In the whisky world, independent bottlers are not unlike distilleries, somewhat beholden to needing a good origin story and noble intentions. After all, they live and die on the strength of their reputation of being able to pick out excellent casks, and a long history in making good choices go a long way in this business.
If The Last Drop is an unfamiliar name to you despite your many forays into the indie scene, it’s mainly because they work with a very narrow profile of casks, which place it in the premium segment of the market. However, they stop short of the usual headliners of very expensive ‘super-aged’ Japanese single casks, The Macallan or The Dalmore.
As such, the Last Drop Distillers occupies a unique space in an increasingly crowded space of independent bottlers. As the name suggests, The Last Drop is on the lookout for last-of-its-kind spirits. Rebecca Jago, Joint Managing Director of The Last Drop, was in town for business and we caught up to learn more about her company.
“We’re more interested in unusual gems than in the mainstream (choices),” she explained.
According to Rebecca, the thrill of the hunt is not just about unearthing casks that are hidden, but discovering that they are ‘unicorns’ – beguiling spirits display their maturity and accompanying complexity, and yet they belie their age; confounding you with a freshness associated with younger spirits.
In all fairness, I’m inclined to agree if you think that this is all about selling a good story, but then again whisky has always been about the business of stories; be it one you hold in your hand, or one you make with friends. To her credit, Rebecca doesn’t shy away from the fact that they are in the business of selling experiences. In fact, it is a notion that they embrace whole-heartedly.
“We’re in the business of making memories. I want people to drink a drop of The Last Drop and remember where they were when they tasted it… I think it’s a really big part of what we do is storytelling; it’s about place and time and memory, and thinking, I know where I was when I first tasted this,” she explained.
The Walker connection.
At this point, it would be amiss to not shed some light on the origins of The Last Drop, which is more interesting than one might think of a fairly young independent bottler – which I guess, is the point of this piece anyway.
The Last Drop is proper ‘old school’, founded by tried-and-tested industry veterans with impeccable credentials in the form of Tom Jago (also Rebecca’s father), James Espey and Peter Fleck. A bit of trivia: if the name James Espey isn’t familiar, then today you would have learnt that he is the founder of the Keepers of the Quaich. But I digress.
The founders had worked together in various capacities over the years; for example, the trio launched Malibu, while Tom and James worked on many familiar names in the IDV range, including the iconic Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
According to Rebecca, Johnnie Walker was facing a problem at the time: the brand had been diluted in the Far East due to Red and Black Labels being heavily discounted and turned into “bargain-basement brands.” The Walking Man had turned into The Working Man, though that’s not always a bad thing as a consumer. But in corporate-speak, there was an issue with positioning, and it was quickly apparent that they needed a way to remind customers that the Walking Man was the symbol of a quality, premium product. The iconic Blue Label was Tom and James’ proposed solution and has since become one of their most recognisable offerings.
But the creation of Baileys Irish Cream has to be Tom’s most enduring legacy. “My dad was head of product development at IDV… He was all about meeting unidentified needs,” Rebecca proffered. And we know what that means – a problem solver. And indeed, Baileys was developed as a way of helping out a loss-making Irish whiskey distillery (Gilbeys) and Tom was tasked to figure out a creative solution.
With his team, they came up with a rather curious offering: a liqueur that was the combination of milk with chocolate and Irish whiskey. Their pitch centred on the lack of options for women who don’t like alcohol. At the time, there were precious few options when it came to sweet alcoholic beverages. On paper at least, it seemed like a massive win-win in every department. However, there was one little problem. Focus groups were not impressed. The response was negative. At best.
“Baileys was a total failure in research. They took it to market research and nobody liked it. They said it tasted like an indigestion medicine,” said Rebecca.
It was a massive blow, but the team believed in the product, and Tom did what every maverick does: fly straight into the danger zone. “So my dad just hid the research and said yes, it was a great success and they launched it. You’d never be able to do that today,” she smiled. “And then James arrived and that’s really when it went from being a small success to being a gigantic, worldwide success.”
Having the last word.
In spite of their successful careers, there was still some gas left in the tank. The Last Drop was Tom and Jame’s last big project; one last fulfilling adventure. Having been asked by Peter, who was also the owner of a chain of all-inclusive hotels in South Africa called The Last Word, to source a cask for the hotel’s use, Tom and James hit upon the idea that they could look for a few forgotten barrels of something amazing, bottle the casks themselves and call the label The Last Drop.
As can be seen from their collection thus far, there are plenty of blends in the equation, which is perhaps a nod towards their Johnnie Walker roots. To be fair, it’s not unreasonable to expect a cynic to think that it’s an elaborate way to find casks that aren’t in demand on the cheap and add some marketing spiel to justify the premium. But the other side of the coin confronts you with the uncomfortable question: would you even be willing to pay a lot more for a ‘big name’ cask? The fact of the matter is, that’s how whisky is these days, and this careful treading on thin ice is how The Last Drop justifies its presence in the market.
With three annual releases per year on average, the team can ill-afford to slip up. One bad decision, one bad cask, and the company will be in bad shape. “We don’t have a twelve-year-old, an 18-year-old to keep our coffers full of money… We bottle one bad spirit (just) because it’s old, and that’s us done for, really. Our reputation (will be) in tatters.”
Hence, everyone at The Last Drop must unanimously give their approval for a cask to be chosen for bottling. A more interesting reveal is that the tasting is deliberately done in a neutral environment.
The reason for this, Rebecca explained, was that it was easy to get carried away by the occasion. She cited one where she travelled to Cognac with her father Tom to source some old cognac. “We were introduced to a man who had his family cellars to sell. Lots of cognacs; barrels dating back to 1906, to 1913, and in the sunshine in Cognac, it was very romantic. My dad and I were convinced that we found the next Last Drop release.”
But once they were back, they sampled the cognac again and this time they had samples of the first cognac they had bottled to compare it to. It did not stand out and set a precedent for how they would approach tasting. “Everyone has to agree that it’s good, and it’s good in the cold light of day rather than when you’re in a very romantic setting.”
More hidden than forgotten.
When you consider that old spirits carry a certain mystique and inspire reverence, it is hard not to get swept off your feet by notions of romanticism, especially when a considerable amount of money has been paid. You’re financially and emotionally invested, if only just to justify the purchase to yourself. But mostly to the spouse.
While age isn’t everything, old whiskies are expensive partly because of their rarity as well as the maintenance and storage costs they’ve accrued over the years. Because of the time spent in the cask, the whiskies may wind up over-oaked and often are used in blends. It adds complexity to the mix while its tannic nature gets tempered in a mix. Ever so rarely, an unusual beast comes along that is pristine on its own or can be elevated with a wee touch of cask finishing. Finding something old that is sublime is really something, and hence the hefty price tag is understandable.
Hence, when they first started, typically James and Tom would ask for casks that were interesting, particularly for blends. It’s not surprising, given their prior experience in IDV working on Johnnie Walker. Usually, there will be two or three barrels left over after a big blending operation and the blender would decide that they were too good to be used in future blends and then set aside. Rebecca explained that it’s often the combination of the blender moving on along with the fact that two or three barrels are not a major source of concern (especially for blends) for large companies like Pernod Ricard. Hence there is a good to fair chance of finding barrels that are not part of any blender’s plans every now and then.
However, if you’re hoping to find a special cask that had been squirrelled away behind some wall after an elaborate heist, you’ll be sorely disappointed. “Scotland’s [whisky industry is] a very highly regulated business. Revenue and Customs know where every single barrel of whisky is. They’re not forgotten in the sense that they’re hidden,” said Rebecca. “When we say ‘hidden’ or ‘forgotten’ spirits, what we’re talking about is barrels that they may be recorded but nobody’s checking what’s inside or whether it’s good or whether it needs to be blended away.”
A world beyond whisky.
While stories of a fortuitous barrel find aren’t something that will typically creep out of Scotland, we mustn’t forget that The Last Drop is not limited to bottling whiskies, so as long as they are spirits that can be aged for a long time. In fact, their second release was a cognac distilled in the 1950s. This way, they could be seen as a spirits company rather than purely a whisky company, though scotch firmly remains the backbone of their product range.
So there will be genuinely interesting stories to be told, albeit away from the British isles. And in 2016, American giants Sazerac acquired The Last Drop. Though better known for their bourbon distilleries, Sazerac does have a diverse portfolio of assets, which opens up possibilities that hitherto, would not have been realistic. While up-and-coming spirits like tequila are not something that Rebecca would typically consider, the fact that Sazerac can open doors cannot be ignored. The only stumbling block is that tequila is not usually aged long; unlike rum, they can’t ship the cask over to age in Europe without contravening appellation laws, and neither do they have a refrigerated warehouse to control the effects of maturation like they do in Kentucky. What we do know is that we can look forward to bourbon and rum releases in the near future.
But in the present, the Sazerac connection had helped Rebecca uncover one of their more exotic finds to date: a cognac barrel that dates back to 1925. It was eventually bottled for their fourteenth release as the Hors d’Âge Grande Champagne Cognac. It was discovered when renovation work was carried out on one of the barns of an undisclosed family estate. Workers knocked down a wall, only to find a cask hidden behind it. It’s not inconceivable that it was hidden from the Germans during World War II, as such practice was more common than we’d think, but speculation doth maketh the better story. The narrative is often the driving force, which may lead them down parts otherwise unknown.
Wine may not seem like a natural fit, but The Last Drop has dipped its toes into the world of fortified wines: a pair of port wine, made a hundred years apart. To put it in context, this meant that you could experience pre-Phylloxera port in comparison to its modern counterpart; a rare snapshot of history, if you must. Tell me that’s not an experience you’ll forget, if you can bear to open the bottle, that is. But you need not worry, for The Last Drop, it is customary for them to include a 50ml sample bottle for those who struggle with the indecision. Whether or the sample makes things easier or harder to make that decision, I do not know.
However, Rebecca was quick to stress that this is typically not the norm. While they were prepared to consider other fortified wines like sherry, they would have to be convinced that it had to be done. While port prices have been relatively stable, sherry has been in decline, and the lack of demand makes it hard to justify such a release. Even in the hyper-unrealistic realms of the affluent, there will be products that remain a hard sell. “I mean, would you spend £2,000 on a bottle of sherry?” she quipped.
The parting glass.
Arguably, the same could be said for single grain whisky, though that has changed somewhat in the last couple of years. Although grain whisky has a somewhat unappealing reputation for being filler, people are starting to catch on to the fact that old grain whisky can be quite a revelation, capable of displaying complexity. Its profile ranges from the delicate to a cognac- or rum-like intensity in richness, and more importantly – or unfortunately for drinkers – prices are starting to reflect that as well. This is not helped by the fact that quality, aged, single grain whisky is hard enough to come by as it is.
And so it was that our time together had come to pass, but before Rebecca left for her next appointment, she excused herself for a quick dash back to her room and returned with a vial of their 17th release – a 1977 Dumbarton. And with that, we parted ways.
Dumbarton is a distillery that The Last Drop has earmarked since they first learnt what it brings to the table. These days it is a now-demolished distillery by the river Clyde, For most people, it is a name that seems vaguely familiar, but likely because it sounds Scottish and it sounds like a provincial football team. Everyone’s guilty of stereotyping, I suppose. But if you follow Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, this is the whisky that was awarded Single Grain of the Year for the 2020 edition with a score of 97 points.
Although it is a guideline more appropriate for assessing whisky rather than enjoy one, I found my own ‘cold light of day’ moment and poured myself a dram. With its primary characteristics of sweetness and spice, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was some rye or bourbon in this. Caramel, vanilla sweetness is everywhere, even on the nose, which balanced by its somewhat tannic nature. Despite this, it is a very light whisky, with just enough oils for a long finish. There’s a lot of finesse in this one, even if it’s not a potpourri of aromas and flavours. Very understated and classy, and certainly not a simple dram. But it was far removed from that heightened experience that we discussed so reverentially about.
The whisky is done, but out of the corner of my eye, the monitor casts its glare on the edges of my now-empty sample bottle, revealing, oddly enough, one last drop. I let out a chuckle, and there it was; my own moment. I had the last drop, but she had the last laugh.