South African Keepers of the Quaich series

Introducing Karen Chaloner  |  Master of the Quaich

Today I am ending my series on the Keepers with an incredible lady who has been instrumental in our Whisky Journey and was the founder of WhiskyLive SA.  Karen Chaloner is the only female Master in South Africa.

Karen Chaloner | Master of the Quaich

Karen, joined the Scotch Whisky industry in 1993, cutting her teeth as the Marketing Manager for Johnnie Walker and J & B in South Africa. The strong growth of Scotch Whisky in South Africa, resulted in her setting up The College of Whisky, established to educate through tastings and lectures. This undoubtedly inspired her to reach an increasingly engaged audience. So, in 2003, she co-founded the Whisky Live Festival, South Africa, which quickly became the biggest whisky festival in the world. It attracted more than 20,000 whisky enthusiasts inspiring and educating newcomers and connoisseurs alike. 

When asked about her passion for whisky, Karen tells us; “Probably the biggest reason I am so passionate about whisky is the people in the industry.  Having had the pleasure of working on two global brands everyone I’ve ever met within this industry from all over the world have been colourful characters – they are entertaining, fun, interesting and seem to have an addictive zest for life which is contagious!” 

Karen continues to play an instrumental and permanent role within the South African Chapter of Keepers of the Quaich. This lively and engaged Chapter was established in the early 1990’s and is known as one of the more active International Chapters in the world.

Karen explains that she had the incredible honour of being invited by The Keepers of the Quaich Society to become a Keeper 16 years ago in 2005.   As you recall from my very first mail – this association is by invitation only – an honour bestowed on a very select and limited bunch of remarkable individuals.

She has subsequently held the position of Vice-Chairman of the SA Chapter of The Keepers of the Quaich and has been asked to remain a permanent member of the Executive Committee, South Africa which consists of The Chairman, Vice-Chairman, The Honorary Secretary & Karen.


Keeper Medal

I know this has been addressed before, but I asked Karen to give me a little more info on how does one become a Keeper?  As previously mentioned, membership is by invitation only with existing Keepers putting up nominees for approval by the Management Committee. 

The Society recognises outstanding achievement in those who work, write or evangelise about Scotch Whisky by honouring them with the title of Keeper of the Quaich. 

The Management Committee, made up of respected employees from the Founding Partners and Member Companies of the Scotch Whisky global industry who are based in Scotland, assess all new Keeper applications for their feedback and ensure that the highest standard of membership is maintained for the Society.

According to the Rules and Constitution, no application will be accepted unless unanimously approved by all members.  Keepers of the Quaich come from all corners of the world to accept their medal, in person, at an unforgettable ceremony and banquet held at Blair Castle, in Perthshire. Only two banquets are held a year in April and October at the spiritual home of the Keepers and it has its own tartan and coat-of-arms.  There are up to 2,800 members from around 100 countries.

Further to that, you can also become a Master – which is a far bigger deal!  Again this honour is bestowed on an individual by invitation only.  All nominees must have made a positive contribution to the Scotch Whisky industry over a minimum period of five years.  So members in the first instance become a Keeper of The Quaich.   The position of Master is possible after ten years as a Keeper but granted only to those who have made an exceptional contribution to the Keepers of the Quaich and the industry.  A select few are invited each year to be distinguished with the role of Master of the Quaich, a rare and revered privilege. This position is also at the invitation of the Management Committee only.  Among the select membership of Keepers and Masters are thousands of years of shared experience and knowledge.  There are only 10 females Masters world-wide of a total close on 200 Masters of the Quaich.

Our Three SA Master's of the Quaich

When we asked Karen how her passion with whisky started, she exclaims; “I fell into the industry by pure chance, but I’ve never looked back.  My husband purchased a small piece of paradise nestled against the Stellenbosch Mountains and started farming. In those days the N2 was rather notorious so commuting to my existing job in Cape Town was not an option.   In 1993 I joined one of the major liquor players in the industry, Gilbeys, based in Stellenbosch.  I worked with Andrew Nel who was the then Marketing Manager of J&B, South Africa.  Besides being one of the most prestigious brands in the world Andrew was an amazing guy to work with and exposed me to the incredibly exciting world of whisky.”

 She further tell us that her passion for whisky stems from the fact that it is a subject steeped in history, a long heritage that dates back to 1494, and a subject with great depth … as well as width. Whisky has all the right credentials.  Even today she explains that she finds it continually keeps her on her toes.  It’s constantly innovating around how it’s made and – most importantly – how it’s enjoyed.

Our next questions is, what would you describe as your most special memory about a whisky experience/tasting?  Karen tells us that she has been so very lucky to have had many amazing whisky experiences from numerous visits to Scotland & Islay, a trip to Japan, global conferences but the one incredible moment that stands out for her was during a Johnnie Walker trade visit to Gauteng in 1999.  Karen and her sales colleague were sitting on a crate outside a “shebeen” when she was handed her first taste of Johnnie Walker Blue Label – unforgettable in every way! Also up there was an early misty morning walk in Speyside to the water source of Cardhu where they drank directly from the spring that feeds the distillery.

When asked who was the most famous person she shared a dram of whisky with? Karen said; “Gosh, between 2008-2014 whisky in South Africa was on fire so we had the honour of hosting the majority of the global whisky ‘rock stars’ at the SA Whisky Live Festival.  To name a few in no particular order:  Charles McLean, Dave Broom, Richard Paterson, Ronnie Cox, Colin Scott, Dennis Malcolm, Billy Walker, Rob Fleming, John Glaser & Martine Nouet.”

To say that we at Whisky Live SA are in awe of this remarkable lady would be an understatement.  Words cannot express how impressed we are with her commitment and passion for whisky and her dedication to continue her good work.  Thank you for your time Karen and more importantly, thank you for flying the WHISKY flag.  We salute you!

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