The concept is simple: whisky producers donate bottles or casks, which are auctioned as a charity fundraiser. The good part is that these whiskies are truly unique and will never again be available from the producers once the auction closes.
The first Distillers’ One of One auction took place in December 2021, and raised more than £2.4m for the Distillers’ Charity, the philanthropic arm of the Worshipful Company of Distillers. Then, through a partnership with Inspiring Scotland they established the Youth Action Fund, which applies the money to projects intended to improve the life chances of disadvantaged young people living in Scotland’s whisky-making communities.
There are 39 lots in this year’s auction, ranging from single bottles to whole casks, donated by some of the biggest brands in Scottish whisky. Sotheby’s is now accepting online bids in this year’s auction, which will conclude at Hopetoun House near Edinburgh on 5 October. Bidding on several lots has already passed the lower estimates, and interest will intensify as the end date draws nearer, but at the moment it is still possible to make astonishingly low bids on some truly exceptional whiskies.
On one level, this event has to be viewed as an advertising opportunity, where whisky-makers can present their wares on a grand stage. While this is only the second One of One auction, the theatricality of many of the lots suggests that while the common objective of the donors is to raise money for a good cause, there is still considerable rivalry. One of the areas in which this is most evident is in the appearance of the bottles. Many are so elaborately designed that they would not look out of place in an exhibition of contemporary sculptures.
For instance, Islay distillery Bowmore’s stark, wedge-shaped magnum is a brooding presence, inspired by the island’s coastal sea stacks. It is also a technical marvel, engineered with what is effectively a hidden U-bend at the back of the bottle, so that the 55 year old whisky fills it to the very top. Meanwhile, Diageo have supplied a magnum of 50 year old Brora, shaped like the vertical-slit pupil of a feline eye. The bottle comes suspended inside a sculpture carved from the same limestone that was used to build the distillery, with the negative space surrounding it becoming the iris of a cat’s eye. The effect is a striking tribute to the distillery’s mascot, the Scottish wildcat. However, the successful bidder might struggle getting it into their liquor cabinet, as the whole piece weighs over 100kg.
Other remarkable lots include a Glen Grant, which comes in a hand-blown glass bottle, with a malachite stopper, a tapering interior, and a copper base with a floral motif. This comes in a strapped case, and collectively they evoke the tools of a Victorian naturalist collecting botanical samples. Kandoblanc have donated an arresting decanter that plays with notions of duality and balance, combining the traditional Italian techniques of Murano glassmakers with a Japanese-influenced aesthetic. There is an understated beauty in the Glenglassaugh’s bottle and matching wooden display case, the curving furrows of which recall the patterns in the coastal rocks of northern Scotland. While Old Pulteney have submitted the most avant-garde offering. It is a bombastic, art deco hood-ornament of a bottle; hand-blown in two-tone glass, mounted on Caithness slate, and surrounded by flowing ribbons of silver, that trail out to create the impression of a bow-wave.
Picking up the growing popularity of whisky advent calendars in recent years, House of Hazelwood’s contribution – Christmas at Hazelwood – is certainly the most playful lot in the auction. They have donated an advent calendar, with a case in the shape of their namesake Hazelwood House; home of the descendants of William Grant. Drawing from the family’s private reserves, it includes twenty-four 50ml bottles containing a sample of every one of the company’s releases thus far, as well as a full-sized bottle of a unique 51 year old blended whisky to open on the big day.
There are a number of lots which involve experiences, such as Glenmorangie’s whose single cask bottling includes a tour of the distillery and a stay at the cosy-luxe Glenmorangie House hotel, on the picturesque coast of the Moray Firth. Among the other casks on offer is one from Bruichladdich, which contains whisky made from bere barley. The now rarely used heritage grain has been grown in Scotland for more than 1,000 years, and imparts a sweet, unctuous flavour to the whisky that is recognisably different from the more widely used, commercially developed, modern alternatives.
While elaborate, one-of-a-kind decanters certainly stand out, some of the lots utilising more conventional bottles are no less inventive. The contribution from the Scottish Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), for instance, is named The Only Drop. It comes in a standard SMWS bottle sheathed in a paper-pulp sculpture, bespoke-crafted in the shape of ripples that emanate from the point where a drop hits the surface of a liquid, and at its centre, there is a window into the whisky itself. Incorporated into the paper-pulp are shavings of oak from the sherry casks in which the whisky was matured for 33 years. “It was important to us that we did things a little differently,” says Rebecca Hamilton, the Society’s Chief Marketing and Experience Officer. “So instead of an elaborate, expensive bottle, we created a stripped back, sustainable design which puts the whisky at the heart and lets it shine as the hero. This is a very special whisky flavour curation – and a complete one off.”
Of course, all of the producers that have contributed to the auction want their whiskies to shine, and for the global community of whisky-lovers who are currently placing bids, beautiful packaging is of secondary importance to the quality of the liquid it contains.
Sotheby’s spirits chief Jonny Fowle notes, “One of the nice things about this project is the liquid is genuinely – and extremely – rare. And, once it’s gone, it’s gone.” Having been lucky enough to sample some of the most anticipated whiskies in the auction – including four that are the oldest-ever releases from their respective distilleries – I can assure you that they live up to the hype.
The Old Pulteney Bow Wave is 45 years old, and 42.2% ABV. It matured for more than 40 years in American oak casks, and then spent another five years in a single first-fill Spanish oak butt. The result is a very approachable, almost sessionable whisky. It is sweet, unpeated, and has a recognisable, but not pronounced maritime character, the sherry is similarly subtle, it is a comforting combination that you simply want to keep drinking. Complex, but not complicated, it should appeal to the broadest spectrum of whisky consumers. Estimated price, £20,000-£30,000.
The Glenglassaugh Coalescence of the Coast is 55 years old, and 40.8% ABV. This single malt, which is intended to showcase the extraordinary character of the distillery’s whisky after a long coastal maturation, is in fact a marriage of the remaining stock from three rare casks. These were filled in 1963, 1965 and 1967, and the lot includes small individual samples of each component. This means that while the 55 year old is Glenglassaugh’s oldest official release, it comes with whiskies that are even older. Cherries co-mingle with mango on the tongue, and a slight rancio provides additional funk and depth. It is quite simply outstanding. Estimated price, £15,000-£24,000.
The Brora Iris is 50 years old, and 42.9% ABV. Brora was one of the most legendary ghost distilleries, having been mothballed in 1983. It reopened after extensive renovations in 2021. Iris contains some of the increasingly scarce pre-closure stock, from refill American oak hogsheads and European oak butts filled in 1972. These married for more than a year before bottling. Excitement always surrounds the release of high-age Broras, as the distillery’s famously waxy whisky can produce some delightfully unexpected results, and Iris certainly doesn’t disappoint. On the nose there is smoke, parmesan and scents that would be politely described as “barnyard”, but of these only the smoke is present on the palate. You will find yourself happily wrong-footed by a velvety whisky, with bags of tropical and citrus fruit, and just a hint of pepper. The winning bidder will be invited to visit the distillery, with up to five guests, for a guided tour and tasting experience. At the time of writing, the bid on this lot is already more than double the price of the previous most expensive single bottle of Brora, which was sold through Sotheby’s for £54,450. Estimated price, £200,000-£400,000.
The Bowmore Stac is 55 years old, and 41% ABV. The whisky was stilled in 1962, and aged in a refill American oak hogshead. Sweet apple juice and barbecued pineapple dominate, and there is far less spice and tannin than you might expect from whisky that has spent so long in wood. The underlying gentle smoke is not a surprise, but the traces of root beer, liquorice, menthol, and wintergreen certainly are. Juicy fruit and just a hint of the medicinal make this a profoundly satisfying dram. Estimated price, £300,000-£500,000.
But amid the excitement about the incredible whiskies that are available through the auction, we should not lose sight of its charitable purpose. Grant Gordon, Chairman of The Distillers’ Charity, highlights some of the successes that have already been achieved, “Since the Youth Action Fund was launched following the first One of One Auction in October 2021, over 1,000 young people have benefitted from the funds raised, resulting in 603 young people achieving an employability outcome, helping transform their lives.
“I’m proud to be part of an industry which, through its collective charitable endeavours, is supporting young people to achieve their ambitions. We look forward to this year’s One of One Auction, and its support for this vital work with young people to strengthen the resilience of our communities.”