Yesterday’s triumph of Andy Murray at Wimbledon has got to be good news for Scotch sales. So my timing of a profile on SACS old boy James Espey in the Financial Mail last week, was exquisitely timed. Thanks, Prakash!
James Espey (below), SACS old boy and inventor of aspirational Scotch, gets an OBE in the birthday honours list of Queen Elizabeth II
It was less than a year ago that the Department of Trade and Industry were rattling their pencils and threatening a trade war with the UK. The previous year, SA had imported R1.7 billion worth of Scotch, making it the fifth largest export market for Scottish stuff against wine exports to the UK of R993 million. Confirming by just how far SA wine misses the target of becoming the aspirational drink for SA. Although the DTI was more concerned about the trend to bulk exports – two thirds of SA wine exports to the UK now leave in bulk to be bottled in Blighty, with job losses galore in SA – than the trade imbalance per se.
Adding weight to the urban legend that insists that Soweto is the most lucrative per capita market for Johnnie Walker Blue Label in the world. Johnnie Blue was tipple of choice for Thabo Mbeki, a former president who loved the stuff so much, parliament would buy him a case for his birthday. When the special edition King George V was released in SA, the launch took place at Tuinhuis, the president’s pied à Cap. President Jacob Zuma is famously teetotal and “the only person in the ANC who does not drink”, as he wryly remarks. Although the young lions of the ANC Youth League have taken up the Scotch slack.
So far, so gravy train. What is less well known is that Johnnie Blue is a South African invention. Step forward marketing maven from Bakoven, Cape Town, James Espey. A newly minted UCT MBA in his pocket, the 26-year old joined Gilbeys as national sales manager on January 11, 1970, after a stint at Spar. Heading up a team of “piss artistes” (salesmen who were the best advertisements for the products they were pushing), his salary of R300 a month was supplemented by a generous monthly product allowance of R200, which he used to the full.
The first non-Englishman to be appointed worldwide marketing director for International Distillers and Vintners, forerunner to Diageo, the world’s largest liquor company, he moved to London in 1977. In Conjunction with university friend and business colleague – Peter Fleck (Robbie Fleck’s father), they also launched Malibu worldwide. Invented by Fleck at Gilbeys South Africa, Espey took it to London and the rest is history.
Desk hopping to United Distillers, he reckoned their flagship Johnnie Walker brand was in serious need of “a good shake-up.” After discovering a barrel of 60 year old whisky and blending it “homeopathically” with 15-year old spirit, Johnnie Walker Oldest was born. Later rebranded Johnnie Walker Blue Label, it quickly became the world’s most aspirational blended whisky, selling around 3 million bottles a year and the future Spirit of Soweto.
Espey’s next wheeze was to found Keepers of the Quaich, an exclusive haggis and bagpipes club for liquor buyers based at Blair Castle, located in a strategic position astride the Strath of Garry north of the Perth. As a marketing opportunity, it takes no prisoners. Founded in 1988, that the 11th Duke of Atholl, John Murray, was born in Johannesburg, kept up the South African connection.
Kicked upstairs to the chairman’s La-Z-Boy recliner at Chivas Brothers, he tried to repeat his success at Chivas Regal, arguing that the iconic 12 year old blend needed a “halo-brand” of an 18 year old. That Canadian autocratic aristocrat of alcohol Edgar Bronfman, chairman of parent Seagrams, disagreed and James decided to “go plural”, swapping Chivas for directorships of several other companies.
Including helping fellow South African, Vivian Imerman – “the Man from Del Monte” who made £380 million selling tinned fruit to Anglo American – source whiskies for Whyte & Mackay, a company sold on to Indian whisky wonk Vijay Mallya for £585 million in 2007. Espey was ahead of the game and today there is an 18-year old Chivas Regal which runs to 250 000 cases annually and is the closest competitor brand to Johnnie Walker in SA.
Espey is a true believer in blended Scotch, comparing individual single malts to musical instruments. Violins from Speyside, snare drums from Islay – while a blend “gives you the whole orchestra.” So when he unearthed three Sherry casks of 50 year old blended Scotch in the dusty Glasgow cellars of Auchentoshan, it was love (and a commercial opportunity) at first sight. Indulged by Auchentoshan owner Morrison Bowmore Distillers, the result was the ultimate boutique blend – 1347 bottles, appropriately named The Last Drop – “before there is no more.”
A blend of 70 single malts and 12 grain whiskies (the youngest distilled in 1960, with the average age well over 50) it shot out the lights. Whisky commentator Jim Murray called it “whisky that gives you a reason to live” in his Whisky Bible. While R20,000 a bottle may seem a bit ANC Youth League, it’s worth pointing out that the lesser rated Royal Salute 50 year old goes for £6000 while a double tot of TLD at the 19th hole bar at Gleneagles will set you back £190.
Sales took off like the proverbial rocket and today only a handful of bottles remain in the Espey cellar. After tracking down a seriously old French Madame who had some barrels of old family brandy distilled in 1950 in her cellar, a brand extension to Cognac was a no-brainer as the spirit shared a birthday with Mrs. Espey, Celia. “Madame had a dislike of large companies so when we raved about their Cognac, they sold us the lot: 478 bottles. And what a fruity surprise it turned out to be. Christmas pudding on the nose and rich, ripe figs on the palate with an aftertaste that stretches all the way into next week.” It quickly sold out.
So what makes Espey keep on running? “I’m an old smous who thought it would be fun to establish a world brand, without resources, in this world of giants. Our whisky was a hit and with the Cognac, we’re repositioning the world’s most exclusive whisky company as the world’s most exclusive spirit company.” Reflecting on a lifetime spent building brands, James reckons he’s made the UK drinks business £4 billion with four of his bosses knighted and one now sitting in the House of Lords.
An achievement recognized by the UK upper crust, with the Queen awarding Espey an OBE for services to whisky. No wonder MI5 spy on South Africans, as The Guardian revealed in June, when it takes a boy from Bakoven to reinvent a Scottish icon as an aspirational marque for the 21st century.