When it was founded in 2008, the Last Drop made an immediate splash among whisky connoisseurs, even if it took a while for them to realise what it was up to. With its first release – a unique cask of blended Scotch that had been maturing since 1960 – it appeared to be setting out its stall as an independent Scotch bottler. But only with its second offering – 478 bottles of a 60-year-old Cognac, discovered in a tiny distillery in the Charentais woods – did things become clear. The aspiration was higher: to be a ‘curator of remarkable spirits’.
Since then the Last Drop has offered up bourbons, Japanese whisky, Jamaican rum and even fortified wines: a pair of tawny ports (from 1970 and, stunningly, 1870) and a cask of Pineau des Charentes (a matured blend of grape juice and Cognac) that had been bricked up in 1940 to hide it from the Nazis. Fifteen years and 32 releases on, this autumn saw its first Irish whiskey.
The company was founded by James Espey and the late Tom Jago. Between them they created some of the most popular drinks brands ever – Bailey’s Irish Cream, Le Piat d’Or wine et al – and the Last Drop was conceived as their semi-retirement project. However, it was a hand-to-mouth affair to begin with. ‘They couldn’t embark on the next release until they’d sold enough of the previous one to fund the acquisition of another barrel,’ explains Rebecca Jago, Tom’s daughter and now CEO of the company.
Rebecca joined the business in 2014 (for a while, alongside Espey’s daughter Beanie) and has developed it dramatically since the 2016 sale of a controlling interest to the Sazerac Company, owner of Buffalo Trace and more than 450 other brands. ‘The ability to acquire stock, either for imminent release, or for decades hence, makes a huge difference,’ says Jago. ‘It allows us to take a punt. Not all our inventory will become a Last Drop bottling, but it will play a part, either in a blend or traded to raise funds.’
The Last Drop: from curating to creating
Under Jago’s leadership, the Last Drop is also shifting from curating to creating. To that end, she has brought together something she calls ‘The Assembly’. The name may make it sound like a conspiracy theorist’s idea of a shadowy globalist cabal, but it is in fact a collection of spirits industry experts: Colin Scott, former master blender of Chivas Brothers; Buffalo Trace master blender Drew Mayville; Michael D’Souza, master distiller for highly regarded Indian whisky Paul John; Denis Lahouratate, cellar master at Cognac house Domaine Sazerac de Segonzac; Richard Seale, master distiller for Foursquare Rum; and Louise McGuane, whose JJ Corry brand reintroduced to Ireland the craft of whiskey bonding (buying, ageing, finishing and blending – in a similar way to the original Johnnie Walker).
So far two Assembly members have put their names to Last Drop ‘signature blends’: a luscious 50-year-old Scotch blended by Scott, and a blend of Kentucky straight bourbons and ryes Mayville had been squirrelling away.
When a long-hidden or forgotten single malt is released, excitement comes from knowing it is the product of a unique discovery. But Jago rejects the notion that blends can’t give rise to the same frisson. ‘It may not be as romantic as finding something behind a wall after decades. But, within a blend, there are still liquids of which there is simply nothing left now, so they are absolute one-offs,’ she says.
The third release from an Assembly member is McGuane’s Signature Creation: not a blend, but a vatting of 1991 casks of triple-distilled single malt from her ‘library of flavours’ – whiskeys of different ages from various distilleries, collected at her family’s farm in County Clare. Often she will recask whiskey to guide its development. This was finished in an Oloroso butt, giving it a deep mahogany colour and adding spice to the smooth, fruity liquid.
Not currently a member of the Assembly but crucial to this release was Helen Mulholland, who was master blender at the distillery when the liquid was born more than 30 years ago. (She now runs Lough Gill Distillery, Sligo, acquired by Sazerac last year.) In 2023 it is less remarkable than it once would have been for a luxury drink to be the result of collaboration between three women, and while Jago credits her own heritage with smoothing her path through the industry, she notes: ‘Helen broke new ground and Louise has had to fight […] this is a wonderful opportunity to recognise that there are challenges in getting to where we have, and celebrate what we’ve done together.’
The Last Drop Signature Creation by Louise McGuane is available from lastdropdistillers.com/collection