A spirited history: a chat with rare tipple hunter Rebecca Jago
The Last Drop managing director tells Tempus about tracking down ultra-rare spirits and tackling the patriarchal world of whisky head-on
In 2017, during an extensive restoration of his ruined barn, a French cognac distiller tore down an unassuming, hastily built stone wall – one of many that comprised the rustic old building. Expecting to be greeted with little more than damp or yet another pile of rubble, he instead found himself face-to-face with an unmarked, dusty wooden barrel.
Without yet realising it, he had stumbled across a perfectly preserved container of 1925 Grande Champagne cognac, having just destroyed the wall that had been erected to hide it from advancing Nazi ground troops during the Battle of France in 1940. Skip forward a few incredulous late-night phone calls and dashes through the Bordeaux countryside and this astonishing discovery went from being a quirky passing news bulletin to a tangible consumer product; a remarkable slice of history bottled and served up by The Last Drop.
The world’s leading producer of ultra-rare spirits, The Last Drop Distillers has made waves in the premium spirits markets with a rather fascinating USP. Soliciting the services of world-renowned experts in the fields of cognac, whisky, rum and more, The Last Drop scouts out exclusive and even one-off barrels of the finest spirits – be they casualties of a shipping error or the leftovers of an experiment that never went public – and prepares them for the market by bottling them and offering them as the ultimate product for both collectors and those who simply want the best quaff money can buy.
Indeed, the story of the ’25 Cognac is just one of a dozen yarns The Last Drop managing director Rebecca Jago could spin about her company’s products, of which there are currently only 21 available. For her, the quality of the spirits themselves are on par with the often head-spinning stories of how they came to fall under her ownership.
“We currently have a pair of tawny ports, one of which is from 1870,” she says with a joyous vigour in her voice. “When this was being made, Thomas Edison was putting the finishing touches on the lightbulb and Alexander Graham-Bell was working on the early telephone. And here we are now, talking about that same port over Zoom in 2021. That’s one of the loveliest things about living in a world of old spirits; making that connection between the past and present.” »
While there’s no denying that the pedigree attached to these spirits makes them an alluring prospect before one takes even a cursory glance at the tasting notes, the quality of the product remains of paramount importance. By Jago’s estimates, her team rejects around 90% of the rare samples they are led to, and only take on the best of the best – a core principle of her late father Tom, who founded the brand in 2008 with his business partner James Espey.
A pair of iconic spirits magnates – as well as the brains behind Baileys Irish Cream, Malibu Rum and Johnnie Walker Blue Label – Jago and Espey used their retirements to begin tracking down these ultra-rare spirits initially as a hobby that eventually blossomed into its own fully fledged brand.
“They’d go and find a few barrels of something old and exceptional and bottle it under their own name,” Jago says. “That’s what eventually became The Last Drop distillers, and their first release was a 1960 blended Scotch whisky that, until the day he died, my dad reckoned was the best thing he’d ever tasted.”
Eventually the pair branched out into brandies, ports and bourbons, among others, and it was at this point that they dusted off their Rolodexes and harnessed the knowledge of some of the greatest minds in spirits.
“My father was a whisky afficionado and so was familiar with what ‘aged’ could mean in the context of bourbons and Scotch whiskies,” Jago says. “But ageing is relative. Some spirits will evaporate far faster than others, meaning that while ageing for 100 years would be wonderful for one spirit, it might completely ruin another.”
And so The Last Drop compiled what Jago calls her “superpanel”; a group of experts on different spirits from across the globe to whom she can turn for an examination and evaluation should a rogue barrel pop up unexpectedly.
Being the head of a brand like The Last Drop has necessitated that Jago become a master of marketing, morphing the contents of a dusty, forgotten barrel in the corner of an urban warehouse into beautiful bottles of high- quality spirits. And yet, somewhat ironically, it is marketing and public perception that poses one of her toughest challenges; as the face of the ultimate spirit connoisseur’s brand, she has had to overcome the unfortunate reality that she is one of just a handful of women leading the way in an industry dripping with patriarchal dominance.
“From a personal perspective as the only girl in a family of four children, from an early age I was never made to feel excluded or disadvantaged by being female,” she says. “I was brought up by very enlightened parents.
“But I remember when my father was working for a major drinks conglomerate and I visited his office, everybody there was either a male executive or a female secretary – there simply were no women in positions of power.
“Nowadays you have plenty of women who are master distillers and blenders – particularly in the US and particularly in whisky – but the consumer perception is still that women ‘don’t know about whisky’ and that they should be drinking a G&T or white wine,” she adds.
“Some 30% of whisky drinkers are now women, so it can only be outdated attitudes and historical marketing that are holding us back. Marketing and advertising will lead to these sorts of ideas becoming ingrained,” she says, but offers a shimmer of optimism. “If anything, the advent of the cocktail revolution will surely make a huge difference to how we perceive dark spirits. For example, I’d be very surprised if even whisky cocktails are seen as inherently male as the classic whisky on the rocks.
“Women have to speak up and tell the world abouttheirloveofspirits,”sheconcludes.“Because something has to change, and I’m sure it will.”