. The Keepers had its own tartan and inductees received a cummerbund made in that plaid. There is a coat of arms with the motto Uisgebeatha Gu Brath which means “The Water of Life For Ever.’’

The event itself is held at Blair Castle (not to be confused with the Blair Witch project), which is the ancient home and fortress of the Earls and Dukes of Atholl. The ceremony, as I recall it, was something to behold even for the most blasé  “been there and done it” booze business executive.

Throughout the induction ceremony and the serious and splendid dinner, you actually feel honored and totally enthralled by the evening. It isn’t until the end of the meal when the inductees are full of Scotch, Haggis and singing while standing on the tables that one realizes that this is just good fun.

About the standing on the table bit, perhaps some readers who are members can enlighten me as to the number of injuries that might have occurred over the years when tables collapsed. My memory is a bit hazy on that aspect of the evening. I recall standing and singing a Scottish drinking song and vaguely remember joining everyone else as we stood on the chairs while raising our voices. But, how the few hundred others and I got on the tables to end the song is beyond my recollection.

Ah, and the Haggis. Now there’s a tale Laddie.

As the dinner began two men appeared, one holding the Haggis and the other looked like he had come from central casting and, with a booming voice, recited the Robert Burns poem, Address to a Haggis. Allow me to set the stage for you.

As you remember from High School, Robert Burns was a renowned Scottish poet and lyricist, widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

Haggis is a dish containing sheep’s liver, lungs and heart mixed with onion, salt, oatmeal, other stuff and simmered and served in a sheep’s stomach. Let’s just say that, like Scotch, it’s an acquired taste. (The term ‘mystery meat’ you used in High School doesn’t begin to describe it.)

The poem is a celebration of the dish’s role as a unique and symbolic part of the Scottish identity and culture. So it’s more than fitting that the Keeper’s dinner should begin with this presentation of the Haggis accompanied by the Burns poem.

As the story goes, at one particular induction dinner, things went awry. Picture the server carrying this enormous Haggis followed by the booming voice reciting the poem.

As he walks down the dining room, his voice gets louder as he approaches the final verse, the translation of which is:

You powers who make mankind your care

And dish them out their meals

Old Scotland wants no watery food

That splashes in dishes

But if you wish her grateful prayer

Give her a haggis!

Just then the server slips and the Haggis is tossed four feet in the air. It lands with a loud thud and showers Haggis all over the place. We’re talking meat and offal on the tables, floors, chandeliers and a few dozen Keepers in tuxedos with their unique tartan cummerbunds.

At which point one of the longstanding members was heard to remark: “I see they’ve added a new element to this year’s event…the flying Haggis.”

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Business in the Bush

There were two couples and the pilot on the small plane as it returned from sightseeing in the African countryside. They were heading for the “base camp” some 20 minutes away. Actually, base camp was a misnomer; it should have been referred to as the Ritz in the Jungle.

It was a very elaborate sales incentive trip that a spirits company decided to offer its distributors and outdo Seagram. From what I’m told this was indeed a spectacular trip.

No one really knows what caused the eruption and noises coming from one of the distributor’s stomach. It could have been the huge breakfast, maybe the elaborate dinner the night before, perhaps jetlag, or even the water. Possibly, it was all of the above.

Whatever the cause, the big guy in the back row was in distress. “Hey pilot, I got some stomach trouble…real bad…how long ‘til we land?”

The pilot’s answer was far from comforting. “About 20 minutes. Can’t go much faster.”

“You don’t understand son, I can’t last that long. Isn’t there any place closer where you can land?” howled the distributor.

“Not really” said the pilot.

By now, the other three people in the plane were also in distress worrying about his discomfort and the elevated sounds coming from the distributor. “Please,” said his wife, “isn’t there anything you can do.”

“Well…Okay, I have an idea,” the pilot offered. “There is a flat area without brush just ahead. I think I can land…it’ll be a bit choppy…not too bad…just hang on.”

Sure enough the pilot landed amidst a few bumps but surprisingly smooth for the middle of the jungle.

“Now what?” asked the distributor.

“As soon as I stop, leave the plane and head about 200 yards to that brush area and do what you got to do.”

The plane had barely come to a stop when he jumped out and did a combination crab-walk and jog for the foliage.

A few minutes later he walked out of the brush with a smile on his face. Ran to the plane, got in and the pilot immediately took off.

*                                             *                                             *

Somewhere in eastern Africa there is a bushman who often tells the villagers the story of how he was tending his flock and, out of nowhere, an airplane lands. A big white man jumps out of the plane into the bush, makes awful body noises, jumps back into the plane and off they go.

To this day the bushman must be telling his friends that he has no idea about how or why this happened. But it was surely the strangest thing he had ever seen. It took hours to round up his flock.

*                                             *                                             *

If it were a Seagram trip, there would have been a bathroom on the plane.

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Roughing it — A Vodka Fable

The Chairman of a global spirits company decided that he wanted to build a distillery in the land of his ancestors in Eastern Europe. After all, he reasoned, the communist regimes had recently fallen and since most countries in the region were impoverished, it would be economically beneficial for all. The country was known for its Vodka capabilities (not to mention consumption) and had the manufacturing infrastructure. With some upgrading and reasonable investment, world class Vodka could be produced and sold by his company.

Perhaps the rudiments of manufacturing infrastructure existed but everything else in the country was in a state of economic disrepair.

Nevertheless, the wheels were set in motion. The executive in charge of the European business unit was given the assignment of making it happen.

Things moved along well. A plant with capacity for expanded growth was found, production experts were engaged, top-notch grain was somehow located, distillation and formulae were worked out and the plant began to produce Vodka.

Proud of the achievement his idea set into motion, the Chairman decided that he would come to the country to officially open the factory and visit with the leaders of the newly democratized country. He also thought it would be a good idea to meet with the leaders at a lakefront villa or dacha.

This was a major problem for the executive in charge. Even the most lavish dachas were shabby and dilapidated and the Chairman and his entourage were used to the very best.

What to do? His colleagues in New York told him to spare no expense. The Chairman was known for his anger and disappointing him would be a career ender.

So, the head of Europe found a dacha, engaged workmen from the country and flew in top-notch carpenters and plumbers from England to assist. Floors and ceilings were repaired, electricity was enhanced, plastering and painting took place and the rundown dacha was transformed. Furnishings were rented and flown in.

About a week before the scheduled arrival, the team realized that getting food the Chairman enjoys was an additional problem. No worries … a container of provisions was purchased in London and also flown in.

All was set for the arrival of the Chairman after much last minute scurrying and concerted effort.

His private plane was met and, since it was late at night, the entourage was driven right to the dacha and went to bed.

The next morning the executive arrived at the dacha and was asked by the Chairman to join him at breakfast, which was an elaborate meal.

The executive (holding his breath) said, “So, Chairman, how did you enjoy your first night?”

To which the Chairman replied, “Oh you know me, I’m used to roughing it in these third world countries.”

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