Tom Jago: The Passing of an Industry Icon

The Dean Of Global Spirits

This is from The Last Drop Distillers, a company that Tom co-founded:

It is with profound and heartfelt sadness that we announce the death of our co-founder and inspirational president, Tom Jago, aged 93. Beloved by us all, we give thanks for his brilliance, his incisive humour and, above all, his deep affection for the team and the industry he so loved. Rest in peace, Tom.

Tom Jago. 21st July 1925 – 12th October 2018

There is no one I have met in my booze business journey that I respected more than Tom. He was a true gentleman, a creative genius, and a warm, fun, person. I wrote his story in this blog and in my book and I thought it would be worth re-telling as my personal tribute to a terrific man and friend.

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I first met Tom Jago in the early 1990s when he was part of James Espey’s scotch and cognac team at Seagram. My immediate reaction was, here is a man who is gifted in product development and marketing. He’s also affable and fun to be with. I’m not sure he’s really British.

Over the years he taught me a great deal about the spirits business, above all, how to choose and enjoy good Claret (Bordeaux).

Together with Dr. Espey and Mr. Peter Fleck, he is a principal in the Last Drop Distillers Ltd. (The full story of the company is here.)

Here’s how their website describes Tom:

From a village school in the remote countryside, via a scholarship to Oxford and service in the Royal Navy during WWII, Tom Jago found his niche in the wine and spirits trade.  He led the team that developed new ideas on old themes, like Croft Original Pale Cream Sherry and Le Piat D’Or brands, which revolutionised British drinking habits forever. He cooperated with the ‘gang of three’ in the invention of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Malibu.

But wait, there’s more. Tom was instrumental (as in the driving force) in such brands as Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Hennessy, Chivas Regal 18 Year Old, Martell, The Classic Malts and many others.

If that’s not enough, while at Seagram, Tom helped in the creation of Imperial Blue and Royal Stag, now an important part of Pernod India.

In preparation for this article, I’ve spent some time talking and emailing with Tom on a range of topics and his thoughts on the industry.

Tom’s Career

After the war, Tom “slipped accidentally into advertising.” He applied for a job as a photographer but was mistaken for someone else and got a job as a copywriter. He later became an account director at an ad agency that ultimately became Ogilvy & Mather. Among his accounts was a small company that hired him, called Gilbeys. Through mergers and acquisitions, Gilbeys became IDV and finally Diageo.

Next came four years at Moet-Hennessy, followed by United Distillers (with James) and later Seagram.

The area of focus throughout his career was innovation and new products. As Tom puts it, “I was not very good at being a marketing director (at Gilbeys) so they gave me a small budget, an office and secretary and said try and think of some new drinks we might profitably sell.” The string of successes mentioned earlier, attest to the accomplishments.

Product Development Philosophy

Tom Jago’s focus over the years has been simple, and straightforward, guiding principles.

First, “Make the drink agreeable to the palate, the eye and the nose. Baileys and Malibu are good examples of this.”

The other principle was to develop products that inherently persuade drinkers that there is virtue in drinking them and in learning to appreciate their quality. Interestingly, it’s the same motivations of palate, eyes and nose but applied to whisky, cognac and even tequila.

But above all, Tom has a powerful way of looking at the acceptance and growth of a brand – patience.

“It is clear to me that the motivation to drink alcohol is very deeply buried in the human subconscious… therefore, attempts to market distilled spirits must be subtle too. A spirits brand is bound to be slow growing, so promotions must be long, steady and consistent.”

In my experience, new products and brands often fail because the companies behind them, particularly the global ones, lack the fortitude to see them through to fruition. That’s why the successes in the US (e.g., Grey Goose, Tito’s, and Patron) have come from entrepreneurs.

Another interesting and worthwhile notion from Tom is not to let drinker research get in the way. “It is of course useful, but in the specific case of alcohol drinks, not to be relied on, given the essential illogical responses of people to alcohol,” says Tom. He goes on to say, “No one will tell you the truth about their feelings regarding drinks – mainly because they don’t know what they are themselves.”

I tend to put it another way. Consumer research is like a lamppost, some people lean on it while others are illuminated by it.

Whisky

Despite the drink inventions that favor light, sweet and palatable drinks, Tom is an unabashed devotee of Malts.

“These are, I must confess, my favourite of all the alcoholic drinks… I admire them partly because of their enormous variety of nose and taste (cognac, no matter how fine, all tastes much the same – compared with the vast difference between a malt from Islay and one from the Spey). Much of their appeal, of course, lies in their relative rarity – the amateur can ‘discover’ them for himself, so he feels that he owns a part of the brand. It is interesting that when a malt gets as big (in volume sales) as for instance Glenfiddich or the Glenlivet, people stop thinking of it as a malt, rather as just another Scotch brand.

His focus on whisky over the years has been extraordinary. Johnnie Walker Blue Label was created in 1987 to reassert the perceived value of the Johnnie Walker brand in Asia, where grey market discounting had damaged it. He also developed Classic Malts, a collection of outstanding products from individual malt distilleries, which became brands.

At his current venture, Last Drop Distillers Ltd, he and his partners are using 70 single malts in their blend. Some are from distilleries long since closed. It’s truly an amazing venture and you might want to look it up. (Today, The Last Drop Distillers is owned by Sazerac Limited.)

Throughout his career, Tom helped to define and advance product quality. While at Hennessy, for example, he learned about the sophisticated use of oak in spirit maturation. No one in the scotch business knew about this at the time and one can only imagine the battles that ensued between this young upstart and the tough and crusty old timers who ran the whisky production.

Perhaps based on these battles or just plain good common sense, Tom taught me to be wary of production managers.

“A word of caution concerning those splendid fellows…Don’t let them ruin a great luxury brand by economy measures unrelated to the essential perceived value of the pack; I have seen a production man try to save less than a penny by spoiling the closure of Johnnie Walker Blue Label – this on a brand that sells for £100.”

India

In the late nineties, while at Seagram, Tom was called to Seagram India to help with new product development. One of the chemists, had the idea of making a good admix whisky by using both imported scotch malt and local grain spirit. The resulting products were successful and have stood the test of time – Royal Stag and Imperial Blue. As Tom puts its it, a number of factors accounted for the success – branding, packaging, price (above the competition) and the unique use of TV advertising outside of India.

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Tom Jago was indeed a man for all seasons and the most extraordinary spirits marketer I’ve ever met.

Industry executives, both young and old, can learn a great deal from his business strengths and skills – innovation and outside the box thinking; patience and tenacity; an understanding of people; how to build brands and the price/value relationship in marketing. Above all, Tom has a skill set all executives need, but not all have – a sense of humor.

Side Bar

What I love about the spirits and wine business is that it’s an industry of people, relationships and stories. No one I’ve met has better industry tales than Tom Jago.

Vodka

Real change began in 1949 when a Mr. Kunett, a Russian émigré in the USA, sold his tiny Smirnoff distillery to Heublein. At the time he was making about 5,000 cases a year. He and Heublein began seriously to promote vodka as the spirit with negligible taste, which mixed with fruit juice, tomato juice, or even ginger beer, to give a drink that was actually NICE. So vodka drinking spread to the civilised world (in Russia, it was never that civilised, the vodka was always sold in 50cl bottles with an aluminum capsule – non-reclosable!)

I was closely involved in this period of change. From 1957 I had been helping an old drinks merchant called Gilbeys with their advertising.

Gilbeys had been smart enough to get the rights to Smirnoff vodka for a large part of the world, so we were engaged in promoting vodka – which was entirely unknown in Britain. We began to understand the revolution that was taking place, although research produced some unexpected results: we used an ad showing young men in their digs preparing for a party. One of them was cleaning his teeth; the advertisement was badly understood, and it emerged after a few enquiries that only some 12% of young English males owned a toothbrush!

And when we claimed that Smirnoff doesn’t give you a hangover, we got the response “What’s the point of having a drink if you don’t get a hangover?” Binge drinking is nothing new, it seems.

About Gilbeys:

There was lots of fun to be had at Gilbeys. In the first place they owned a beautiful chateau in the Medoc (Chateau Loudenne), which I used as a cool place to plot things with co-workers. The cellar had first growths from 1875 on.

And board meeting were delightful on occasion. Walter Gilbey said one day, “Tom, I just got a lift back on Hennessy’s little jet – ever so nice. Do you think we might get one?” I said I thought it unlikely but would search and report back. Next week I said “we can’t afford it; costs £2m and that’s about our overdraft. And anyway, you would have two pilots to feed and clothe.”

“Oh,” said young Walter, “Couldn’t Hawkins learn to drive it?”

The joy of this was that Hawkins, an old family retainer, was 56, a serious drunk, and only worked one day a year when he drove the Gilbeys to Royal Ascot race meeting in the coach and four.

Product Placement in Films:

James Bond was in part my baby. I was with Gilbeys in the ‘60s and they had the franchise for Smirnoff in what used to be the British Empire. When Cubby Broccoli (Albert Broccoli, the producer of the Bond films) was rounding up funds for Dr. No he approached Gilbeys and got a flea in his ear; they were broke, in fact. But one of them told me and I persuaded them to let me give him two cases (one blue label 100 proof, the other red, 37.5) I said I hoped that they could include both in the film, and they agreed, with the great scene where Bond rejects the red and makes his martini with the stronger vodka. When I asked for a few more cases for their wind-up party to which I was told to get lost – no more money. So we lost the chance to be in all the Bond films. No money changed hands.  Times change, huh?

And when I was down at Pinewood negotiating this, I lunched in the canteen with Terence Young (director); at the next table was Ava Gardner. She took a mouthful of steak and salad, drew deeply on her Camel, and started chewing. Never forgot that.

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A National Drink is Born

Mahua, The Traditional Tribal Drink from India, Enters the Mainstream

The US has Bourbon, Mexico has Tequila and Mezcal, Scotland has Scotch, Brazil has Cachaça, and the list goes on and on. But what about India? It’s among the top five alcohol consuming countries in the world and there is a robust spirits/whisky manufacturing industry. Colonial India invented the gin and tonic, but has had no serious candidate for national liquor, until now.

This is the story of the emergence of a national drink, led by one man’s innovativeness and tenacity. An alcohol product with a long history and exclusively Indian heritage, surrounded by legends, and spanning centuries. A historic product from the many tribes in the Central Indian Forest belt.

The products (there are two) are called DJ Mahua and DJ Mahua Liqueur. The man is Desmond Nazareth and we have met him before in this blog. (You will find them here, here, and here.)

Desmond Nazareth, Founder and Managing Director, Agave India.

The Product

Mahua (pr. Ma-hu-a) is a flower that Indian tribes have been fermenting, distilling, and drinking. The Mahua tree has been considered sacred for centuries. Desmond and his Agave India Company have begun marketing the product under the DJ (DesmondJi) brand in liquor and liqueur formats and selling these products as Indian Made Liquor (IML) since June of this year. But his real challenge is to get the widespread liquor authorities to recognize Mahua as an official, potentially national drink.

Here’s how he describes Mahua:

“Mahua is a nectar rich flower of the Madhuca longifolia tree, which grows in the Central Indian Forest belt, historically inhabited by indigenous people of India, so called ‘Adivasis’, or ‘Tribals’. The nectar rich flowers mature and drop for a month or so in the Mar-April-May timeframe. These edible sundried flowers retain a significant part of their sugars, with a pleasant, complex taste akin to a hybrid of sun-dried raisin, fig and date… For centuries, Central Indian tribes have been collecting and storing Mahua flowers, and consuming single distilled Mahua spirit made from the flowers in traditional clay, wood-fired potstills.”

He depicts the products as “forest-to-bottle” and both are 40% Alcohol by Volume (AbV). The DJ Mahua liqueur is blended with honey and spices and there are plans for a DJ sparkling product. I’ve tried both the liquor and liqueur and found them to be very enjoyable products, with unique and pleasant tastes. The DJ Mahua Liqueur product in particular, was most enjoyable both straight and in cocktails.

Desmond describes Mahua as “the only spirit in the world that is fermented and distilled from naturally sweet flowers.” ‘What about St Germain?” I asked. According to Desmond, St Germain is made by macerating and steeping Elder Flower in alcohol; DJ Mahua is naturally fermented and distilled directly.

The Mahua Mystique

Mahua Tree

What fascinates me about Mahua is its colorful history. Spend a few minutes here and you’ll see what I mean.

As legend has it, Mahua is “An indigenous drink rumored to be the elixir of the Gods and the weakness of deities, the tribals tell tales of how it is coveted by deer, birds, and humans alike.”

According to Desmond, Mahua is more than a drink, it’s a reflection of India’s colorful tribal history. The legends and stories abound with tales of hard-working villagers saved from the messengers of death by Mahua; of animals cavorting while tipsy on the flowers. Desmond writes:

“From bark to fruit, leaf to root, every part of the Madhuca Longifolia (botanical name) earmarks our heritage in a way few other elements of our long cultural history do.”

A well-respected English anthropologist working with tribes in Central India named Felix Padel, a descendent of Charles Darwin, tasted Mahua and was surprised that the government did not develop it as an industry. He is quoted as saying, “I wonder why people in India would prefer French wine and English scotch when something fresh and rejuvenating like Mahua is available.”

And that leads us to Desmond Nazareth’s journey to make Mahua the Indian national drink.

The Challenges and Obstacles

Mahua is currently made in over a third of India’s 29 states and getting Mahua recognized all over India is a daunting task, particularly when you’re a niche, craft distiller with limited resources.

The Indian alcohol market is very complex and, to me at least, somewhat confusing. As I mentioned, its alcohol volume consumption is among the highest in the world but its per capita consumption is low. There is a love-hate relationship with alcohol, dating back to Gandhi’s aversion to it and at least four states and one territory practice prohibition. Yet, Indians love to drink and the worldwide cocktail enthusiasm is alive and well in the major cities.

Indian Made Liquor (IML) consists of two types. One is Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) and is the official term used by governments, businesses and media in India to refer to all types of liquor manufactured in the country other than indigenous alcoholic beverages. The other type is Country products such as Feni and Mahua.

Desmond is trying to get a new Excise category established countrywide. It would be known as Heritage alcohol products and strictly governed by international standards. It would be taxed lower than ‘IMFL/IML’ and higher than ‘Country’. He feels that this would encourage entrepreneurs to explore and exploit the huge treasure trove of Indian alcoholic beverages.

To get Mahua recognized as a national drink means a state by state campaign since there is no central national regulatory body equivalent to the USA’s TTB. “It is a crying shame that there currently is no simple Excise/ Revenue/ Customs mechanism for proudly made in India alcoholic beverages to be placed in Travel Retail (Duty Free) outlets in India,” says Desmond.

Nevertheless, an important step forward has emerged, thanks to Desmond’s efforts so far. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is roughly equivalent to the USA’s FDA and is working to standardized the manufacture of Mahua and the use of its ingredients.

What’s Next?

As you read this, know that Desmond is hard at work on a number of levels. The manufacture and sale of DJ Mahua and DJ Mahua Liqueur in his home state of Goa and elsewhere in India; working on a sparkling Mahua product; and pushing for recognition as a national drink.

My own view of this situation is that it represents a unique and powerful opportunity for a global player to enter the fray. The “size of prize” of the Indian market and overcoming the obstacles for global brands, suggests that the Diageos, Pernods, and others might want to take a close look at Mahua. I think it represents a real opportunity to participate in the development of a new national brand with Indian and global potential. (If I were still at Seagram, I’d be doing just that.)

For a brand to succeed on the global stage, it needs to be good tasting, backed by an entrepreneurial effort, and a have compelling story. DJ Mahua and its variants has all that and more.

It’s time for the product to come out of the woods and reflect its heritage the same way as bourbon, scotch, tequila, and all the other national drinks. I hope that the Indian authorities would grant a type of AOC (protected designation of origin) or Geographic Indication (GI) for Mahua along the same lines as those for cognac, tequila, champagne, and others.

DJ Mahua Liqueur
DJ Mahua
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Alcohol vs. Cannabis Marketing

Seth Godin on the Differences Between the Two

I have followed Seth Godin for many years and have found him to be among the most insightful marketers I know. Here’s a bit about him — he’s an author (18 bestselling books), an entrepreneur (founded two companies, one of which was sold to Yahoo), a speaker/teacher, and a member of both the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame and the Marketing Hall of Fame (probably the only person to be in both). Above all, his views and ideas on effective marketing have inspired, motivated, and changed people and ways of looking at things.

One of his blog posts last week dealt with the differences between marijuana and alcohol marketing. Considering the close scrutiny of the pot business by the booze industry, I asked and received his permission to share most of his blog post with you.

Let’s look at Seth’s views followed by my comments.

(By the way, as I write this, it was just announced that Constellation Brands has increased its investment in a Canadian cannabis company by $4 billion.) 

US prohibition ended in 1933. After that, there was a gold rush that led to the creation of dozens of billion dollar brands.

80 years later, the prohibition against pot is ending in various places throughout North America and then, probably, worldwide.

The question some professional marketers are asking is: Will there be worldwide profitable brands for pot that are similar to Bacardi, Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff for alcohol?

Both industries are regulated. Both have products that are sold in specialty stores. Both use non-proprietary manufacturing techniques.

Here’s the big difference:

When alcohol marketing became legal, it coincided with the glory days of magazines, radio and then TV. The mass marketing phenomenon happened at exactly the same time as these brands were being rolled out—and along with cigarettes, alcohol brands were major advertisers, particularly in magazines (liquor) and TV (beer). The ads supported the media in a fundamental way (and vice versa–Rick’s Cafe anyone?).

But when cannabis marketing arrives, it’s the internet that’s dominant. And the internet isn’t a mass medium.

It seems like one. It’s used by billions of people.

But it’s a micro medium. A direct marketing medium. There are 3 billion people online, but they’re busy looking at 3,000,000 web pages (that’s only a thousand a page).

The other difference is that there’s a thousand-year tradition of the pub and the bar. And those facilities offer status games, word of mouth and significant margins that created another marketing engine for alcohol that won’t exist for cannabis.

Sure, it’s possible that the huge demand and profit margins will fund a winner-take-all advertising movement for pot. But it’s more likely to be more like local espresso or high-end chocolate or whiskey (word of mouth) and less like vodka.

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My Comments and Observations

  1. Seth is obviously on target; the overall world of marketing has steadily been moving from macro to micro — away from mass media toward direct to consumer media. To a large extent this is happening in the booze business today. Brand building and communication has left mass approaches (print as well as broadcast) in favor of word-of-mouth, bartender influence, publicity and event marketing.
  2. Let’s not forget that currently, the cannabis industry is totally on a state by state basis. There are no national brands and there will not be until such time as the federal government approves its sale. Marketing, therefore, is regional, at best.
  3. The notion that the absence of bars and restaurants for cannabis will inhibit marketing is true now but will it be in the future? In many of the legal recreation use states, weed cafes are springing up and it’s a topic that will grow in the future. Think Bulldog Café in Amsterdam.
  4. As to branding, that too is emerging. Consider this:
  • For many cannabis consumers, the content and type are surrogates for brands. They talk about Indica vs. Sativa. For others, it’s the amount of CBD vs THC that becomes the brand.
  • For those introduced to weed medicinally, they think of the brand the same way as branding in prescription drugs — by function.
  • In this regard, recreational users have the function/purpose of the cannabis as an identifier, such as “sleep,” “arouse,” “harmony,” “awake,” etc. These are clearly labeled and provide a kind of branding function.
  • There are brands like Dompen, LuxLyte and others. But the function/purpose is the main factor.
  1. At this stage, it’s the retailer that becomes the brand. Check out the list of retailers in Colorado. A company I wrote about recently, MedMen, has stores all over the country, both dispensing medicinal cannabis as well as recreational. The dispensary is the source of quality and other reassurances.
  2. Interestingly, the beer folks are getting into alcohol infused cannabis, partly leveraging their own brand’s influence. There’s even a brand of wine made with THC.

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As of June, of this year, 30 states have legalized medical marijuana and 9 have approved recreational use. New Jersey and New York are expected to legalize recreational use soon. So, clearly, legalization of cannabis is here to stay and will grow in acceptance.

The key marketing issue will be, as Seth points out, the difficulty in mimicking branding (and reach) of the alcohol world. Perhaps that means that no one brand will predominate; perhaps the function/purpose will be the brand; or the retailer. But, it’s still earlier days for the fledgling legal business.

He’s also correct that the marketing of cannabis, despite other similarities with booze, will have its own model and pattern.

Like the man says, more like whisk(e)y and less like vodka.

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