Energetic bidding by some enthusiastic collectors saw just 55 lots of rare whiskies raise over $400,000 at an auction in London’s Apothecaries Hall on October 17. Records were repeatedly broken as generous bidding drew applause from an audience of senior whisky executives, top retailers, collectors, and a few writers (who were applauding more than bidding, such were the prices).
The event was organized by the Worshipful Company of Distillers in aid of four drinks trade and related charities. Founded in 1638 as a trade guild for distillers in the City of London, today the Worshipful Company embraces all sectors of the UK’s distilling industry and devotes much of its work to charitable giving. The auction, the first of its kind, was the vision of this year’s Master of the Company, Brian Morrison—formerly of Morrison Bowmore and today chairman of the Scottish Liqueur Center—who donated many of the lots from his private stocks.
All the lots had been donated and auctioneering services were provided pro bono by Christie’s. Thus the hammer price reflects the actual price paid by the buyer and 100% of the proceeds will be received by the charities.
Notable successes on the evening were:
- The Dalmore 1964 One of One, created specifically for the Auction, which sold for £28,000. This is the most expensive Dalmore ever sold at live auction and the second most expensive bottle of whisky auctioned in 2013.
- The Hazelwood set comprising bottlings released by William Grant & Sons to celebrate Janet Sheed Robert’s 90th, 100th, 105th and 110th birthdays sold for £31,000.
- The Johnnie Walker Director’s Blend Series, donated by Diageo and comprising the entire set of six unavailable bottlings sold for £23,000.
- The most expensive Glenury-Royal ever auctioned at £2,600.
- The most expensive bottle of Bladnoch ever auctioned at £1,100
Among the bidders were U.S. collector Mahesh Patel; leading UK retailer and collector Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange; and, bidding enthusiastically and successfully by telephone, representatives of UK specialist chain The Whisky Shop. Also present was Diageo’s recent CEO Paul Walsh, who acquired a rare vintage bottle of Mortlach single malt dating from the 1920s or 30s for a relatively modest £3,000.
Cheapest lot of the evening was a group of 3 bottles from various retirement dinners for Allied Distillers’ Directors which made £190. Elsewhere a charity premium was evident with bidders clearly in a generous mood—as an example, a Kilchoman Inaugural Release which might elsewhere fetch £90-120 was knocked down at £200. Many of the lots exceeded their estimates, often by a substantial margin.
But the main drama of the evening came with the final lot. Donated by Morrison Bowmore, this was a completely unique Bowmore 1964 (48 year old, 41.2% abv) created specifically for the auction. Packaged in a silver-mounted, hand-blown bottle and individually crafted Scottish oak cabinet, this was estimated to reach £30,000. In the event, furious bidding pushed the price to £50,000 (where it paused to accept a round of applause) but was finally knocked down for the record price of £61,000. It will find a new home in Mahesh Patel’s growing collection of fine and rare whiskies. It was a busy evening for Patel who, by my count, acquired twelve lots including the three top-priced items, spending close to $250,000 during the evening.
According to the auctioneers, the Bowmore 1964 was 2013’s most expensive bottle of whisky, the second most expensive ever sold at live auction in history, and the most expensive Bowmore ever sold at live auction.
Both the Morrison Bowmore executives present (who snapped up some lesser lots for their corporate archives) and Brian Morrison for the Worshipful Company of Distillers were naturally in buoyant mood afterwards. Morrison himself was at pains to acknowledge the generosity of both donors and bidders.
“As a Livery Company, charity is at the heart of what we are about,” he told me afterwards. “This evening was a long held ambition of ours and I can honestly say I am humbled by the response of our industry, both in terms of donations and the bidding. Last night will live long in the memory of The Worshipful Company of Distillers.”
Does this evening represent a high point in whisky auction prices? While my own views on “investment” in whisky have been well aired on this site (and have not changed), the key elements here are the charity factor; the prestige associations of the evening and the unique nature of many of the lots. There is perhaps little to be learned from this glittering event, other than the pleasant conclusion that the licensed trade in general and the whisky industry and its followers in particular can be notably generous when the occasion arises. And that is something we can all celebrate.