A malt for all moods (Lord Thurso)

A malt for all moods (Lord Thurso)

Jane Slade talks to Lord Thurso, a Patron of the Qaich, about his family, his castle and his long love affair with Scotch.

People | 16 Apr 2000 | By Jane Slade

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It seems a contradiction that the chief executive of one of the smartest health farms in Britain should be a whisky lover. Not only that but when he makes his three-minute trek home from his office at the carrot juice and lettuce emporium of Champneys in deepest Hertfordshire to his cottage in the grounds, he immediately rips off his suit and tie and pours himself a generous dram of The Famous Grouse.
“As an apéritif it is hard to beat,” he declares defensively. Such is his devotion to the blend that he buys it in two-litre bottles from his local
off-licence.Lord Thurso is a likeable character who has beguiled not only big business but also Fleet Street journalists who love waxing lyrical about his extraordinary resemblance to the missing peer Lord Lucan. “They have christened me the Lucan look-a-like laird,” Thurso explains, adding that no matter how irritating he finds the comparison, he will never be persuaded to shave off his luxuriant moustache.Unlike the disgraced peer who disappeared after allegedly murdering his children’s nanny, Lord Thurso is, in contrast, a devoted family man and businessman, dividing his life between his health farm in England and his semi-ruined castle in Scotland. He sits on countless committees and organisations both sides of the border, and holds many presidencies. To name but two, he is the current chairman of the celebrated annual International Wine and Spirits Competition and a Patron of the Quaich – an exclusive organisation for whisky lovers. “Whisky has become my perfect drink,” he says. “In my late teens I just drank blends, I did not appreciate a 20-year-old malt. Malts are something you grow into. I think a great old
mature whisky should be drunk by great old mature men.”While Thurso at 47 may be some way off old age, he has no problem sourcing the malt to match his mood. “I like drinking Highland Park sitting alone by a roaring fire, listening to piobreach pipe music which is slow and lamenting,” he says. “I like drinking Old Pulteney when I am fishing. I always wear a kilt when I am at home in Scotland and have an old sporran flask which I fill with malt whisky. There is nothing like it on a cold day. There is also nothing better than landing a nice salmon and toasting it with a nip.”Thurso is still recovering from suffering the recent indignity of being bounced out of the House of Lords along with several other hereditary peers as part of a radical shake-up of the British constitution. This means he is now free to stand as an MP in the House of Commons. “Politics is in my blood,” he explains. Indeed, his grandfather was Sir Archibald Sinclair who was the former leader of the Liberal Party and briefly the Secretary of State for Scotland, and his father was Lord-Lieutenant of Caithness and front bench Liberal spokesman on Scotland in the Lords. He was also one of Scotland’s leading landowners with estates comprising some 50,000 acres, including grouse moors, farms and crofts and the River Thurso. The family also has strong royal connections; the current baron has maintained links with the Queen Mother who in her fitter days used to fish with the family on her bi-annual visits to the Castle of Mey. But despite his aristocratic and political background John Thurso decided to forge a future in hotel management winding up a director of London’s Savoy Hotel and running the exclusive Cliveden country hotel in Berkshire. Yet he displays none of the usual chattels of success. He is delightfully down to earth and the only thing he enjoys more than talking about Scotch, is drinking it. It was also something of an achievement when the one-time burly, cigar-chomping, whisky-swilling 16 stone executive shed over three stone in the first 12 months of taking over Champneys. He gave up the fatty foods and spent many hours on the rowing machine, but the whisky continued to flow. “I very rarely drink it at lunchtime now,” he admits as his concession to temperance. “It seems odd to have a glass in my hand at one o’clock. But if I have been out shooting I might have a glass with tea. But the drink really comes into its own after six. It is so versatile. It can be as fine as a cognac after dinner, or you can cut it with water to make it long and cold or drink it neat like a brandy.”Curiously Thurso discovered whisky all by himself. “My father was more of a wine buff, but he was there when I had one of my first drams. I was going first footing with him on New Year’s Day with him. We visited a woman who had been recently widowed by one of his workers on the farm and she brought out a wee dram for me. I must have been about nine or 10 but my father let me drink it. I remember sitting there beside a coal fire, eating cake and drinking whisky. I developed the taste, but used to drink it with lemonade. In those days there would always be a jug of water and a bottle of lemonade on the bars in northern Scotland. “Now people give me a lot of whisky, and I drink it. I do not collect to keep, I am a consumer. But I do have a bottle of Gerston whisky dated 1880 which was given to my great-great grandfather. It is unopened and probably worth about £2,000 because the distillery closed at the turn of the century. This is probably the only bottle left. I understand it was very good but I will never sell it and I haven’t decided when to drink it.”Thurso is a Highlander with Norse in his genes, so a passionate stance regarding Scotch is scarcely surprising. And there is nothing quite like downing the drams on his own turf. “I am president of the Highland Games in our local town of Halkirk so my wife and I always have a tent with lots of whisky. People drop by and share drams with us, which is a very convivial, celebratory and carousing way of drinking whisky.”His favourite malts are those distilled close to his castle which stands next to the warring waves and crashing rocks on Scotland’s northern coastline, just 25 minutes from Wick and the Old Pulteney distillery with which his family has enjoyed close links. He prefers a whisky with a north east hardness like Highland Park and
Old Pulteney.Thurso is also one of 12 Patrons of the Quaich which he considers a huge honour. “We are all dedicated to whisky, to its purity and variety not only as a commodity but also as Scotland’s greatest export,” he orates. “We are like a constitutional aristocracy. We have no power but considerable influence. It is a great honour to be a Keeper of the Quaich but particularly to be a Patron.” Grand masters of the past have included the Duke of Argyll and Lord Macfarlane of Bearsden. The Thurso malt collection also includes Glenmorangie and Glenfarclas. His love of whisky is, like politics, in the family blood. His forebear and namesake Sir John Sinclair was immortalised on a presentation ‘clan tin’ containing a bottle of Glenfiddich Special Reserve Single Malt Scotch Whisky. The artist was the celebrated 19th century Scottish portrait painter Raeburn.
The Clan Tins were part of Grant’s collectable range and are no longer in production. But a limited quantity may still be available in
specialist outlets.Like many of his countrymen, Thurso is unequivocal when it comes to pronouncing on Scotch. “There is no such thing as bad whisky - just good whisky and great whisky,” he declares. Indeed few would argue with that.
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