An oral history of the Speaker's Scotch: Uncorking the secrets behind the least likely antidote to partisanship
On the last day of Parliament before Christmas break, Anthony Rota, Speaker of the House of Commons, was hustling through a hallway when someone stopped and asked him to autograph a bottle of whisky.
Rota happily complied. It was, after all, his whisky. In a way.
The bottle was the newly released Speaker Rota’s Selection Scotch, a lavish and intense cask strength single malt, the latest release following a tradition of each new Speaker of the House of Commons releasing a special bottling of one of the many malts from Scotland.
It speaks to how popular the tradition has become that it has its own niche of collectors: politics nerd meets Scotch connoisseur.
It all sounds like an old, dusty tradition.
One can imagine James Cockburn, Canada’s first Speaker, a waistcoat-wearing Conservative elected in 1867, with monstrous mutton-chop sideburns, demanding a special dram to wet his whistle, perhaps something peaty and dark, drawn from a forgotten cask in the bowels of a Highland warehouse.
But he didn’t start this. Nowhere close.
It started with Peter Milliken in 2003. The retired Liberal MP for Ontario’s riding of Kingston and the Islands became the longest-serving Speaker in Canadian history, presiding over the House during three prime ministers. Among his accolades is an achievement ignored even by his Wikipedia page.
He decided the Speaker should have an official Scotch.
Now the person who starts something is important, but so is the second who repeats it, and the third who makes it a tradition.
Rota is now the fourth consecutive Speaker to select an official Speaker’s Scotch for Canada’s Parliament. Between them, they have released six different single malts over 17 years, each with a distinctive label and special packaging.
Milliken insists the Speaker’s Scotch — and the way it is chosen — acts as an antidote to the rabid partisanship of the modern-day Parliament, although he concedes even the power of one of the world’s most storied drinks can only do so much.
It’s had its critics and controversies. It’s had its supply problems. It’s an intensive labour of love, requiring staff to hand-label thousands of bottles. And it’s even needed an unorthodox facelift because of COVID-19. Through it all, however, this modern tradition has flourished.
It’s now something a new Speaker is most asked about when taking office.
Even so, there is a reluctance to talk about it publicly. Although run on a cost-recovery basis, there can be an optics problem connecting booze too strongly with the corridors of power. and embracing a product often associated with elites and wealth. And a foreign one at that.
To uncork all of this, National Post spoke with each of the Speakers who have presided over the House and the tradition of the Speaker’s Scotch.
It all suitably began on the banks of the River Thames in London, under the imposing façade of Big Ben, in the Palace of Westminster, Britain’s Houses of Parliament.
(Speaker of the House from 2001 to 2011)
: I went on an official visit to Britain to the Speaker there, fairly soon after I was first elected. I visited a few times. And Speaker Michael Martin talked to me about his whisky that he had selected and all that. I met with him and had a taste of his whisky and I thought this is something that we should do in the Parliament of Canada, too.
I arranged to have it done by having a tasting, at which a number of whiskies were offered for tasting to the MPs. It was a popular event. Members from all parties came, a fair number of them. They seemed to like the experience of standing around in the Speaker’s dining room, mixing and mingling and sipping these different whiskies. Then they voted for which one they thought was the best. I voted too, but whichever won the vote was the Speaker’s Selection.
The Speaker’s Selection isn’t really the Speaker’s choice — it’s the member’s choice, they vote for it. I organize the tasting and select the whiskies for the tasting, but it was the members who voted it in.
(Speaker 2011 to 2015)
: After I was first elected, I remember being invited to the Speaker’s event where Mr. Milliken explained to MPs he would be selecting a Scotch but he wanted it to be something members themselves enjoyed. I remember attending that and sampling and voting for the one I liked best.
I thought it was a neat thing to do and a neat way to get members from all different parties in the same room and visiting, over a couple of samples of different Scotches. I thought it was great.
(Speaker 2015 to 2019
): I’m trying to recall whether I’d heard of the Speaker’s Scotch before I became Speaker, frankly. Not long after I became Speaker, someone in the media was interviewing me about my new role and asked me what the Speaker’s Scotch would be. And I said, ‘Oh I get to pick a Scotch? Well, then it’d be Glen Breton.’ But Glen Breton is a single-malt whisky made in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Of course, you can’t call it a Scotch unless it’s made in Scotland.
I was excited about that, but then I learned from the staff, some of them had been there for a while, they explained how it usually works, that the Speaker doesn’t simply pick whatever Scotch he or she wants. In fact, you do a taste-testing.
(Speaker 2019 to present)
: When I became an MP, one of the highlights was going to the Speaker’s dining room and trying the different Scotches that were put before us and we would rank them. One of the questions I got most often after being elected Speaker was, When are you getting a Scotch? When will the Scotch come out?
The first Speaker’s Scotch, chosen by MPs in 2003 was a feisty one, ten-year-old Talisker, with a smoky start and a peppery finish. It’s worlds apart from the second chosen during Milliken’s tenure, a 15-year-old Dalwhinnie, which swaps custard and honey for smoke and pepper. The bottles are specially labeled and sold in the parliamentary dining room. They became popular with MPs to buy as gifts for supporters and friends, especially at Christmas. Speakers present them to international delegations, when visiting others, and serve it at receptions.
The reason I did a second was the members came to me and said you’ve got to have another one of these. This was so much fun, we’ve got to do it again. I said OK, alright.
My staff would bring a list of ones that were available at the LCBO (Ontario’s government liquor stores) to me. We’d discuss which ones we think we should go with and come up with a list of five or six. We’d go down and buy a few bottles of each, bring them up and have them ready for the tasting. When one was chosen, we had labels done for the bottles and had permission to re-label them as Speaker’s Selection.
Two days after being elected Speaker, I had members from all different parties saying, are you going to have your own Speaker’s Selection? Are you going to continue that tradition? It was clear to me early on in my mandate that members would very much appreciate having that tradition carried on, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision.
I think Speaker Milliken found a neat way to engage members in the selection and pick something that was not just reflective of his own taste but something that would be enjoyed by a broad section. Obviously, we couldn’t have 50 different kinds to sample, so we did provide a selection that I either had recommendations from other members or I knew myself were nice bottles.
Scotch can sometimes be associated with a hoity-toity type of thing but in reality, there are a lot of very accessible, enjoyable selections.
I think there is a sweet spot — something that’s very enjoyable, not just bar rail stuff, that has a nice presentation; we obviously want to keep the price point down to something affordable. I did throw in a bottle of Laphroaig (a particularly in-your-face whisky) just to see if anybody would go for the smokier stuff. I don’t think it got too, too many votes, it’s a bit of an acquired taste.
Scheer also had two Speaker’s Selection. A second was needed after the first was discontinued by the distributor. The first was a 12-year-old Glenmorangie with a special aging process. For his second, MPs chose a complex but mellow 12-year-old Balvenie DoubleWood.
When the distributor (for the first) was discontinuing serving the Ontario market, rather than try to find a work around or bootleg it in from a different province, we just decided to have a second selection tasting.
We had a reception for MPs and then they could do a blind taste test and vote. The funny thing is, when we had our reception, I was there and talking to people but it was so busy that I never got to taste any or vote. And then my staff said you have to get to your next event. It’s called the Speaker’s Selection, but I didn’t play much of a role in its selection.
They are hand-labeled. A design team arranged a meeting. I gave them some ideas, they gave me some ideas, and then they came back with a dozen different choices. We modified them a bit and then we picked the one label I thought worked best.
One thing that was part of the design, the plastic that covered the cap, the top, is put on at the factory. We couldn’t change that. In our case it was a plum colour. We had to have a label design that went with that. Someone found a tartan that had that colour in it.
As the Speaker’s Scotch became more popular, Canadian distillers got agitated that Parliament wasn’t using a domestic whisky. It became a scandal in 2016, when Canadian whisky advocates complained to the media. Regan took the brunt of complaints, even though he had insisted on Glen Breton, a single malt from his home province of Nova Scotia included in the taste testing. It didn’t win. A 12-year-old Aberlour did.
I can’t complain about Canadian distillers being upset. Their reaction was entirely reasonable. I have no argument with their reaction. I must say, I would have been delighted if it was Glen Breton, but that wasn’t the one that was selected by the voting.
I was more looking at it with a view towards continuing the tradition Speaker Milliken had started, that it’d be important to establish that first and then see if we wanted to modify it. I do remember being approached by the Canadian distillers about whether or not it would be possible to do something. The suggestion came well after we had already made the Scotch selection.
I could have gone with rye, I suppose, instead. But I’ve never been a big rye drinker, I preferred Scotch. I decided to just run with the Scotch because I thought it would be popular with the members and it was — they weren’t complaining that I wasn’t doing ryes.
One of the things people have expressed concern about is that we have a foreign distiller providing the Speaker’s drink. It is a tradition that it is Scotch, and I don’t want to break that tradition, but one tradition I’m looking to start is to have a Speaker’s Canadian rye whisky as well. I’m hoping that we will all come back (from COVID-19) and part of the return will be a tasting of the different ryes.
After Rota’s election as Speaker, COVID-19 made a tasting and voting by MPs impossible, but demands for a new bottling for Christmas gifts remained.
In February (2020) we had decided we were going to go ahead — but then COVID hit and I thought I’ll wait until we return to some semblance of normal so that we can have an official tasting. Well, we waited and waited and waited. Everyone was asking for it. They started asking again when we got back in September, but as we got close to Christmas, more and more people were asking about it.
Finally, we thought, OK, we’re obviously not going to end up having a big taste test, so we’re going to bring them home at the Speaker’s Farm, which is the Speaker’s residence, and on a Saturday night I had to sacrifice myself and try the different Scotches myself.
My wife’s not a big fan of Scotch, she said she’d run the blind taste test and make sure it is completely random. She had them all lined up and then she had a second run with a little bit of water in them. She knew which one was which. I was not aware of what I was drinking. I really enjoyed the evening and my wife enjoyed it as well.
One really caught Rota’s attention. It packs a huge punch. With a splash of water, it really opened up. That’s the one he picked. It was a cask-strength Aberlour A’Bunadh. Milliken is pleased his tradition carries on. When COVID retreats, he joked, Rota should hold a reception to “see if his selection is upheld by the members.” Such interactions are about more than fun.
So often MPs are only talking to their caucus friends but not with anybody else. When I was (in Parliament), you could go and chat with members on the other side and that was really helpful. Now it doesn’t happen, so you’re left to arguing everything on the House floor and because they aren’t friends with one another, particularly, it’s more hostile
But at the tastings, they end up mixing and chatting with everybody, even switching languages. It was beneficial, I thought, for collegiality among the group. Having these tastings was an important part of what the Speaker can do to keep things more civil in the chambers.