Picture the scene. The Worshipful Company of Distillers, along with some of the most influential names in Scotch whisky, decide to organise a charity auction. The USP? That each lot will be one-of-a-kind: from remarkable casks, unique bottlings, and one-off experiences, to bespoke artistic designs that would look more at home in a gallery than a distillery.
Named The Distillers One of One, nodding to the unique nature of each lot, the sale was organised by the livery’s philanthropic arm, the Distillers’ Charity, in partnership with auction house Sotheby’s. If the concept proved its worth, two more sales were planned, in 2023 and 2025.
The first auction took place at Barnbougle Castle outside Edinburgh on 3 December 2021. In total, the organisers expected to make around £1.25 million. Then the bids began to come in. When the hammer fell for the final time, the auction had raised £3.1 million, of which almost £2.5 million was donated to four charitable organisations in Scotland via the Distillers’ Charity’s Youth Action Fund.
“2021 was a proven concept, but it was more than that. What it showed to the industry and our partners was what we are capable of doing collectively,” says Beanie Geraedts-Espey. She is managing director of Distillers’ Ventures, a limited company established in 2022 as the fundraising arm of the Distillers’ Charity whose primary responsibility is organising and delivering The Distillers One of One auctions. With her 18 years’ experience in senior marketing and leadership roles, Geraedts-Espey is a serious appointment for a subsidiary which, after a highly publicised and highly successful auction, is starting to take itself and its capabilities more seriously.
“The Distillers’ Charity is evolving at a rapid pace, to go from a charity that was really only known within the livery to something that generated millions of pounds through this very public auction,” Geraedts-Espey explains. “It [the role] combines my love of whisky with my marketing background and the philanthropic dimension… It feels like a perfect meeting of interest and experience for me.”
Preparations are in full flow for the second Distillers One of One sale, taking place on 5 October this year. The auction’s 12 founder companies, including Glenfiddich, Bowmore, Glen Grant, and The Glenturret, are all back on board for 2023, with 32 donors confirmed at the time of going to press.
Barnbougle Castle only had capacity for 80 guests, and on the day of that first sale, with the spectre of Covid-19 still looming large, many international bidders took part remotely. In 2023, the Distillers’ Charity is going big: to Hopetoun House, a Regency-style mansion near South Queensferry with the capacity for 175–200 guests.
Lots are still being finalised, with further details expected around June. The inaugural auction set a high bar, but both the Distillers’ Charity and returning auction partner Sotheby’s are pushing to match this.
Jonny Fowle, director of whisky and spirits for North America and EMEA at Sotheby’s, said: “[The 2021 auction] was a massive success and exceeded expectations on all fronts, in the type of lots and scale of lots, and the reaction of the bidders and buyers to the lots.
“We start 2023 with high expectations. From what I have seen so far, particularly with lots from The Balvenie and Bowmore, they have certainly upped their game from last time.” The lot being prepared by the Bowmore sounds particularly special – the design is so conceptually ambitious that the physical realisation of it has been the subject of some debate.
The partnership with Sotheby’s has undoubtedly played a part in The Distillers One of One’s success to date, sharing what could have been a geographically limited sale with a global audience. But it’s a big deal for Sotheby’s, too. “We have something like 80 offices in 40 countries and everyone is aware of this project,” Fowle notes. “Sotheby’s is really behind the whisky department, and I think the donors understand they are getting all the support that Sotheby’s can give.”
While the donor list includes household names such as Glenmorangie, Dalmore, and Talisker, the auction has also attracted the support of much younger Scotch distilleries. Geraedts-Espey says adolescents such as Kilchoman and the Borders Distillery have offered casks to the 2023 sale, and she makes a particular mention of Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh, which signed up as a founder company in 2021 despite not expecting to release its first whisky until late 2023.
“Philanthropy is incredibly important to [Holyrood],” she explains, “but at the same time they want to launch their brand on a stage that they feel has gravitas, and for them the One of One is that stage. In many ways, the smaller distilleries are the ones for whom this ticks a lot of boxes. Participating allows them to be part of this charity initiative while creating a platform of visibility for their brands.” This philanthropy is not only financial – work is also being done to build links between the auction’s founder companies and the Youth Action Fund charities, to provide education and training at distilleries for the young people they support.
Distillers’ Ventures and the Distillers’ Charity have committed to running three One of One auctions, but Geraedts-Espey is already setting her sights on extending this. There are also tentative ambitions to increase the visibility of and access to the sale. Geraedts-Espey stresses that she’s “not talking about a global roadshow” but is keen to explore options for showcasing the lots in more than one location. “It is a bit like pieces of art in some ways – I may never be able to buy one, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see it in a gallery,” she muses. In this vein, the Distillers’ Charity is planning to host a preview night before the 2023 One of One auction to display the lots. Rather than being a public event, Geraedts-Espey wants to invite the “creative community” involved in putting the lots together – the artists, glassmakers, carpenters, and others.
Both Fowle and Geraedts-Espey believe one of the most notable aspects of The Distillers One of One is the camaraderie it has generated between Scotch whisky companies who would ordinarily be competitors. Fowle says, “There is a friendly level of competition between the companies. It is an opportunity to see how creative you can be, and how rare the tools are that you have at your disposal.”