Sotheby's Auctions Rare 'Casks of Distinction' Whisky

Replicas of the Brora & Port Ellen casks 



Replicas of the Brora & Port Ellen casks 


In a sale culminating on June 14, Sotheby’s is auctioning two casks from Diageo’s VIP ‘Casks of Distinction’ programme, which have an upper estimate of £1.2 million apiece.

Replicas of the casks – No. 480 from Brora on the northeast coast of Scotland and No. 1145 from Port Ellen, Islay ­– are currently on display in a gallery normally reserved for paintings. The sale is part of Sotheby’s month-long programme of exhibitions and events in its New Bond Street premises in London marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

As the bells of St. George’s Church close by peeled, James Mackay, head of rare & exceptional spirits for Diageo, noted that Sotheby’s (founded in 1744) is almost "four times as old as the Queen’s reign." He went on to place the rare whiskies in the same rank as other sought-after collectables.

‘Currently, there’s a galaxy of Aston Martins, Bentleys and royal tiaras including the Spencer tiara in the building, though guests to Sotheby’s tend to end up milling hopefully around these casks at the end of their visit.’

Brora reopened in May 2021 after a three-year restoration, while Port Ellen is scheduled to reopen in 2023. "Brora was the first distillery I visited in 1972," said Mackay, adding that he had been just one year old at the time, while on a family visit to his uncle who farmed an estate nearby.

The casks bring buyers added benefits. "Like being part of the owner’s enclosure at a racecourse, you’re part of the journey," said Mackay. Perks include being able to visit the actual casks, while they continue to mature for an optional five further years, and to collaborate with artists.

For Brora, Trey Ratcliff, a New Zealand photographer who endeavours to capture beauty at the extremities of landscapes, will journey with the winning bidder to the distillery where land meets sea to capture an image for a large print and labels.

For the Port Ellen, American designer, Ini Archibong, who was born the year the distilleries closed, and who has harboured a fascination for tartan since he was a child, will create, in Murano glass, an artwork capturing the light and water supply at Port Ellen, as well as labels.

Senior global scotch whisky ambassador at Diageo, Ewan Gunn, whose grandparents come from Islay, spoke of the generations who had worked at the distilleries which demonstrated huge craft and a slice of history. "Both closed in 1983 and have become adored, with cult status. More people, year-on-year become interested in how great whisky can be."

While Diageo oversees some 10 million casks, only a handful become casks of distinction. Five percent of the hammer price of the lots will be donated to Diageo’s charity partner, Care International, in support of the Ukraine crisis.



  • Lot 2, Brora Distillery, filled on 25 March 1982, Cask No. 480

Deceptively youthful in colour, with aromas of car wax, clean leather, honey, red apple, hay and cream soda, with a final hint of ambergris. On the textural palate, a little earthiness in the background, with apricots and wild strawberry appearing when a few drops of water are added. In the finish, a hint of coconut/stroked gorse, with oak sneaking into the sweet finish. Refill American oak hogshead. ABV 52.8%. Cask to yield approximately 145 bottles.


  • Lot 1, Port Ellen Distillery, filled on 15 February 1979, Cask No. 1145

Deeper in colour than the Brora by several shades, with witch hazel and TCP on the nose, as well as fudge, then a layered, granulose palate with Tablet in the very long, sticky finish. This is a whisky which flourishes in the rewarding aftertaste which also has ash, menthol, and even charcuterie notes. Refill American hogshead. ABV 52.9%. Cask to yield approximately 102 bottles.


The Port Ellen Distillery in Scotland

Photo provided