James Espey OBE deems his proudest achievement as having co-founded Keepers of the Quaich, the stalwart-exclusive Scotch whisky society. "I'm now 72, and I should be retiring," the former Chivas Brothers chairman jokes, given how his latest ambitious scheme somehow got in the way.
Less a bucket-list item than a seemingly crazy idea that spawned an intrepid mission, it's the company he started in 2008 called The Last Drop Distillers, expressly created to locate barrels of very old whiskies often hidden from public view. These are usually found in batches of several hundred bottles and thus deemed by the major companies too paltry a store to bother with. In line with the company slogan ("Before there is no more"), the focus is squarely on the thrills of rarity, since all the whiskies are very limited in production, with an average age of 50 years.
"I sat in my garden with my business partners Tom Jago and Peter Fleck, and I said we needed to find these tiny nuggets that would be of no interest to the big boys," he tells me over the phone from his London office. "We are rare-spirits hunters, seeking out the precious last drops of some of the oldest and most perfect spirits in existence."
"Our quest is certainly a challenging one, as not all spirits age well and too long in wood can ruin a fine liquid," he admits. "But, occasionally, all key elements such as the original distillate, type of wood, and storage climate align to produce an unlikely miracle."
Asia is a place of limitless potential for the spirits trade, he says, and that notion recently found him hosting a tasting at Crown Wine Cellars in Hong Kong. Appropriately clad in the blue tartan of the Keepers of the Quaich, he held court with a trio of trophy whiskies, the jewel in the crown being a 50-year-old blended Scotch, its aroma redolent of Spanish oak and its taste recalling herbs and mushrooms, made from 82 different whiskies – 70 malt and 12 grain – matured in various woods. Only three barrels were found in 2008 after apparently being ignored in the warehouse, and only 388 bottles remain of the 50.9 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) dram. Named Best Blended Scotch Whisky of 2014 by both Jim Murray's Whisky Bible and the Whisky Advocate, its auspicious Bottle Number 1 was sold by Sotheby's at the Finest and Rarest auction in Hong Kong on May 23, 2015, the reserve price set at HK$50,000 and eventually fetching an impressive HK$85,750.
The second was a 48-year-old blended Scotch, all fig and peach on the nose with layers of cinnamon and orange, leaving dark chocolate lingering in the mouth but also recalling pear drops. Aged in bourbon casks, it was first distilled in 1965, and just 592 bottles were made in September 2014 at 48.6 percent ABV, 22 of which were allocated to Crown Wine Cellars at HK$33,888 each. And the third was a 1967 Glen Garioch single malt featuring subtle peat and hints of apple and honey, silky in the mouth and leaving a long finish full of spices and cloves. At 45.4 percent ABV, only 118 bottles exist priced at HK$60,000 each, due for release this month.
The single malt, collectively tasted that afternoon for the first time anywhere in the world, was discovered by Tom Jago's daughter Rebecca, who has also joined the company, and developed with The Last Drop consultant Andrew Rankin, the famous chief blender from Morrison Bowmore (the makers of Glen Garioch). "Old and scarce whiskies are the new liquid gold," Espey tells me, adding that he's just returned from Mongolia where he'd launched the translation (yes, in Mongolian) of his book Making Your Marque: 100 Tips to Build Your Personal Brand and Succeed in Business, aimed squarely at budding entrepreneurs in Ulan Bator and beyond.
In previous press interviews, he'd made a point of noting how investment returns on whiskies can reach 25 percent per annum; the value of a 1960 whisky he launched in 2008 – The Last Drop's first release, all 1,347 bottles sold out – rose from £1,000 to north of £3,500, because "people are looking for something genuine and exclusive." The Platinum Whisky Investment Fund, he informs me, reported on how top whiskies have appreciated in value by 100 percentage points in a few years.
His daughter Caroline "Beanie" Espey has now entered the fray as the company's sales and marketing director, following a move back to London from Hong Kong last July, her career steeped in the luxury world with L'Oréal and Chanel. "My first job was at a sherry bodega in Jerez," she tells me in a separate chat. "I do feel a certain amount of pressure because we're working with investments and there is financial outlay involved. The transition will be fragile in the next couple of years.
"I think our price point is deliberate but fair, considering how old these whiskies are and in such small quantities, too. We're not merely targeting the super-rich and we see this as very much a global brand, not merely Eurocentric since we distribute all over the world. The people I've met in Hong Kong are very passionate and that's very exciting, unlike the British, who tend to downplay their enthusiasm."
So dare I play the naysayer, questioning the cost/benefit ratio of such a project? As any whisky connoisseur already knows, an old whisky isn't necessarily better than a young whisky, it's just a different whisky, and so what one pays for is the sheer wonderment of the maturity in all that sacred wood, exemplified by legendary collectibles like the Chivas Regal Royal Salute Tribute to Honour (only 21 bottles ever made), the Johnnie Walker Diamond Jubilee (only 60 bottles), The Dalmore Trinitas (a 64-year-old, only three bottles) and the 1957 Bowmore from Islay (only 12 bottles ever made, yet it twice failed to meet its auction reserve price at Bonhams in Edinburgh and New York).
How does Espey view such esoteric and (some might say) dubiously expensive fare? "Good luck to them," he replies. "I'll have to choose my words carefully here, so I would say this: some people will buy brands and pay for packaging. To me, that's more bling than substance, especially when they don't have an age statement on them. In Asia especially, an age statement is of utmost importance. We at The Last Drop are about age, rarity and authenticity. There's a lot of bling out there and we don't do bling."
He plans to issue three whiskies a year, the next one being an old grain spirit blended entirely from closed distilleries, in 35 bottles only. "Grain whiskies are the future," he insists, "and people are now becoming aware of them, whatever you might think of David Beckham and his [ambassadorial role plugging the single-grain] Haig Club." Still the globetrotting septuagenarian, he's flying off to Southern California soon to see his American distributors, Infinium Spirits in Orange County, disclosing to me that he wouldn't rule out releasing an old bourbon at some point.
"Good whiskies will always give a good return on investment, especially in Europe where you don't pay capital gains tax," he quips. "I always tell people that if you find an old whisky that you like, you should always buy two bottles – one to drink and one that you can sell in three years to pay off the first one!"