Interview with Rebecca Jago of The Last Drop Distillers
Ahead of our inaugural Holiday Pop Up in the Hamptons, we caught up with Rebecca Jago, the managing director of The Last Drop Distillers. The London-based spirits company will be joining us for the weekend, known for bringing the world's rarest and most delicious liquids to our unknowing palates. Since its 10th anniversary two years ago, The Last Drop has thrived and this year appointed a new Master Blender in the guise of former Chivas Bros and friend of TLD founders Tom Jago, Rebecca's father and his friend James Espey. From lockdown Zoom tastings to TLD's fantastical decanter, Phoebe, we end 2020 on a delectable high with an insight into our favourite festive tipples.
Turnbull: The Last Drop Distillers was founded in 2008 by your father, Tom Jago, and his friend James Espey. Both behemoths of the British drinks industry – bringing drinks such a Baileys Irish Cream to market – what of their experiences led them to establish the Last Drop?
Rebecca: It was a desire to use their experiences of working for the giants of the drinks world but do something completely different: both Tom and James were always passionate about whisky and felt that, outside the huge brands they and others had built, there was an opportunity to find and bottle hidden gems, and to do it in a small, personal and craftsmanlike way. This passion for quality and rareness led them to the first bottling of a majestic old blend, which set The Last Drop on its path.
Rebecca, you took over as managing director in 2014 to further your father's vision. How are things are evolving under your direction and what does the future hold for Last Drop Distillers?
James’ daughter Beanie and I joined The Last Drop together in 2014, at a point where James and Tom were considering whether they had the energy (aged 71 and 89 by then!) to carry on. Beanie and I both felt passionate about TLD, but perhaps slightly apprehensive about taking it on alone, so it was a wonderful opportunity to work together, and alongside our dads, and in doing so build a great friendship, much as our fathers had all those years before. Since then, Beanie has started another company – a great sherry brand called Xeco – you must try it, got married and had two gorgeous sons. So, she has been quite busy: I therefore took over as MD a couple of years ago. What I would say, is that everything we do is still informed by the principles our fathers laid down: we look for the most exquisite spirits and bottle them for the pleasure of our friends and customers. We have, however, tried to build the business with a bit more structure and forward planning. And in 2016 we sold the company to Sazerac, which has given us much more opportunity to future-proof our business and our brand in terms of finding stock for the future. Other than that, we remain true to our heritage: the company was founded on quality, rarity and the making of memories, and that is still very much at the heart of what we do.
One of the most exciting things of 2020 has been the arrival of our Master Blender, Colin Scott: Colin was the Master Blender for Chivas Bros for many years – he was with the company for 47 years before his retirement last summer. Colin also worked with James and Tom when they were at Chivas and the three of them worked together on the launch of Chivas 18 Year Old Whisky, so this is a lovely piece of symmetry. Colin will be responsible for helping us to create our own blends from our ageing stocks and leading our tastings. He is the most charming man, so we are thrilled to have him on board!
The Last Drop keeps a very exclusive product offering, with only 21 exquisite products at present – including whiskies, rums, and cognacs. Searching the world for the most extraordinary spirits, what makes a product worthy of carrying the Last Drop name?
This is something we are often asked, and it is slightly difficult to answer! However, what I would say is that what we always seek are spirits that are unequivocally delicious, with history, authenticity, and a story. Whether the story is of a cask of cognac hidden behind a pile of rubble in a barn to conceal it from the Germans approaching the south west of France before the war, and then uncovered over 70 years later by the distiller’s grandson, or of a whisky which has sat unnoticed and untasted for over 30 years but which reveals an extraordinary and complex spirit, there is always something remarkable, not just in the spirit itself but also in the story behind it. We feel passionate about the stories we tell, the spirits we taste and – we hope – the memories that our customers make for themselves when they taste something from The Last Drop.
As has become somewhat of your calling card, each Last Drop bottle comes packaged with a 50ml miniature and a pocket-sized tasting book with additional pages for personal tasting notes – what should customers look for in their whisky?
I would say that a hallmark of TLD spirits is that they can be appreciated by anyone: you do not have to be an expert to enjoy something delicious. People will have preferences, both within a category such as Scotch whisky, and across the range of aged spirits we bottle, but we feel that they are all simply lovely and are to be enjoyed and savoured. The more you experiment, the more you will discover your own preferences, whether that is the smokiness of an Islay Scotch whisky, or the smooth vanilla and caramel notes of a Bourbon. We released our first Rum this year: an amazing 1976 rum from Jamaica which is extraordinary: powerful, full of tobacco, dried fruits, and incredible richness: that is a discovery to blow even the most jaded palate away!
We could not conduct this interview without mentioning the incredible Phoebe. An ingenious feat of design, a collaboration with innovative design company Harvey & John, it pours the perfect measure of whisky. How did the collaboration come about? What was your brief? And do your customers love it as much as we do?
In 2018, we celebrated our 10th anniversary, and we held a month-long pop-up showcase in Piccadilly Arcade in London. We had a series of events throughout the month of May, with customers, friends, press and more. We wanted something eye-catching as a centrepiece for the showroom, and the team at Radar Exhibitions, who designed and fitted out the space, recommended Harvey & John to us. They came up with the idea of the intuitive decanter, which is not only beautiful, but also serves (in both senses of the word) a purpose: she can pour a glass of something special. The original version had a much larger glass vessel, and was perfect for our pop up, where we were serving whisky constantly. My father was at an event and joked that in 60 years of marriage, my mother had never poured him a glass of whisky, so we had to invent something to do it for him! The original was therefore immediately christened Penelope, my mother’s name! When we came to develop the smaller version, it seemed only right to name it after my daughter, Phoebe. Both my mother and my daughter were utterly delighted by this!
2020 has been a challenging year for us all, with many of us taking stock and reflecting on what matters most to us - professionally and personally. What have you missed most during this strangest of years?
Professionally, I have missed seeing our customers. I have not missed the travel so much, but I have really missed the human interaction, the ability to taste with people and to share our stories. Zoom has been an absolute lifesaver, and so has our ability to send samples wherever they need to go, but there is nothing like a face-to-face tasting or dinner. And, personally, it is much the same: I miss physical contact with my friends and my children: just a hug would be lovely!
You are joining us in the Hamptons for our inaugural Holiday Pop Up with your house pour Tom's Blend. Please tell us a bit more about what makes this whisky so remarkable.
Tom’s Blend was created for our pop up in 2018, as was our decanter. My father was a life-long whisky aficionado and liked nothing more than to pour himself a glass of Scotch at 6pm and reflect on his day. Because we have so little liquid of each of our releases, and because each bottling is finite, we cannot be as generous as we would like to be at tastings. So, the idea was born of creating a “house blend” for The Last Drop, which we could use with generosity: in cocktails or however people like to drink it. My father and renowned whisky expert Charlie Maclean worked together on the brief: for a whisky that represented everything my father loved in a Scotch, and our bespoke blend was born. Although younger than our Last Drop releases, it is still absolutely delicious, and a lovely tribute to my wonderful and much-missed father. We are so thrilled to be at the inaugural Holiday Pop Up and would like to thank you all for inviting us!
Finally, with Christmas hurtling toward us, what are your socially distant plans? And what are you most looking forward to about the festive break?
We are very fortunate that we will be able to spend Christmas at home with both our children (who are not children but grown adults!), and I am looking forward to a fairly traditional family Christmas lunch, to switching off from work and enjoying time away from the computer. Lots of walks by the river with family and friends sounds like a pretty good break to me! I will also be treating the family to a dram of something delicious from The Last Drop!
Please join the team from the Turnbull Townhouse and The Last Drop Distillers from 10:00am - 6:00pm on 12th - 15th December at The Roundtree, Amagansett, 273 Main Street, Amagansett, NY 11930.