Held at Barnbougle Castle near South Queensferry, The Distillers’ One of One auction, a partnership between the Distillers, Sotheby’s and 37 Scotch whisky makers, delivered total sales of £3.1 million (2.5 times the low estimate) and raised more than £2.45 million for charity in the process. Offering bidders the chance to purchase truly one-off experiences, bottles and casks of rare whisky, it is no overstatement to say that neither the auction world, nor the world of Scotch whisky, has ever seen its equal.
Pivotally, 100 per cent of the hammer price achieved by each of the auction’s 42 unique lots, along with a portion of Sotheby’s buyer’s premium, will be donated to The Distillers’ Charity’s Youth Action Fund, a completely new initiative which aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people in Scotland by aiding their journey into meaningful employment and helping them to make a positive contribution to their communities. That 37 competitors would come together in the spirit of charity is laudable; that those same rivals would freely donate some of their most rare and valuable spirits in the name of communal endeavour is nothing short of inspiring.
“The roads to Barnbougle have been many and varied, but have really now come together,” says Jonathan Driver, immediate past master of the Worshipful Company of Distillers and managing director for private clients at William Grant & Sons. Driver shares that, though the practical efforts of the past year to create The Distillers’ One of One auction were pivotal, it was truly made possible by work begun over 20 years ago to re-engage the Livery with the distilling industry and re-invigorate its sense of purpose.
When he joined the Distillers more than two decades ago, Driver explains only a small proportion of liverymen were current or past members of the distilling trade, and most of those were retired. Today, over 90 per cent of members are actively employed in the spirits industry and the average age of members is decreasing year on year. Beyond simply changing the make-up of the Livery, Driver says this evolution of its membership has brought with it a new sense of purpose.
Under the stewardship of past master Brian Morrison, formerly of Morrison Bowmore Distillers and today the head of Morrison Scotch Whisky Distillers, the Livery launched its first charity whisky auction in 2013. “He said we could raise £100,000 – everyone said he was mad,” recalls Driver. Nevertheless, Morrison’s faith in the industry was well placed. Run entirely by volunteers, the inaugural Livery whisky auction raised a quarter of a million pounds. “Overnight, the Livery had undergone a quantum shift.”
This success led to another volunteer-run auction in 2018 that raised over £220,000. However, the team noticed that it was the unique items – the ‘one of ones’ – put under the hammer that attracted the most attention. Early discussions with Sotheby’s spirits specialist Jonny Fowle led to the auction house presenting a 60-page proposal, which outlined how the Distillers’ auction could be elevated from a moderately successful, in-house affair to a globally recognised philanthropic event that would court both headlines and sky-high bidding in aid of a good cause.
“It was a defining moment for the Livery,” says Driver. “We had an amazing membership; amazing links to the industry; we’d done similar before, so we knew what would or wouldn’t work; and a partner on board. So, we said, ‘Why don’t we just try to create this?’”
The proposal was welcomed by the Court of Assistants in winter 2020, and, thus, The Distillers’ One of One auction was born. All that remained was the small task of making the idea become reality. “We only got real agreement in the spring of this year  for most of them to do it,” Driver says of the participating distillers, before lauding the phenomenal effort they all put in to create entirely unique offerings in time for the December 2021 auction date. “We’ve done it all in six months. It’s unbelievable.”
In many companies, preparing lots for The Distillers’ One of One auction required working outside of standard procedures and generously dedicating hundreds of hours (not to mention open cheque books) to the delivery of lots that would attract the crème de la crème of global whisky collectors – connoisseurs that Sotheby’s know well.
“At Sotheby’s, we’re all about the very best provenance, and direct from distillers is the very best,” says Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of Sotheby’s Wine, adding that three key qualities underpin all of the Distillers’ One of One lots. “Consumers nowadays want a couple of different things: they want unique things, they want experiences they can’t have elsewhere, and they want access to people.”
What’s more, especially as concerns ultra-rare bottles that may never be opened, it’s important that buyers have the chance to taste the same liquid housed inside the unique bottle (or cask) they’ve bought. “You present ‘one of one’, but with enough liquid for someone to be able to enjoy it aside from the package… but then you need the sample to stay with it,” adds Ritchie. By partnering directly with distillers that can (within reason) supply additional samples, this auction is also unique in that it allows buyers to have their cake and eat it too.
The day before the auction, members of the Livery felt that achieving £2 million would be a dream come true – to exceed this by another million was a pipe dream. Yet, that’s exactly what was achieved.
“There was a whole euphoria that you could sense at the end of the auction. We’ve been inundated with messages from everybody saying how happy they are with the outcome,” says Grant Gordon, committee chair at The Distillers’ Charity, which was founded in 1955 to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and to help provide vocational training and education to the next generation entering the spirits trade.
“The mission of the Youth Action Fund is to transform the life chances of 16 to 25-year-old people in Scotland… our target is to initially reach over 1,000 young people and then grow significantly from there,” adds Gordon. The Fund will initially support four charities: Aberdeen Foyer, ENABLE Scotland, Street League, and the Alcohol Education Trust. For the Livery, success means that each person the charities work with will enter stable, meaningful employment.
“It’s quite specific and it’s quite tangible… for families that have been out of work for multiple generations, it can be that one person who gets that meaningful job that can break that family away from the cycle of poverty,” says Gordon. “What an opportunity we have now. We have much more resource than, frankly, we’d hoped for. So, hopefully we’ll be able to go quite far with this.”