just the Answer - James Espey, The Last Drop Distillers

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From heading up Bailey's in its formative years and chairman of Chivas Brothers, to launching Malibu, Piat d'Or and the Classic Malts range, James Espey has been one of the drinks industry's true innovators over the last 40 years. His latest venture, The Last Drop Distillers, has taken him into the ultra-premium spirits industry. Alongside long-term partners Peter Fleck and Tom Jago he has already found a 50-year-old Scotch blend – enough for 1,347 bottles – and begun selling it. He talks to Chris Brook-Carter about his plans for the business, his fears for the spirits industry and why the recession is a good thing.
just-drinks: What is the business philosophy behind The Last Drop Distillers?


James Espey: We believed there is a virtue in very old, limited quantity, gems. Big companies are only interested in volumes. The best way I can describe it is; Johnnie Walker Blue Label - a wonderful brand - is like a Mercedes-Benz. What I am offering is a vintage Bugatti - 1,347 bottles. There are only 547 left, and our slogan is 'before there is no more'. When it's gone, there will never be any more.

Next month, we are launching a 60-year-old Cognac – enough for 480 bottles. We bottled it in Scotland and it is sitting at Morrison Bowmore, who handle all our logistics. We are changing from the world's most exclusive whisky company to the world’s most exclusive spirits company.

j-d: Why did you choose to launch the blended Scotch first?

JE: We were looking for old collectibles. We were looking for non-commercial quantities that don't appeal to the big boys. I wanted a blend. Blends are the heart of the industry. Malts have become very fashionable, you could argue they have become too fashionable. I think that, price-wise, they have become a bit greedy. They are milking it. But we may release a malt one day. If we found a barrel of 100 bottles of something interesting, we would release it under The Last Drop.

j-d: Are you looking to sell the business eventually?

JE: We may sell our brand to a visionary company at the right time and continue helping them build it. But we won't sell it for the sake of selling it, I would rather close it down. This is a commercial hobby, but I accept that we are only an incubator. I have tried to prove my hypothesis, that in this world of mega brands, we can still create brands. Of all the brands I have been involved in, The Keepers of the Quaich and The Last Drop are the ones I am most proud of, because one is not for profit and the other one is against the odds. For the other brands [in my career] I had company machinery behind me.
j-d: Do you think the sales trajectory of Scotch single malts is sustainable?

JE: It probably is. Whether prices are sustainable is another question. You could argue that some malts are becoming too greedy. But malts will continue to grow, because relatively speaking they are still small and interesting.

James Espey, one of the founders of The Last Drop Distillers

j-d: As someone who worked for multi-nationals in the past, do you think the industry's focus on a smaller portfolio of huge brands over niche products is the correct way to go?

JE: No, its wrong. However, I understand it. I think the public companies are too focussed on short-term profits. My concern is that too many people are motivated by now rather than tomorrow. If there is no long-term vision, the people perish. What you need is to have genuine, long-term entrepreneurial innovation. And you have got to be prepared to take risks. Many will say they do have it. But what do they do? They employ expensive consultants, who employ expensive people, who research, and they research everything to hell. But I think there isn't enough flair. We make everything look the same. You have to be prepared to fail on the route to success.

j-d: Would some of the brand launches you and your team have been involved in, such as Baileys and Malibu, happen today?

JE: No. Baileys failed in research. So Tom [Jago] suppressed the research. I had opposition to Malibu. You look at a number of the truly great recent brands: Almost all the new innovative brands these days are created by small companies and then big companies buy them. What has Bacardi ever created besides their namesake brand? Not one brand. However, they have bought well in Bombay Sapphire, Dewars and Grey Goose.

j-d: What brands have you admired recently?

I think there are some interesting Tequilas about. Patron Tequila is a great brand. There is a great little company in the US called Infinium Spirits, who have an interesting, vodka brand called Crystal Head. I like to see people do things differently.
j-d: Given that you have worked through numerous recessions, how do you view the current economic crisis?

JE: I think the recession is a very good thing. It's one of the deepest recessions I have known. No-one has a right to enormous salaries and short-term mega bonuses. It creates a 'bling' culture. There is a lack of true value and long-term appreciation. If it comes too easy you don't appreciate it. We have a society that has become too arrogant, too quick. The recession puts this in perspective because it can't go on. Great brands are built steadily and solidly over time.

j-d: Has the drinks industry changed a great deal over your time in it?

JE: Yes, but it is still the most amazing industry. I still love the industry and I am in my 41st year. in it. I worry about true innovation and I worry about corporate bureaucracy. I run The Last Drop on a handshake, that's my integrity. In Scotland, that still exists, but I don't know about the handshake elsewhere anymore.

Also, the retail trade has got too powerful. The buyer dictates to the seller. When you are dealing with Mr Tesco or Mr Asda there is not much left. It's very difficult to get listings and that works against innovation. So in fairness, the big companies get bigger to balance the big retailers and they dominate the shelf space. And that has made it tougher. It is harder to create in the true sense.
What hasn't changed is that it is a good lifestyle. I have been to the most amazing places. I have met the Queen and (President) Reagan. Alcohol covers every spectrum of life from the bottom to the top. We are lucky to be in this wonderful industry.

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