Ask a Sotheby’s auctioneer what the most stressful part of their job is and they won’t say keeping a room full of veracious bidders in check. That’s the easy bit. It is in the final minutes before an auction begins that tensions reach their peak. In our globalized, interconnected world, many of Sotheby’s biggest bids come in through the phone rather than the room. Just one technical glitch or a choppy connection and a potential record sale could be lost. “You don’t want to be in a technician’s way before an auction,” one tells me.
When internet reception could make all the difference, a 17th-century manor house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland, seems like a brave choice for the Distillers’ One of One auction, which has bidders phoning in from Taiwan to the US. There is palpable relief when, to the exact minute, the first of 39 lots — each one a unique Scotch whisky — goes under the hammer. Over the next hour, two years of hard work come to fruition, 19 auction records are broken and $2.7m is raised for charity.
The biennial Distillers’ One of One auction, held at the staggeringly beautiful Hopetoun House, has been a remarkable success since launching in 2021. To take part, distilleries and independent bottlers donate one-off whiskies in aid of The Distillers’ Charity’s Youth Action Fund, which aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people in Scotland.
But this is more than a chance to do some good. This is a rare opportunity for brands to bounce off one another on the same platform, and to show the world’s most prominent collectors what they’re about.
Walking around the stately rooms on the eve of the auction, packed with people who make a multibillion-dollar industry turn, everyone is talking about two lots: the Bowmore STAC 55 Year Old and the Brora Iris 50 Year Old. With a combined low estimate of $600,000, their sales will make the difference — success or failure. They are stunning whiskies (yes, I got to try them both and… wow), but they are also works of art.
The Bowmore STAC’s bottle is a towering, single piece of hand-blown glass inspired by the enigmatic sea stack rocks on Bowmore’s Islay home. Magically resembling layers of rock at the bottom before becoming clear crystal at the top, this intricate piece of glasswork took dozens of attempts to perfect. Inside, the whisky is the oldest Bowmore has ever released in its 244-year history. Having sold a similar vessel in the 2021 auction for $532,000, the pressure was on to repeat the feat.
Few distilleries can match Bowmore for collectability, but Brora has edged closer in recent years. Despite an already fabled reputation, the Iris still felt like a quantum leap forward for the brand. The decanter’s distinctive shape was inspired by the iris of a wildcat, the emblem of the distillery. The decanter is suspended in a sculpture carved with the same limestone used to build the Brora distillery. The whole thing weighs 260 lbs and is rumored to have cost owning company Diageo $300,000 to produce.
Speaking to those behind several projects the night before, there was angst and excitement. One expressed concern that the Brora Iris, as the fifth lot, had been placed too early in the auction. Others were worried that their private clients were having their eyes turned at the last moment by other lots. This is, after all, the only time you’ll see rival distilleries revealing their most valued buyers in front of one another.
The fears, however, were unfounded. On the day, collectors came out in force. The STAC sold for $680,000 (over the phone, of course) and the Iris for $483,000 — an auction record for both distilleries.
Once the headline acts were out the way, other brands stepped into the limelight. The Glen Grant The Visionary defied Sotheby’s valuators by selling for $256,000, more than double its high estimate of $110,000. The Glenturret Enduring Spirit, a collection of four whiskies in original-mold Lalique decanters, tripled its low estimate to sell for $151,000. Old Pulteney, a distillery with almost no reputation at the highest end of whisky, sold its charming Bow Wave 45 Year Old for $83,000, over double its high estimate.
Even Kandoblanc, a new brand presenting its first-ever blended whisky in an intricate Murano glass decanter, sold for $54,000, making it the most expensive debut Scotch whisky from any brand, ever. In total, 19 brands left the auction with a new record for most expensive sale.
Jonathan Driver, master of The Worshipful Company of Distillers, who helped bring these rival companies together, told me this year’s auction was the ‘difficult second album.’ After going platinum once again, expect the band to be back on tour in 2025.
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Winter 2023/24