Whisky business: rare casks up for auction

Winning bidders on two Diageo Casks of Distinction will also receive original artwork commissions from photographer Trey Ratcliff or glass designer Ini Archibong

Food and Drink 13 Jun 2022

The world of whisky investment has developed from the landscape of even just five years ago. It’s not simply a case of buy bottles or a cask with the highest age statement you can find, drink a bit of it and sell the rest on for a tidy profit. There has been a shift in emphasis towards developing relationships with distilleries – exploring the location, meeting the people – and adding value to the experience.

Diageo’s private client service, for example, has a team entirely dedicated, in essence, to providing incredibly high-end whisky tours through Scotland to VIP customers who are interested in purchasing from their Rare and Exceptional bottlings or investing in a unique barrel from the Casks of Distinction selection, from private tasting rooms at the Johnnie Walker Experience in Edinburgh and distilleries such as Cardhu in Speyside, to boutique hotels, outdoor activities and cultural visits.

In that spirit, two rather special casks have been set aside from the Casks of Distinction programme, to be auctioned at 2pm on Tuesday 14 June at Sotheby’s, London, and the winning bidders will also become art patrons in the classic sense (like the Medicis but with less rival-murdering).

Head of Rare and Exceptional Spirits James Mackay puts the rarity into perspective: ‘At any one time, Diageo has a stock of over 10 million casks and, each year, our master distillers choose just a handful of those that are outstanding. So, it’s not a stretch to call them one-in-a-million whiskies.’

While a decades-old Talisker cask or a barrel of Lagavulin with an unusual flavour profile are exceptional single malts, the rarest whiskies of all come from the dwindling stocks from ghost distilleries such as Brora and Port Ellen. The fact that both distilleries have recently been rebuilt (Brora is already distilling; Port Ellen is due to fire up in 2023) has not dulled interest in the whiskies from the original stills which went silent in 1983 – quite the opposite.

For that reason, a cask each from the two most famous ghost distilleries will be made available to the highest bidder. One is a 1979 Port Ellen, with a classic Islay smoke profile and a projected yield of 102 bottles; the other is a 1982 Brora (projected yield: 145 bottles) with the Highland distillery’s cult profile of cooked fruit, candlewax and a lick of peat smoke. In line with usual Casks of Distinction pricing, the casks are expected to reach between £700,000 and £1.2 million. (Five per cent of the hammer price will be donated to humanitarian charity Care International for its work in Ukraine.)

In addition to acquiring the whisky, the successful bidder will collaborate with one of two artists, who will create an original work inspired by the appropriate distillery. The purchaser of the Brora cask will accompany acclaimed landscape photographer Trey Ratcliff to the north-east Highlands, surrounded by gorse-covered hills and close to the coast – this will be Ratcliff’s first visit to Scotland from his home in New Zealand. ‘I’ve been longing to travel there and take in its extraordinary landscapes. To do it for the first time, accompanied by someone who appreciates an exceptional whisky like this, will be an epic adventure.’

Californian artist-designer Ini Archibong, who is based in Switzerland but predominantly works with glass in his studio in Murano, Venice – is attached to the Port Ellen cask and will produce a Murano glass artwork representing a meeting of liquids – the whisky and the water surrounding the Hebridean island it came from.