On 3 December 2021, more than £3 million ($5.4 million) was raised for charity at the inaugural The Distillers One of One auction, held at Barnbougle Castle near Edinburgh, Scotland.
Organised by The Distillers’ Charity — the philanthropic arm of the Worshipful Company of Distillers — in collaboration with Sotheby’s, the auction will directly benefit charity partners selected by the Youth Action Fund, to improve the life chances of 16- to 25-year-olds in Scotland and empower them to make positive change in the community.
Leading the sale was a four-bottle set of Glenfiddich from the 1950s which fetched £1,037,500 from an estimate of £220,000 to £350,000. Provided by William Grant & Sons, the ultra-rare collector’s piece established a new auction record for Glenfiddich. The second most valuable lot was the still-maturing Talisker Cask of Distinction 1978, which went to a private collector for a record price of £625,000.
This auction is the first of three held as part of a six-year partnership between The Distillers’ Charity and Sotheby’s. It is, at present, the biggest charity auction project in the history of Scotch whisky. Frontlining the sale is Jamie Ritchie, worldwide head of Sotheby’s Wine.
“The phenomenal outcome of this auction follows the significant success of the recent Hospices de Beaune wine sale,” he says with pride. “We look forward to our first auction with the Napa Valley Vintners.”
A man who knows his spirits
Ritchie is a familiar face on the auction rostrum at Sotheby’s, which he joined in 1990 after a stint managing a wine shop. A graduate of London Metropolitan University with a degree in business law, his foray into the wine business was, as he quips, the only way he could enjoy wine without having to pay for it.
“Long ago, I calculated that if I lived until I was 70 and drank a bottle of wine every day, I would have 20,000 great experiences. I was pretty sure I would drink those 20,000 bottles, so I decided that I had better learn something about it. There are two ways to enjoy wine: work in the business or earn enough money to buy it. I chose the former!”
And work he did. Over the last three decades, he has turned Sotheby’s into a multi-channel international wine merchant, setting up the house’s first wine auctions in New York (1994) and Hong Kong (2009) and opening retail outlets in both cities.
“I am very proud of the launch of Sotheby’s Own Label Collection in 2019, an affordable range of very classical wines that show the typicity of the grape varieties and micro-climate from each specific region from where they are made.”
Now based in Manhattan, Ritchie started buying wine by the case when he was 17. It was “some Marques de Caceres Rioja”, as he recalls.
“I have been very lucky in my career and had so many amazing experiences,” he continues. The list of his impressive wine sales accompanies his biography on Sotheby’s website and reads like enviable cellar stock. Beyond wines, Ritchie has been the auctioneer for a world-record prices for a bottle of spirit (The Macallan 1926 60-Year bottle in The Ultimate Whisky Collection in 2019).
The heart of the matter
In November 2021, Ritchie and his team officiated at the 161st Hospices de Beaune, the world’s oldest charity auction.
Led for the first time by Sotheby’s, the annual event raised €12.5 million ($19.2 million) with 362 lots including seven barrels of spirits — not too shabby considering that last year’s tally of €13.44 million had double the number of barrels up for sale.
The Pièce des Présidents, a barrel of Corton Renardes Grand Cru, hit a historical record of €800,000, which will be shared between two associations defending women.
“There is no greater honour for our international team than to organise the most famous and oldest wine auction in the world. Since 1859, this sale has been closely watched for the pricing for the new vintage in Burgundy, acting as an economic gauge for the region,” Ritchie says proudly.
“I have had the pleasure of working with so many other great charities that raise funds for incredibly important causes. I work very closely with the American Heart Association’s annual Hearts Delight weekend and auction. I have been the auctioneer since its inception 22 years ago, never having missed a year, and we have raised millions for the AHA.”
In 2020, Sotheby’s achieved $45 million in online sales of wine and spirits alone. In 2021, their Wine & Spirits Auction sales hit a record $132 million. Ritchie believes the digital platform is the platform of the future.
“In 2019, 90 per cent of our sales were live auctions, and in 2020, it was 30 per cent. Fifty per cent of bidders are under 50 and 30 per cent are millennials.
“We’ve been attracting a much broader, younger market across all the international markets. When I joined the company in 1990, the average age of our clients was 65!
“In the auction business, we talk about the drivers for supply being death, debt, divorce,” he continues. “In the wine and spirits auction business, there is the added equation of doctors’ orders, where people have to give up drinking for their health.
“We’ve also had to add a fifth ‘d’, for dislocation. Sadly, the pandemic has increased both death, debt, divorce and dislocation, which means more collections have been on their way to auction.”
He adds that the “majority of wine we sell comes from people who have acquired too much. People just wake up one day and realise they are never going to consume the wine they have purchased. Restaurant cellars are also looking to be sold.”
Having been an auctioneer for decades, he has had his share of unfortunate career moments. As he recounts: “At our inaugural Los Angeles auction, when changing auctioneers, the microphone fell off the rostrum and landed on the neck of a 1975 Mouton Rothschild Nebuchadnezzar. A lady in a white trouser suit in the front row ended up wearing most if it.
“We decanted the rest through a coffee filter and it was superb!”