James Espey is fully retired from the world of high-volume distilling. Instead, the founder and chairman of The Last Drop Distillers is subsisting as a hunter and gatherer. His company seeks out small batches of old, high-quality rare spirits and bottles them for the contemporary market.
Espey and his good friend, Tom Jago, conceived the idea almost ten years ago while sitting in the former’s garden. They were already leaders in the liquor industry and founded the innovative company along with another liquor industry veteran, Peter Fleck.
Sazerac wants The Last Drop to be the pinnacle brand in their growing international empire
The men have since passed the torch of running the business to their daughters, Beanie Espey and Rebecca Jago.
That doesn’t mean the elder Espey is by any means slowing down. An entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author, he’s staying busy in his new role as chairman of The Last Drop, spreading the word on a global basis about its exclusive, limited offerings.
And it seems the word is getting around. Last year, acclaimed distillery Sazerac purchased the growing family-run company.
“Sazerac wants The Last Drop to be the pinnacle brand in their growing international empire,” says the elder Espey. “They want us to be right at the top.”
Espey is the creator of Scotland’s leading Whisky Society, The Keepers of the Quaich. And he’s a 2013 recipient of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), awarded by the Queen for his service to the Whisky industry.
For his most recent philanthropic endeavor, Espey has joined The Shaw Mind Foundation as global strategy director. He hopes to use his brand-building experience to help the mental health charity reduce suicide rates globally.
Speaking with Old Liquors Magazine, Espey shared some of his philosophies on the liquor business and the secrets to his success.
On Brand Building
“I believe it takes at least ten years to build a decent brand, whatever that brand is, whether you’re the president of the United States, whether you’re a liquor brand, whether it’s you or me. It takes time, and too many people today are in a great hurry because of the greed of quarterly earnings and bonuses.”
“We wanted good packaging, but not bling packaging, and I’m not saying that in a rude way. I am saying it fundamentally. The more expensive the packaging, the more suspicious I am, bluntly, because the hero is inside the bottle.”
On Why He Will Never Again Work for a Large Company
“Big companies are preoccupied with volume. They want to sell millions of bottles … because no big company can make money on 100 or 200 bottles. They’re not interested.”
“Be nice to people on the way up because, with a bit of luck, they may remember you on the way down.”
On Whisky Blends
“Do you want to listen to only the piano for the rest of your life? A blend is a complete orchestral symphony. The heart of great Whisky are blends, and blends dominate Scotch.”
On How He Drinks His Whisky
“I add a few drops of water, which opens it up, like a flower opening up. That’s a personal opinion. I like the flower opening up, the aroma and the texture.”
On Why The Last Drop Stands out From Other Spirit Companies
“The Last Drop is a unique operation. We restrict ourselves to amazingly old, but fresh, exclusive, superb, limited spirits.
Everything we do is by hand. It’s the opposite of a big company. Every single thing we do is personal. There’s nothing like it really in the industry. And it’s fun. I’m in this industry for 48 years now, and I’m still having fun. But I’m pleased the ladies have taken over. I’m a big fan of women in business, by the way.”
On the Viability of Rare Liquor
“Rare old blends are coming back. People are starting to discover them, and that’s why we always only have limited quantities.
There’s a great demand for rare, old things.”
On The Boss
“The only boss is the consumer. People forget that.”