Last Drop Distillers: navigating high-end spirits

The Last Drop Distillers specialises in fine and rare spirits. Rebecca Jago, managing director, brings us up to date on the company’s last few years, and the changing landscape for high-end spirits.

‘Before there is no more’ – that was the strapline that accompanied The Last Drop Distillers when the company was registered in 2008. Founded by James Espey and the late Tom Jago, its mission was to procure some of the finest, limited spirits – starting with The Last Drop Scotch whisky. Released in 2008, the liquid was limited to 1,347 bottles – and subsequent releases have been of similarly small quantities.

Acquired by Sazerac in 2016 for an undisclosed sum, today Rebecca Jago is managing director of the company co-founded by her father. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, Jago says the last few years have “changed very positively” for The Last Drop.

“We’re not alone in seeing the benefits of a different way of spending money, especially among the extremely wealthy,” Jago says. “People with a lot of disposable income didn’t have the usual channels, if you like, to spend that money. It was a question of how to improve the life you have. People were improving the quality of what they drank, what they ate.” During lockdowns, Jago’s small team took the opportunity to send 10ml and 30ml samples to potential consumers.

“We did masses and masses of sample shipments, online tasting in America, Australia, China, the UK – just all over,” she adds.

“The year 2020/21 was a really big change for us. It gave us a lot of learnings about what matters to people. And I think if what you’re doing is selling very old or expensive spirits, then the one thing people want to do is taste it. That, of course, if very much part of our philosophy, which is that even though these are highly valuable, collectible bottles, we fervently hope that people will open those bottles.” It’s why each bottle released from The Last Drop Distillers includes a miniature, “to taste and decide whether you’re going to drink the big one, or preserve it”.

Economic impact

As economic challenges continue around the world, market behaviours are changing, Jago notes, while also recognising buyers of The Last Drop’s products will be somewhat shielded from the impact of rising costs.

“If we look at the world as a whole, and the markets where we’ve traditionally seen success – that’s largely China, the US and UK – China is in a huge state of change and flux,” says Jago. “There is a lot of clamp down on spending on luxury goods and on gifting, which is obviously very much part of the Chinese culture of gifting. What I’m seeing from our distributors in China is that they are having to be quite cautious about their projections because of what is being dictated as governmental outputs on behaviour. So that means we need to focus more on the people who are buying for themselves and for their social circles, rather than the more corporate side of things.

“There is definite risk aversion at the moment. Lots of people are thinking ‘let’s just be a little bit more careful’ and think more specifically about the customers we’re reaching and how we’re teaching them.”

Asked which categories are most popular at the old and rare end of the spirits world, and Scotch and American whiskey are at the top.

The US penchant for its native whisky “seems to be insatiable”, Jago notes, describing Bourbon’s popularity as “absolutely extraordinary”. “You can’t turn it off; no matter what price point, there is an appetite for it.”

As interest grows, The Last Drop Distillers team is expanding. Alice Small recently joined the group as global senior marketing and sales manager, having previously worked for Southern Comfort. A new operations manager is also joining the team, Lucy Horncastle, operations manager, previously of Compass Box.

New member of The Assembly

Furthermore, The Assembly is also welcoming a new member. The Assembly is The Last Drop’s independent panel of experts, put together in 2021 to promote and share knowledge, ideas and expertise across the industry.

Founding members included Colin Scott, master blender for The Last Drop, Richard Seale, master distiller and blender at Foursquare Rum, and Louise McGuane, owner and bonder at JJ Corry Irish Whiskey.

The latest member set to join The Assembly is Helen Mulholland, former Bushmills master blender, who today is master blender for Sazerac-owned Lough Gill Distillery.

“The fact there are now two members who are in [the Irish whiskey] category, a relatively new category for us,” Jago says. “We celebrate our 15th anniversary at The Last Drop Distillers this year, so that’s a major milestone and hopefully an opportunity to celebrate the founders. Obviously, my dad is no longer with us but James Espey very much is, and I think although he is no longer part of the business day to day, I think his presence and his influence is always there. It’s a great opportunity to look back at where we’ve got to in the last 15 years and where we’re going.”

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Author: Melita Kiely