“Let’s just say that it’s super exciting,” says Garreth Anwar, a Hong Kong-based investment manager and founder of the Abbot Society, a group of about 20 friends who, as he puts it, “like to share nice bottles.” That’s bottles of whisky, and often very expensive, very rare bottles. Hence his excitement: October sees what looks set to be one of the most important whisky auctions ever.
That’s not just because it’s organized by the Worshipful Company of Distillers — Scotland’s club for the country’s Scotch-making elite — with the help of Sotheby’s, the international auction house. It’s also because every bottle auctioned at the Edinburgh-based event will be, as the event has been called, One of One. That means the challenge to master distillers of creating a very special whisky, but also the opportunity to purchase a literally unique bottle. Some will have been made specially, others discovered in the archives; some will come from the historic big guns of Scotch whisky — Glenfiddich, Royal Salute, Bowmore, and so on — but others from respected but less well-known or much younger names in Scotch too. Some 35 brands have been confirmed so far.
You will, however, need deep pockets to enjoy their offering. Two years ago, when the idea of One of One was trialed on a much smaller scale, before this year’s official launch, the auction realized the kind of prices that would make your eyes water more than a backyard pot still hooch. A 1966 bottle from the long-since defunct Ladyburn distillery made $108,132. The Balvenie 56 Year Old 1964 sold for $232,000, triple the lower estimate set by Sotheby’s. And that’s just getting started: auction records were set for many brands. A Bowmore Onyx 51 Year Old 1970 went for $532,340, a Talisker 1978 Cask of Distinction for $831,780. The biggest sale of the event was a four-bottle set of Glenfiddich (from 1955, ‘57, ‘58 and ‘59) that sold for $1,037,500.
Such huge sums were paid in part out of a spirit of generosity; principally, One of One is about raising money for charity — specifically, disadvantaged young people across Scotland — and each of the bottles presented is donated. But they’re also being driven by whisky’s collectibility and its growing standing as an alternative investment class. That $1 million-plus Glenfiddich sale came about after a 30-minute bidding battle broke out between eight collectors, bidding in person at the invitation-only event, on the phone and (open to all) online through the auction’s global livestream. Collectors from 24 countries, many of whom were invited from Sotheby’s little black book of contacts, were in on the action.
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“The whole auction blew the minds of everyone in the room, [even though] Scotch whisky collecting has become a very big, global thing, with a huge amount of money being spent and made in rare whisky,” says Beanie Geraedts-Espey, managing director of the Distillers’ One of One. She argues that it has already cemented in peoples’ minds the idea that the Scotch whisky industry is capable of putting on the kind of event that could rival what’s been done before with wine in Napa in California or annually with the Hospices de Beaune auction in central France.
“Our concept went from auctioning bottles that, while some were still rare, were relatively easy to get hold of on the secondary market, to this idea of auctioning one-off, never-to-be-repeated bottles direct from the distilleries, so provenance was completely unquestioned,” she says. “Of course, there’s a cachet in buying something that’s never been owned by someone else before, and in being one of just a handful of people in the world to have tasted it. That, in part, is what makes it, as Sotheby’s has said, the most exciting whisky event on the calendar now. But because of the uniqueness of the lots we see more crossover in this auction than in other whisky auctions too — we get collectors of art, cars, wines and watches taking new interest. For these, it transcends whisky in a way.”
That heavyweight collectors are lining up to place their bids certainly gets the blood racing, says John Laurie, the managing director of The Glenturret, which will provide four unique lots for this year’s event – as well as just a bottle of each for sampling purposes. Yes, if you’re a big enough hitter, potentially you do get to try before you buy.
“This is the event that brings not just the best whisky makers together — and there’s a real sense of community in this industry and the desire to raise plenty of money for charity — but the world’s biggest collectors, people who have a passion for their subject, and putting something in front of them means you have to bring your A game,” he says. “Lots of people are watching.”
Certainly, it’s a creative challenge, to come up with a unique tipple that also makes sense within a brand’s portfolio of whiskies. So One of One’s organizers have given distilleries a longer lead time for this second outing. Planning for the 2023 auction began at the start of last year, making it roughly a 20-month development period. That still meant a few Scotch brands felt they didn’t have enough time. The same schedule will be provided ahead of the third edition of One of One, set to happen in October 2025.
This year’s highest value lot in the sale is Bowmore STAC 55 Years Old (est. £300,000-500,000), the oldest whisky ever released by the distillery. Other highlights include Brora Iris, a 50 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky presented in a 1.5-litre decanter suspended within a handcrafted stone sculpture (est. £200,000-400,000). You can find the 39 lots listed here.
“It’s important that the donors can commit the time and resources necessary to develop a whisky that they’re really proud of,” says Geraedts-Espey. “Some are also very excited about the playing field, the peer group [they’re now part of]. Suddenly lesser-known distilleries are sitting alongside the behemoths. They may not yet have a ‘collectible’ whisky but they want to break into that sphere. And so offering something very good is essential for them.”
“Certainly for us as a brand it’s a no-brainer to be involved in that luxury end of the whisky industry,” says Nick Savage, an ex-master distiller for The Macallan and now for Bladnoch, a whisky maker founded in 1817, mothballed and then relaunched in 2017. But, all the same, he hopes for a distinction to be drawn between collectors and investors. “The reality is that these bottles are collected, and for some their future value is one of the drivers behind the bidding,” he says. “But I do hope that bidders are always bothered about how what they’re bidding on actually tastes. A lot of work has gone into these very special bottles.”
Garreth Anwar, of Abbot Society, couldn’t agree more. “As a group, we want to try the best of the best and the fact that nobody else will get to try these unique Scotches makes the auction very special,” he says. “But I don’t think these creations should be hidden in a closet somewhere waiting for them to appreciate. I’m a collector, but I’m also a drinker, and if the rest of the group don’t like whatever we can acquire, I’m happy to finish it.”
He’s also drawn to the chance to buy and, at least until the right moment arises, hold onto a bit of Scotch history. This year’s One of One will showcase the final liquid from the last of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s reserves of one of Scotland’s oldest and now “lost” distilleries, Littlemill. That requires a touch of showboating, which is why it will be presented in a bespoke Glencairn crystal decanter and a wooden display cabinet. Glen Scotia’s display cabinet comes hand-painted with an image of the distillery by the company’s artist in residence. Other distilleries are sweetening the deal in other ways: Tomatin is throwing in hospitality and a private tasting on the Tomatin range for the successful bidder of its 47-year-old one-off whisky.
“It’s true that people [with money] want somewhere to put it, and they’re getting tired of the traditional ways of investing. But online auctions aren’t just increasingly important as a means for whisky collectors to get hold of special bottles; they’re also making the whole world of whisky more accessible, helping to bring through a new generation of makers,” argues Tom Smith, a Chicago-based whisky collector. “Of course, there’s a bit of ego at play here: ‘Whose bankroll is big enough to get the One-of-One bottle?’ And if you like you can put that aside for 20 or 30 years and you will see appreciation. But, you know, even at these prices a bottle of whisky is meant to be opened.”
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