High society (An Quaich Society)

High society (An Quaich Society)

The members of Canada 's An Quaich Society are real party animals, but their love of Scotch and the freedom it represents could not be more serious as Stuart Maclean Ramsay reports.

Bars | 16 Jun 2000 | Issue 10 | By Stuart Ramsay

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I first came across Canada’s An Quaich Society on Islay three years ago. I was passing through Bowmore distillery when Christine Logan, the queen of Hebridean distillery guides, began shouting, “The Canadians are coming! The Canadians are coming!” Within 10 minutes, 15 fairly sozzled members of An Quaich, a Canadian version of Leith’s (unaffiliated) Scotch Malt Whisky Society, had been extricated from their minibus and unleashed upon the distillery. It is a good thing that liability lawyers are thin on the ground in the outer regions of Scottish distillation. The Canadians dispersed in 15 different directions, roaming into every nook and cranny of the Bowmore distillery in search of souvenirs and whisky experiences. Smouldering peat was grabbed from the kiln, sherry butts were mounted for photo opportunities, and any bottle of Bowmore that had not been padlocked was fair game to the adventurous sons and daughters of the Maple Leaf. A distracted Christine, who likened the experience to gathering whisky with a sieve, set off to round up the wayward Canadians for a ceilidh, and left me alone with a bottle of Bowmore 17-year-old in the distillery ‘pub’. As I sampled the classic Ileach charms of the 17, a golden sun set over the Atlantic and a sea mist swept slowly off Lochindaal onto the village of Bowmore. For this moment of spiritual bliss, I will be eternally grateful to Christine’s forgetfulness and the Society of An Quaich.It turned out that the society embarks on an annual pilgrimage to Bowmore and to other distilleries across Scotland, inflicting chaos and goodwill wherever they stop for a dram. And rather than engage in ponderous discussions about phenolic compounds and assorted aldehydes in the whiskies they encounter, the members have a blast just drinking and enjoying them. The same hedonistic approach towards single malt Scotch permeates the society in its Canadian homeland.An Quaich (the Gaelic name is taken from the traditional two-handled drinking cup of the Scottish Gaels) was founded in Ottawa, Ontario, back in 1983. Like many provinces and states in North America, the dark shadow of Prohibition still lingers in Ontario, where spirits are controlled by a state-run behemoth, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. The individualistic character and sheer number of single malt Scotches are simply too much for the bureaucratic mind and machinery of state government to handle. Volume takes precedence over quality (which was one of the reasons Prohibition took root in the first place) and the smaller bottlings of whisky and other spirits are excluded from the ‘closed-shop’ liquor stores. When a handful of discerning Ontario drinkers were unable to get a particular brand of malt whisky (Talisker) from a local store in 1983, they went outside the system to purchase a case of the whisky and shared it with friends. Freedom and whisky thus came together and An Quaich was born in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.The Society today has around 750 members who meet in 21 chapters throughout Ontario, with additional members in far-flung outposts across the country. According to David Matthew, the managing director of An Quaich, “the purpose of the society is to educate and provide members with the opportunity to acquire malt whisky that is unavailable locally. An Quaich is dedicated to helping those interested individuals increase their knowledge, appreciation and enjoyment of single malt whisky. It provides the means for sharing and developing that interest, both for the novice and the enthusiast, through regular nosings and tastings and exchanges of news, views and ideas.” The malt whiskies that are sold to the members of An Quaich are mainly imported from independent bottlers in Scotland, including the illustrious Gordon & MacPhail of Elgin and Hart Brothers of Glasgow. But the society also buys whisky from independent distilleries such as Glenfarclas, and more progressive Scotch companies like Morrison Bowmore and Glenmorangie. In addition to the opportunity to buy rare and unavailable malt whiskies, the An Quaich membership of $85 (Canadian) per year includes the informative bi-monthly newsletter, Malt Tidings, and the chance to attend any of the chapter tastings at discounted prices.The chapters meet every second month in a variety of venues, ranging from private clubs and golf clubs to prestigious restaurants. A typical meeting entails the tasting of at least three single malts which are integrated into a multi-course dinner. “Our meetings promote conviviality and friendship among people who share a common bond – the love of malt whisky,” says Peterborough member, Chris Brousseau. “Above all, I think whisky should be shared to be truly appreciated.” Some insights into the success of An Quaich and similar consumer-led whisky societies may be gleaned from the comments of two women members. Cathy, from Toronto, explains her reasons for signing up, “I joined for the same reason that the men joined. I enjoy single malt Scotches, and I want to try more single malts and learn from the tasting and the presentations about each Scotch.”“An Quaich is a unique environment to try new Scotches,” she continued. “The tables range in size from 6 to 10 people and everyone is friendly and welcoming. Each single malt is given an introduction by one of the more knowledgeable club members, but the real fun comes as everyone at the table adds their opinion of the Scotch. As a die-hard wine drinker, I find that single malts offer great variety in taste and aroma that rival the best of wines. Having whisky with dinner is as interesting when you see how the single malts are chosen for the food as a wine would be. But for me the real enjoyment of an An Quaich dinner is the lack of snobbery and pretence and the feeling that everyone there came with the same fine attitude; we drink Scotch because we like Scotch.”Riina,from the same Toronto chapter, described her experience with An Quaich:“Prior to my first An Quaich meeting, I was concerned about facing a stern group of individuals speaking with an unfamiliar, intimidating whisky lingo of feints, foreshots, worts, malting, mashing, sparging, casks, and so on. To my great relief, the friendly, laid-back atmosphere at An Quaich made me feel welcome and at ease.”“The subtleties of single-malt whisky became ever more apparent with subsequent attendance at An Quaich,” Riina added. “A spectrum of malts of various regions, strengths, and ages helped to educate my nose and palate in the wide variety of flavours and textures to be experienced. With this knowledge came the realisation that something that tasted smoky, peaty, salty, and smelled of iodine really could be pleasurable. A strange reality, perhaps, but I began to understand that enthusiasm for single-malt whisky was not the manifestation of macho bravado that I had originally suspected. Based on my initial experiences, it seemed that an An Quaich meeting was not just an excuse for the boys to meet for a few drinks. It was more a gathering of interesting people, good conversationalists, and friendly faces all united by a passion for fine malts.”Perhaps the brand managers of the larger Scotch companies, who spend much of their time closeted in the mediocrity of focus groups, should venture out to the dinners of An Quaich. It is consumers, not marketing departments, who are deciding the destiny of single malt Scotch in North America. The Canadians of An Quaich have discovered the real purpose of good whisky, and they may be coming to a distillery near you. Padlock your Scotches!
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