Once in a blue moon, deep within the Scottish Highlands, or amidst thick Cognac forestry, we might be privileged to discover Europe’s oldest and rarest spirits. It could be brandy concealed in post-war cachets, or decades-old malt-and-grain that lies dormant in traditional dunnage. Regardless of the elixir, the stars must align if it is to survive the ravishes of time. Not all spirits age equally, and the effects of prolonged exposure to wood can rapidly prove ruinous. For those with the conviction and knowhow, rescuing superlative brown distillates from such an ignoble end — undiscovered, unsung, unappreciated — is a lifelong mission, and it’s this pursuit of perfection which drives The Last Drop Distillers.
Established in 2008 (and now considered to be among Britain’s most exclusive and pioneering spirits companies), The Last Drop began life as the retirement project of Messrs James Espey and Tom Jago. With over a century of experience between them, Jago and Espey are responsible for creating some of the most recognisable names in today’s drinks industry. These men — formerly behind brands of near-mythic repute such as Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker Blue Label — founded The Last Drop on a simple yet seemingly impossible premise: to find and bottle the world’s finest, rarest and exceptionally delicious spirits currently languishing in obscurity.
A decade on, in spite of the Herculean task they have set for themselves, Jago and Espey’s business is thriving. Since 2008, The Last Drop has released 12 whiskies or cognacs of exceptional quality, culminating in 2018 with their first ever twofer: a Centenario of Tawny Ports, from the storied domain of Portuguese winemaker Cristiano van Zeller); and a 1968 single malt whisky from the Glenrothes distillery (Speyside). Suspended in old and modestly detailed rum bottles, these two painfully rare spirits are the antithesis of the modern drinks industry, the full weight of their luxuriousness detectable only upon drinking. We caught up with The Last Drop’s Ben Howkins (Director, Brand Ambassador) & Cecily Chappel (Commercial Director) while they were in Hong Kong last month to learn a little bit about the business, fortified winemaking and the best approach to buying fine spirits.
Cecily Chappel: We consider ourselves the world’s most exclusive spirits collection. In simple terms, we’re an independent bottler, which means we go and look for old and rare spirits. Although that mainly entails brown spirits, we focus on anything with the capacity to age beautifully. When we find something, we bottle it and sell it around the world, using regional distributors to assist us.
Ben Howkins: The whole premise of Last Drop is to source spirits and fortified wines that would never normally be commercialised. So, our guiding values are age — though age doesn’t necessarily mean beauty — freshness, rarity and most importantly (particularly for the consumer) deliciousness.
BH: We celebrated 10 years on 1 March 2018 — a decade after launching on the eve of the global financial crisis. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to why we’re offering brown spirits today — certainly nothing to do with an “8”. It just so happens that, in the case of the port, we’d spent a total of 8 years on the ground in Portugal to source that extremely rare liquid. The Glenrothes meanwhile was a pure accident of timing.
One of the more interesting aspects of our business model is that we don’t have one unifying brand or house style running through our portfolio (e.g. Johnny Walker Blue or Louis XIII cognac). Ergo, every release under The Last Drop label is distinctive and different.
CC: Although the heart of the business is whisky (and Scotch whisky at that) our mission is really about finding great products — regardless of whether they be malt, grain or blended spirits. As a company, we fly the flag for beautiful old blends — the kind that have been out of favour for a while and that we believe to be unsung heroes. It’s all about possessing a combination of rarity, deliciousness, age and freshness. Having said that, it just so happened that we were presented with the opportunity to purchase a very small number of Glenrothes barrels. Not only were we able to secure several barrels of the 1968, but we even managed to complete a “trilogy” involving two other vintages. So falling in nicely with the ‘68, we have the ‘69 coming out next year followed by the ‘70 in 2020.
BH: None of this would have been possible without The Last Drop’s two founders — James Espey and Tom Jago. These two men are titans of the worldwide drinks industry (particularly Tom, who almost singlehandedly invented what we consider “cream-based liqueurs” like Baileys). Without their knowledge and contacts, The Last Drop would never have left the ground. In addition, the fact that we were established on the eve of the global financial recession means that all of our products have had to work harder. It was easier prior to the recession to market a luxury brand by simply throwing lots of money at it — consumers were less educated and less worried about provenance.
“[O]ur guiding values are age — though age doesn’t necessarily mean beauty — freshness, rarity and most importantly (particularly for the consumer) deliciousness.”
CC: Picking up on that, it’s all about contacts. Our co-founder Tom Jago has incredible connections within the trade and has been able to leverage them. As a result, we have more and more producers coming to us saying, “We’ve got something here, it’s a very small parcel, we don’t have a team dedicated to offering it, would you be interested?”. So it’s a mixture of things, and with The Glenrothes itself that was a quintessential example of people in the trade recognising our expertise and offering the product to us.
BH: Another detail that’s worth mentioning is that the next two Glenrothes releases — the ‘69 and ‘70 — will be identically priced to the 1968. It would be far easier for us, given our catalysing role within the industry, to chase inflated prices but at the end of the day our intention isn’t to sell to the end-consumer for investment purposes. Even as a luxury spirits brand, we genuinely want to offer products with a consistent price point and value for the next 20 years.
BH: Insofar as the 1870 and 1970 are concerned, the starting premise was that “We’re the world’s greatest spirits collection”. Consequently, given that port qualifies (only just) as a spirit and that it’s fairly well known in Hong Kong, we contacted someone six years ago to get the process started. We began by sourcing an 1876 tawny port — old but dry — and then worked with my good friend Cristiano van Zeller to explore different alternatives.
Ironically, one of the other ports we first looked at, an 1875, belonged to a relation of Cristiano’s. We wanted to buy it and the relative said no: the reason being that a large portion of that spirit had been gifted to Prince Edward, son of Queen Elizabeth II. So, despite having no children of his own, this lovely old boy resolved that nobody should drink the 1875 except his close relatives and the Queen! That kind of story plays out in every Portuguese family that fiercely guards its private reserve of ports.
In any event, we managed to pry away a pipe of 1870 — pretty old by any stretch of the imagination. Think of what was going on back then: Tchaikovsky was composing, Monet was painting, Charles Dicken had just died. Subsequently we found a 1970, and then an idea gradually formed to do a “Centenario”. We put both vintages together, a sort of reunion as it were (given that they’re produced from the same vines and by the same family) and are now offering them in 770 individuated pairs.
BH: It’s seldom known that within the Douro — Portugal’s largest producer of fortified wine — the area is actually split into Cima Corgo and Baixo Corgo. The former is further towards Spain and is defined by much harder soil that carries lots of schist rock. The vines in the Cima Corgo have to penetrate deeper to get water and that results in grape varietals that are more robust — ideal for usage in vintaged port.
In the Baixo Corgo, the soil is less schist and the climate is rainier. The grapes, while still beautiful to drink, are slightly less robust; as a result they often go into wood for further ageing as opposed to being used in vintaged port. On a slightly unrelated note, one of the side effects of our work in the Douro has been to catalyse an improvement in the premium ports distributed by brands like Diageo and Taylor’s. This kind of competition ensures that exceptional ports — such as our Centenario release — are finding an audience outside the domestic Portuguese market.
CC: They’ve come in and taken what James & Tom have done and really driven the company forward. Rebecca is one of the most creative people I’ve ever come across — a designer with over 25 years experience — while Beanie has had an incredible career in PR and marketing. As a result, they’ve really improved the way we handle the social media aspect of the business and the presentation of our products.
BH: It really depends to be honest. If you’re not passionate about fine spirits, then you can quite effectively buy according to the price you’re willing to pay. However, if you are interested, then scores and ratings have some importance because they’re signposts. While useful, users should be careful not to get hooked by them. In the past I’ve worked very closely with the wine writer Hugh Johnson, and we both concluded that a very simple rule of thumb to follow when deciding whether you like a wine is to see, whilst having a glass, whether you pull it toward yourself. If you tend to push it away then you intrinsically don’t like the wine — it’s all very psychological
“It’s not dissimilar to purchasing antiques — it’s about building a relationship and relying on the advice of someone you can trust”
The Last Drop Centenario (1870–1970) Duo of Tawny Ports is limited to 770 sets worldwide and is priced at (approx) HK$41,245.
The Last Drop Single Malt Glenrothes 1968 is limited to 309 bottles worldwide and is priced at (approx.) HK$55,679.
For more information about Hong Kong-based distributors, please visit The Last Drop Distillers online.