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James Espey, co-founder and chairman of The Last Drop Distillers, has been selling booze for half a century, or about two-thirds of his life. He was born in Zambia, which he says made him a bit of an outsider when he first arrived in London to work with International Distillers & Vintners (“I’m British, but I’m not English,” he likes to say). He’s charming and loquacious, and you’ll have to forgive him if he tells the same story two or three times–they are good stories, after all. Many of these tales involve Last Drop co-founder and president Tom Jago. Together, the two have been responsible for launching some incredibly successful spirits brands, including Baileys Irish Cream, Malibu Rum, the Classic Malts, and Johnnie Walker Blue Label (originally called Johnnie Walker Oldest).
For the past decade, Last Drop Distillers has been selling what Espey likes to call the world’s most exclusive spirits collection. This May, the brand celebrated its tenth anniversary with a pop-up atelier in an arcade just off London’s famous Piccadilly, where it held private events and introduced a new blended malt called Tom’s Blend No. 1 (named after Jago). Sazerac purchased the company in 2016, and Espey’s daughter Beanie and Jago’s daughter Rebecca now handle the day-to-day operations, although Beanie will be stepping back a bit in the coming months. Beanie started out working at a sherry bodega in Spain, and then spent time at high-end brands like Chanel and L'Oreal before joining Last Drop in 2014. Rebecca ran a design agency for about 25 years before joining the company in 2008. The two women obviously have gleaned quite a bit of knowledge and inspiration from their fathers, but also bring their own experience and love of spirits to The Last Drop. As Beanie reduces her role, Espey says that Rebecca will be running the company, and she already plays an instrumental role in selecting the spirits selected for release.
The Last Drop team hunts down the literal “last drops” of aged spirits–whiskey, cognac, and port so far–which it sells in simply designed but elegant bottles. No crystal decanter is necessary to augment the quality of the brand’s exclusive, ultra-premium releases. “I don't believe in bling,” says Espey. “Yes, there's room for it, but I think people aren't buying the product, they're buying the Baccarat crystal. I want classic packaging.” Past releases have included a duo of Colheita Tawny ports from 1870 and 1970, a 45-year-old blended whiskey distilled in 1971, and a 60-year-old cognac distilled in 1950. All of these were released in limited quantities, and priced accordingly at several thousand dollars per bottle. But as any connoisseur of spirits knows, age doesn’t always equal quality. So the liquid that The Last Drop acquires can’t just be old; it also has to meet the brand’s strict requirement of being exceptional and delicious. So far, the company seems to be hitting both of these marks.
At 93 years old, Tom Jago still ends every day at 6 pm with a well-deserved glass of whiskey, a small pleasure that underscores his love of the spirit. So Tom’s Blend No. 1 had to meet his specifications–slightly sweet, with rich fruity notes and just a wisp of Islay smoke lingering underneath. For now, the whiskey is only available at Last Drop events, but Espey says he could see a commercial release happening at some point.
The Last Drop is working on a few other new projects for future release. At the Buffalo Trace Distillery (also owned by Sazerac), a refrigerated warehouse called Warehouse P has been set up where mature American whiskey of various styles will quietly age for another 10 to 15 years. On a tour of the warehouse this past spring, Beanie excitedly showed some visitors around and talked about the possibilities to come. Usually, bourbon doesn’t hold up to older age statements in the way that Scotch does. The hotter Kentucky climate means that it takes on more tannin from the oak as the liquid contracts and expands in and out of wooden barrels. But Warehouse P should slow this process down, and a 40-year-old bourbon may be released at some point.
Espey also mentions a cognac from 1925 and an ultra-aged single malt that could see the light of day. Canadian whiskey or rum might join the fold as well. But he says that the hunt for spirits has become more difficult in recent years. Some people approach The Last Drop, “but they want ridiculous prices,” says Espey. “It’s getting harder and harder.” He still has a few tricks left up his sleeve, and he is an expert in marketing, one of the most important elements in selling any spirit. He recounts the time many years ago when Jago came up with the idea for Baileys. It failed in research, “so we hid the research,” he says with a chuckle. Smart thinking as Baileys became the number one selling liqueur brand in the world.
According to Espey, the differences in style and personality between him and Jago are also what has allowed them to work so well together over the years in the spirits industry. “We're very complimentary; he's the culture, I'm the vulture,” he says. “I'm a visionary. I don't mean that arrogantly… Tom's a craftsman. He designs, he makes it all happen.” And now a new generation of knowledgeable women with impeccable taste is making it happen, as Beanie and Rebecca have taken the reigns from their fathers to steer The Last Drop along into the future. The market for high-end spirits doesn’t seem to be slowing down, and every year that passes means there’s another whiskey, rum or cognac quietly waiting in a barrel somewhere to be discovered.