Today Ian Buxton toasts Dr Jim Beveridge from Johnnie Walker who has just received an OBE and looks into the occasionally murky world of whisky and honours.
As you may have read recently, Dr Jim Beveridge, master blender for Johnnie Walker has been appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the latest Queen’s Honours list. It couldn’t happen to a nicer or more modest chap – and he joins an exclusive group of whisky notables. In 2016 David Stewart, the long-serving malt Master at the Balvenie, was awarded the MBE while his opposite number at Glen Grant, Dennis Malcolm received an OBE – one rung up the awards ladder. More recently, Nigel Mills, co-founder and chairman of The Lakes Distillery was appointed a CBE (a couple of steps up the awards hierarchy) while, at the same time, David Gosnell of Bushmills received the OBE.
So I expect by now you’re wondering, what are these awards, who else in whisky has received one and, most interesting of all, how are they decided? There is no particular mystery about the British awards system. The aim is to recognise people who have made achievements in public life, or committed themselves to serving and helping Britain: “they’ll usually have made life better for other people or be outstanding at what they do.” as it says on the www.gov.uk/honours. There’s nothing obscure about that and, other than the staunch republicans among us, we can probably agree that it is appropriate to recognise exceptional achievement or national service. But who decides and how do they know who is worthy?
Though these are the Queen’s Awards, it’s not actually Her Majesty who decides. Specialist committees, comprising senior civil servants along with people who are independent of government, recommend awards to a main committee who then forward them to the Prime Minister’s office and then to the Queen. If you know someone particularly deserving, you can nominate them on the website.
This system was introduced by John Major as Prime Minister but previously the basis for an award was, at best, opaque and, at worst, corrupt. There may have been some skulduggery surrounding the so-called ‘Whisky Barons’ of the 1920s ennobled by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, most notably the creation of Lord Woolavington (formerly James Buchanan). It is said that he paid handsomely for his peerage – allegedly, the sum of £50,000, or about £2m today – but signed the cheque with his new title and dated it for one day after the announcement was due, to ensure that the wily Lloyd George would honour the new honour! But rest assured Messrs Beveridge, Stewart and Malcolm haven’t written any dodgy cheques! Their awards are strictly on merit.
Though there have been some involved with whisky production who have received gongs, like Ronald Martin from United Distillers (1931-2005, awarded OBE in 1991) or Professor Geoffrey Palmer from Heriot Watt University who received an OBE in 2003, the most senior awards, including knighthoods tend to come from the commercial side of the business. Examples include Sir Anthony Tennant (1930 – 2011), knighted in 1992 for his work at IDV and at Guinness following the ignominious departure of Ernest Saunders, and Sir George Bull, knighted 1998, having been one of the principal architects of the then-largest merger in UK corporate history with the union of Grand Metropolitan with Guinness to create Diageo. A more recent business knight is Sir Ian Good, chairman of the Edrington Group from 1994 to 2013. He was knighted in 2008. Interestingly, his predecessor John Macphail (1923-2004) received the lesser award of CBE, despite his obituary describing him as “one of the most inspirational and influential figures in the Scotch whisky industry”.
So here’s to all the distinguished individuals mentioned here, and all the others that I should have saluted but have omitted. Let’s raise a glass to their contribution to whisky, along with the hope that the new generation of distinguished whisky women will shortly have their special place in history.
Who will be the first women in whisky to be honoured? I leave it to you to speculate…..
Though he has neither a beard nor any visible tattoos or piercings, Ian Buxton is well-placed to write about drinks. A former Marketing Director of one of Scotland’s favourite single malts, his is a bitter-sweet love affair with Scotland’s national drink – not to mention gin and rum, or whatever the nearest PR is pouring. Once, apparently without noticing, he bought a derelict distillery. Follow his passionate, authentic hand-crafted artisanal journey on the Master of Malt blog. Or just buy his books. It’s what he really wants.