A Drink With… James Espey, The Last Drop Distillers Co.By Tom Bruce-Gardyne
As one of the great innovators who helped launch Bailey’s and Malibu among others, James Espey certainly achieved a lot in his corporate career, including an OBE and creation of The Last Drop Distillers Co.
Let’s start with your winning an OBE, how did that feel?
It’s nice to get recognition after 43 years in the industry, and I feel both proud and humbled. I like to think it’s because I have been a creator and brand-builder for most of that time. In particular I look back with pride at the creation of Blue Label, the Classic Malts and Chivas Regal 18-year-old.
When do you feel the industry was at its most innovative?
I think in the IDV days in the late 70s and early 80s when we had a culture where we tried things and sometimes even ignored consumer research. Very few people in the industry know that Bailey’s failed in research, and with Malibu we didn’t do any at all. Our CEO, the late Anthony Tennant, encouraged us to get out and try and make it happen. He brought me in as marketing director to shake the tree and foster innovation. It was really a very entrepreneurial culture.
Do you think Malibu and Baileys would be launched today?
No, I think not because the big companies wouldn’t have the courage to do it because they research everything. It’s like what they say of the camel – the racehorse designed by committee. I think the real innovation today comes from small, entrepreneurial companies and that is evident in the plethora of new gins and malt whiskies.
What was the thinking behind The Keepers of the Quaich?
In the mid-80s I was invited to become a Chevalier du Tastevin in Burgundy and thought what’s wrong with the Scotch industry? Why don’t we do something to recognise our amazing heritage, and the contribution people make from around the world.
Can you tell us how was The Last Drop developed?
I was with my friend Peter Fleck in South Africa who wanted an exclusive Scotch for his boutique hotel chain; The Last Word. I thought there’s a bigger idea here and so set up a company with Peter and Tom Jago, the creator of Bailey’s. Essentially we’re about rare parcels of unusual spirits and started with three barrels of a 1960 Scotch blend. We’ve now released a 1950 Cognac and a 50-year-old whisky.
Rumour has it that you’re also involved with Mongolian vodka?
That’s right, I’m the international adviser for APU Ltd – the largest spirits company in the country who do 2m cases of vodka a year. With thousands of brands out there you’ve got to have a USP, and I’m encouraged by the uniqueness of the Mongolian proposition. In the not too distant future we’ll be launching probably three vodkas on the world stage.
And now there’s a book in the pipeline?
Yes, it’s called Making Your Marque – 100 Tips to the Top. Sadly there’s far too little mentoring today because people chop and change and there’s very rarely a job for life. I’m hoping the book will make a little contribution to guiding people. It will be coming out at the end of October (www.makingyourmarque.com).