45 Commando's whisky book, listing all of the donations it has received from departing officers
45 Commando's whisky book, listing all of the donations it has received from departing officers

The most incredible ‘secret’ collection of whisky

Secret Scottish whisky bars come in all shapes and sizes. 

The whisky bar in the officers’ mess at 45 Commando’s Arbroath headquarters is one of the whisky world’s hidden gems.

From the outside, it  looks like a fairly utilitarian modern building. In fact, the single-storey building at RM Condor near Arbroath looks like a supersized suburban bungalow. Step inside though, and all that changes, because this is the home of one of the most remarkable whisky bars in the world.

There, lined up along three long shelves of dark mahogany, are well over 200 different bottles of the amber nectar. The range is dizzying, with everything from run-of-the-mill malts to collector’s items from America, Japan, India, Ireland, Bhutan, Belgium, England and Zimbabwe. There’s even a gold blend from the Eastern Highlands distillery in Zimbabwe and a bottle of Mekhong rice whisky from Thailand.

45 Commando’s second-in-command, Major Simon Giles says: ‘Back in 1980 a tradition was established where every officer who leaves presents the mess with a single malt that the mess doesn’t already have.

45 Commando’s whisky book, listing all of the donations it has received from departing officers

‘If they want to purchase a more expensive whisky, it’s okay for two or three officers to club together. That’s how we build and then fund our collection. As each bottle is emptied, we buy a new one of the same whisky. There are some quite expensive bottles up there.’

With every officer who leaves and every overseas visitor who wishes to add to the gaiety of nations, the collection grows by a bottle of single malt, with 15-20 officers contributing each year. Every new entry is lovingly recorded in the battered leather mess book, which looks more like a whisky-themed visitor’s book. It’s a fascinating record that provides an unorthodox history of the regiment since 1981.

The first entry is from Lt Andy Canning in January 1981, who on his departure left a bottle of Dufftown Glenlivet eight-year-old. The second entry is from Capt Scott MacKenzie of the US Marine Corps, whose parting gift was a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Sour Mash Whiskey, and a note that this is a bourbon which, like the USMC, is ‘once tasted, never forgotten’.

45 Commando at BallindallochIndeed, closer inspection shows that the book is peppered with bourbons. ‘The most recent US Marine over was Major General Niel E Nelson, the former commander of US Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa, so a very senior US Marine Corps general,’ said Giles. ‘A lot of US Marines have connections to Scotland and absolutely love the area so when they come to a unit like this which embraces being in Scotland as fully as we can, they love it. He was so impressed with our traditions that he decided to leave a really nice bottle of Talisker.

‘More recently we had General Laster, who is commandant of the Marine staffs, so second only to the commandant of the US Marine Corps, and he was holidaying in Scotland so we hijacked him for a day and got him to come and stay, and he loved the whole experience.’

The most recent bottle recorded in the book is a 16-year-old Royal Brackla, the gift of outgoing Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Tony Turner RM. As is traditional, Turner presented the whisky at his leaver’s dinner, at which stage it went straight behind the bar and was available to buy immediately.

‘As most leavers find, there’s not much left by the end of the evening,’ laughs Turner. ‘I bought the whisky and then bought drinks for everyone present, so I paid twice, but it was worth it. Our whisky collection is a tradition we’re really keen to sustain because it adds character to the organisation and is a tangible memory of all those who have gone before.’
Although there is a huge array of drams on offer, there’s a definite emphasis on quality over quantity.

‘The more expensive whiskies costing £4 a dram are popular, as is the Corps’ own single malt – a 12-year-old The Singleton from Dufftown. The vast majority of whiskies come in at £2 a nip with the ‘house’ blended whisky available for no charge but consumed sparingly because the unlucky officer who finishes the bottle (which is hidden within a used 105 shell casing with only the optic protruding) has to replace the whole two-litre bottle. The charges are designed to allow all the whiskies to be replaced as they are drunk, and if the whisky consumed is no longer available, the nearest option will be used.

45 Commando bought a barrel of Ballindalloch whisky

But the collection is about far more than mere alcohol. ‘Whisky anchors us in Scotland, gives us a greater sense of where we are, and makes officers from outside Scotland think more about Scottish culture,’ says Major Michael ‘Dinger’ Bell from Dumfries.

Whisky is also being used as a means to strengthen the enduring bonds shared by the officers who have served in 45 Commando, an elite unit, which was formed in 1943 in the days leading up to D-Day. Simon Giles, the president of the mess committee who leaves Arbroath shortly to continue his 30-year career in the Marines with 43 Commando, is a whisky collector with a penchant for Macallan. He had the idea of using uisge beatha as a way of cementing the shared experience of men who had passed through RM Condor.

‘We’ve also just bought a barrel of Ballindalloch whisky last year, which cost us £5,000,’ he said. ‘We thought it would be a bit of fun so we’ve split it into 25 shares – we photocopied the certificate of ownership, the CO stamped it and we’ve each been given our own number. It was filled last year on the 332nd birthday of the corps, 28 October [the Marines were formed on 28.10.1664]. We’ll leave it for at least 12 years; if we bottle it then we’ll get 12 bottles each.

‘The idea is that every year, on or around the corps birthday in October, anyone who is available meets up in Dufftown and we all have our AGM. It’s not just about the whisky, it’s about the journey. It’s all about that camaraderie – I’m sure the whisky will be great, but it’s much more about maintaining that link to 45 Commando and to whisky country because the two are inextricably linked. It captures that moment in time when we all served here together.’

The Ballindalloch syndicate is simply an extension of the offcers’ mess at 45 Commando, where whisky is used in the way it was intended, as a means of hefting its drinker to Scotland, and of strengthening the bonds between those who share drams. Or, as the great Colin Donald Snr once memorably said: ‘Whisky should be a lubricant for life, not a fuel’.

That perfectly sums up the officers’ mess whisky bar at 45 Commando, one of the spirit’s most welcome surprises.