On the face of it, it is a fledgling independent spirits business, led by the former head of a small graphic design company, that has notched up a mere 27 releases and sold a modest 10,000 bottles over the course of its 14-year history. But The Last Drop Distillers is far from your average independent bottler. Its releases might be infrequent, but that’s fine by Rebecca Jago and her team, who believe that small is beautiful. Since its founding in 2008, this boutique spirits brand has specialised in ultra-premium dark spirits and presents itself as ‘curator of the world’s most remarkable spirits’. It values rarity, age and quality above all else, and has cultivated close relationships with industry and customers alike.
If the Jago name sounds familiar, it also helps make sense of that unorthodox move from designing websites for accountancy firms to bottling premium spirits for collectors. The Last Drop began as a post-retirement project in 2008, led by the person who Jago eventually replaced as managing director: her father, drinks industry veteran Tom (her brother Dan, former CEO of Berry Bros & Rudd, is another industry stalwart). Tom Jago and fellow founder James Espey worked together for decades at several large companies, creating and launching Baileys Irish Cream, the Chivas Regal 18-year-old and Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Retirement, at the respective ages of 82 and 65, left them restless. ‘They weren’t quite ready to hang up their boots,’ says Rebecca. ‘So they decided to take an idea and see if they could do something completely different: small, selffunded and self-initiated. They wanted to find some really old Scotch whisky and bottle it, and that’s how the company started.’
‘I suspect the original thinking was to leave it at [one Scotch] and get on with life. Then someone asked, “What’s next?”’ – Rebecca Jago
Their first product came in 2010, a 50-year-old blended Scotch. The whisky was the result of a long quest tasting more than 100 samples at Tom Jago’s many contacts, trying to find the perfect whisky to bottle. He eventually picked out a venerable blend, comprising some 80 different malt and grain whiskies, that was sitting almost forgotten in the corner of a Lowlands warehouse. He claimed it was the best whisky he had ever tried, and what was meant to be a standalone release then spawned further ambitions. ‘I suspect the original thinking was to leave it at that and get on with life,’ says Rebecca. ‘Then someone asked, “What’s next?” That brought a Cognac into being and propelled the business into something more serious.’ Initially, Espey funded the company. Choice casks were sourced through the pair’s lifelong network of personal contacts, with bottling and order fulfilment services provided on generous terms via Morrison Bowmore distillers in Glasgow. It was a romantic but time-consuming process, with the partners only wanting to bottle the best spirits possible. Limited resources meant there could be no further release until the previous one had generated sufficient revenue. Until 2014, The Last Drop had only three spirits to its name: two blended whiskies and a Cognac.
That was when Rebecca Jago and Beanie Geraedts-Espey, James’s daughter, joined the company and began restructuring the business. The pace and variety of releases began to increase. Among them was The Last Drop’s first single malt – a single cask of 1967 Glen Garioch, an incredibly rare whisky from a time when the distillery was still making peated whisky. Not long afterwards came the first Last Drop grain whisky – a 1961 single cask from the now-closed Dumbarton distillery that contained so little liquid that only 32 bottles were released.
Such commitment to rarity and quality caught the eye of drinks conglomerate Sazerac, which acquired The Last Drop in 2016, offering new opportunities as the elders took a back seat and the daughters became joint managing directors. (Geraedts- Espey has since stepped back to raise a family and focus on a new Sherry brand.) ‘We had a very charming way of doing business, but it doesn’t give you a sustainable plan or pipeline,’ says Jago. ‘When we sold the company, we then had funding and resources, including, for the first time, access to bourbons and future stock. So now we are building a significant inventory for future releases.’ Something of the charm survives, however, as seen in the 2017 acquisition of two special casks – a 1925 Cognac (The Last Drop release no.14) and a 100-year-old Pineau des Charentes (no.23) – during a trip to Cognac with Sazerac’s Cognac manager Clive Carpenter. That trip included a blind tasting of 25 spirits at an unnamed Grande Champagne distiller.
‘Clive and I kept coming back to one Cognac that stood out among all the others,’ Jago recalls. ‘Our host then told us about how, when they were doing some renovation work in the barns at the distillery and were digging underneath some of the marrying vats, they found two casks originally placed there by his grandfather. He had been hiding them from the Germans, but they were then forgotten. So, here’s a Cognac, distilled in 1925, hidden in the late 1930s, that was then uncovered in 2017, and it had never been touched until he came across it. We were very fortunate to be there to try it.’ This release is special to Jago for another reason: it was distilled the year her father was born and was bottled in 2018, the year he passed away. As for the 100-year-old Pineau discovered alongside that Cognac: the cask was so fragile that the liquid inside had to be siphoned off where it was found so that it wouldn’t fall apart.
‘Alcohol is a social liquid. I want people to open our bottles and to make their own memories’ – Rebecca Jago
Continuing that focus on age, rarity and quality, the latest releases include its first Japanese whisky (a 20-year-old blend containing a significant amount of liquid from the legendary Hanyu Distillery); an hors d’age Cognac from a closed family distillery; and a single malt from Glenturret originally distilled in 1977, making it older than any whisky sold by the distillery itself. Also in the portfolio are bourbons, a rum (a single cask first filled in 1976, it spent time maturing in both Jamaica and Liverpool) and a pair of tawny Ports (made a century apart, in 1870 and 1970, from the same Douro vineyards).
The company has now started to create its own blends, in addition to curating spirits. The first of these is the 50-year-old Signature Blend, as conceived by retired master blender Colin Scott. A notable figure in whisky circles, Scott served 31 years overseeing Chivas Regal’s blends. Yet, drawn from The Last Drop’s expanded stock of ancient casks, this is only the second 50-year-old Scotch he has created in his long and storied career.
Scott is now a consultant for the company, and his blend led to the development of The Assembly, a group of experienced spirit-makers comprised of Sazerac experts and independent producers: Sazerac US master blender Drew Mayville; Foursquare Rum master distiller and blender Richard Seale; Louise McGuane, the owner of Irish whisky brand JJ Corry; Michael d’Souza, master blender and distiller at Indian whisky Paul John; and Sazerac Cognac cellar master Denis Lahouratate. Each will eventually create a bespoke Last Drop release from the best spirits at their disposal.
While the Sazerac takeover may have eliminated some of the company’s more charming quirks born of its history as a family business, the resulting stability and increased resources have enabled Jago to create a more solid business, she says, sourcing liquid and connecting with her customers to create a memorable drinking experience. The increased pace of releases, though still modest by any other standard, highlights the line the firm treads with its high-quality, small-scale releases. ‘There’s a constant balance for us between opening new markets and having enough product to supply,’ Jago says. ‘That’s something we will always have to negotiate.’
The bottler also faces a fast-changing ultra-premium spirits market. Back when it was founded in 2008, few companies were pushing new, exclusive products at thousands of pounds per bottle. There are many more brands doing so now, and there is a growing market for such releases. Sales of The Last Drop’s remaining old stock shot up during the pandemic, while new releases sold out, reflecting a trend in the luxury sector: travel may have been out, but indulgence was, and remains, very much in. During lockdown, Jago worked hard to connect with the industry and her customers via countless Zoom tastings to share both high-quality spirits and the story of her family business. She believes The Last Drop’s success is due to its focus on building relationships. Because its loyal customers trust the company’s curation skills, they are willing to travel beyond their comfort zone and try something different.
Most of The Last Drop’s products range from £3,000 to £4,000 – expensive, but not outrageous in today’s market, given the age, quality and rarity at play. These relatively reasonable prices have led, however, to auction resales at inflated prices as investments or future hedges, rankling Jago. She keeps track of the buyers of the individually numbered bottles. ‘We know which of our customers has bought which numbers,’ she warns. ‘So if we see that a customer is regularly selling our bottles at inflated prices, we might want to have a conversation. But it doesn’t happen often. Our bottles are meant to be opened and shared with friends and loved ones,’ Jago says. ‘I feel it to my bones that that’s the purpose of alcohol. It’s a social liquid. I want people to open our bottles and to remember where they were when they did so, and to make their own memories.’