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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The Seagram Heiress and the Company Plane

A Seagram Story of Yesterday and Today

From the NY Times, July 25th

Clare Bronfman, an heiress to the Seagram’s liquor fortune, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn after her arrest on conspiracy and racketeering charges in connection with her role at Nxivm, (pronounced Nex-e-um) a self-help group that prosecutors call a pyramid scheme and former members say is a cult.

The article concluded with:

The hearing for Ms. Bronfman revealed few new details about Nxivm’s inner workings, but gave a glimpse of her considerable wealth. Ms. Necheles (her lawyer) said Ms. Bronfman was worth around $200 million, with about half tied up in trusts supervised by Goldman Sachs, and the remainder in real estate in New York, California and Fiji, where she bought an island for $47 million.

She was charged with identity theft and was released on a $100 million bail bond. It is part of an ongoing investigation of the group which, according to the indictment, was allegedly engaged in money laundering, extortion, obstruction of justice, forced labor, sex trafficking, identity theft and more.

Ms. Bronfman and her sister Sara are children of Rita Webb, also known as Georgiana, who was the daughter of an English pub owner. After their parents’ divorce (they were divorced twice), she and her sister lived in England. Keep that in mind, when we get to the second part of the story.

I didn’t know her but knew how much her father Edgar M. Bronfman (Edgar Sr) cared about her. I recall a phone call from his office with the instruction for us to sponsor equestrian events inasmuch as she was a world class rider and competitor. Believe me, there weren’t any brands for whom this made any sense at all. So, with a stretch of the strategy and an intense desire to keep my job, Crown Royal was selected.

The Company Airplane

Gulfstream IV (Haute Living photo)

The days surrounding the news brought a deluge of emails from ex-Seagram friends with questions and observations. But none were as interesting as the one from Tony Rodriguez. Tony joined Seagram in the early 1980s and held a number of important senior positions in business strategy and finance. He related the following story.

Edgar traveled often to and from London in the mid 80s to visit his daughters. The presence of Seagram employees was often desired in order to qualify for a tax-deductible trip. Of course, the Bronfmans flew on the Gulfstream IV whenever they chose but wanted traveling employees when possible.

Here’s how Tony began his story:

“One of my first business trips around 1985, as Budget Dept. bean counter, was to Seagram’s European HQ in London (where I would eventually work as CFO for 3 years). On one particular trip and at the last minute, they (Seagram Travel Department) cancelled my Pan Am flight reservations because Mr. Edgar wanted a “mule” to be his excuse for a company-paid corporate jet flight with his family, including wife and two daughters, to London. What ensued was a very uncomfortable cross-Atlantic flight…”

As you might imagine the flight was operated with aviation fuel for the airplane and lots of alcohol fuel for the passengers. That’s when the fun began.

Allow me to interject a thought or two at this point. While the trip on the Gulfstream was a wonderful way to fly, it was not without its own special peril. Especially when traveling with Edgar Sr, one was often cautioned to control the alcohol intake and to avoid career ending conversations when Mr. Bronfman had been, ahem, over-served. Unfortunately, the plane only held a dozen or so people and there was no place to hide.

Nevertheless, on this trip, the booze flowed, especially the Sandeman’s Port. Tony was invited to join the meal aboard the plane and to join in the booze and conversation.

There were seven passengers on the flight — Edgar Sr, Georgiana, a British friend of Edgar’s, the Seagram doctor, Tony, and the daughters. They all had lunch (except for the children) and fit nicely around a table on the plane.

Gulfstream IV interior. (Libertyjet.com)

The Seagram Doctor

Yes, that’s right, Seagram had a full-fledged and fully equipped medical office in the NYC headquarters with a full-time doctor and a few nurses. The physician was quite a character — part pedophile and part poster child for #MeToo, but his interest was men. Let’s call him Dr. G, since many of us referred to him as Dr. Goldfinger. One Seagram friend told me recently that if he went to the medical office for a Band-Aid for a paper cut, the doc would tell him to drop his pants.

Anyway, Tony, in his late 20s at the time, found himself in a very uncomfortable trans-Atlantic flight sitting next to Dr. G who kept trying to stroke his thigh during the meal.

Knowing what was happening, Edgar engaged Tony in conversation, including his upper crust British crony. The topic was shooting grouse and the conversation went something like this:

British Crony: Your name is Rodriguez, where is your family from?

Tony: Spain.

British Crony: Ah, I love Spain… I often go grouse hunting on the Costa Del Sol. Have you ever been there? Did your family ever shoot grouse?

Tony: No sir. My family were peasant farmers and didn’t partake in such activities.

Edgar Sr: Have you ever gone grouse hunting when you were growing up? Where did you grow up, anyway?

Tony: No sir, I never went grouse hunting. I grew up in Newark… there were no grouse. But, there were lots of pigeons we shot with BB guns.

British Crony: Well then, tell me, us — what sports did you play in New Ark?

Tony: Street games…

British Crony: Such as…?

Tony: Well, stickball for one. It’s like baseball except, among other things, for a bat we used our mother’s cut off broom.

Edgar: That’s hysterical. Tell me Nigel, have you ever played with your mother’s broom?

British Crony: I can’t say that I have.

Tony went on to tell me that he was sure that neither of them ever saw their mothers use a broom, or even knew if they had one.

He ended his email to me with the following:

“So now we fast forward some 30+ years later to hear that Edgar’s cute little girl is involved in an international sexual trafficking ring.  I’m glad my family is much more boring even if none of us own an island in Fiji.”

 

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Thank you, Tony.

For more stories about the Seagram plane see elsewhere on my blog such as here. Also, you might enjoy this one from my book:

Where to sit?

The protocol on where to sit on the company plane was well known. The owner, either Edgar Sr. or Edgar Jr., had the last seat on the right as you faced the rear of the plane (aft). If they weren’t on it, the most senior executive had that seat. Other plush seats were taken by rank, and the couches (we’re talking Gulfstream jets), were left to the more junior or lower ranking execs.           

As the story goes, while waiting for one of the Bronfmans to board the plane, a company president was talking to a colleague while seated in the Bronfman seat, when suddenly Bronfman appeared. Startled, the executive shot up, moved away, and said, “Sorry Mr. Bronfman, here’s your seat.” To which the Bronfman in question replied, “They’re all my seats.”

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Seagram’s 7 Crown: Then and Now

An iconic brand still alive and kicking

Seagram’s 7 Crown launched an interesting event last week — the first official National Dive Bar Day. No surprise that the launch date was 7/7. So, there’s lots to tell about the brand and this event. Let’s start with the event.

Dive Bars

Here’s how the folks at Diageo described this brand promotion:

“The Dive Bar is an American institution: where long-lasting memories are created, where people-watching is imperative, and where the greatest stories and a come-as-you-are attitude, live. Seagram’s 7 Crown will raise a glass to these historic hidden gems found across America, marking the first official National Dive Bar Day, fittingly taking place on July 7th, 2018 – in celebration of the quintessential Dive Bar drink, the 7&7.”

There are lots of definitions of a Dive Bar, some negative like this one in the Urban Dictionary: “A well-worn, unglamorous bar, often serving a cheap, simple selection of drinks to a regular clientele.” Whew, that’s mean.

The one that comes closest to what I think, is from my friend, Gaz Regan:

“Dive bars …. are bare bones joints where guests are treated equally whether they arrived wearing greasy overalls, or tuxedos … when the guest wants a quick shot and a beer before heading out to some swank affair. These places are great equalizers. The filing clerk can tell the CEO how to run the company better in a dive bar.  And in a real dive, the CEO will actually listen.”

Linking Seagram’s 7 and Dive Bars makes sense on many levels. First, the brand is an icon and an important part of America’s drinking history. It’s a natural link and since the purpose of Dive Bar Day is to support these places through the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it makes sense.

In addition, Dive Bars suggest fun, camaraderie, and good times. According to Jason Sorley, Diageo Brand Director for Seagram’s 7, both the brand and Dive Bars have a storied past and have been an important part of the American drinking culture. (Here’s a list of the best dive bars in every state from Thrillist.)

Seagram’s 7 Crown

As I was doing my homework for this article, I walked into my favorite neighborhood package store and asked for a bottle. (Yeah, it’s been a long time since I bought one.) The owner, who’s a friend, looked at me as though I had lost my mind. “Seriously?” he said, “You come in for all kinds of fancy shmantzy whiskies and gins and now you want Seagram’s 7? I don’t carry that. I remember it but who drinks that these days?”

I grumbled something about how any store can fail to stock an American liquor icon and one that millions of folks remember as their drinking “training wheels.” In fact, for decades, the 7&7 (Seagram’s 7 and 7 Up) was the drink of choice for entry level drinkers. It tastes great and is easy to drink. But, alas, many other booze products have usurped that esteemed rite of drinking passage.

So, I for one am delighted that Diageo is working to bring that brand back.

Let’s Look at Some Numbers

One of the things that I’ve learned about the booze business is that it’s hard, if not impossible, to kill a brand based on its sales. Sure, a manufacturer can end the life of a brand, but, the marketplace itself will rarely if ever kill a brand.

According to the ex-Seagram people I spoke with who worked on the brand, at its peak, Seagram 7 Crown reached well over 8 million (9-litre) cases in the late 1970s. Even by 1990, when whiskies were losing dramatically to vodka, the brand sold close to 4 million cases. As to my retailer friend’s view that the brand is dead, guess what? Today Seagram’s 7 still sells in the 2 million case range. In fact, according to Shanken’s Impact, the brand is in the top 30 leading spirit brands in the US. So there, Mr. Retailer!

The Brand’s History

To stay with the numbers for a moment…

Seagram’s 7 was the 1st brand ever to reach 1 million cases. The 1st to sell 100 million cases. And, over the years sold over 300 million cases in 1983. (See close up photo below.) We’re talking a multi-billion-dollar brand, boys and girls.

The back label of the commemorative bottle from the 300 million case celebration

As the story goes, after prohibition and before WWII, Seagram introduced two blended American Whiskies — Seagram 5 Crown and 7 Crown. Why the name Seagram 7? The apocryphal story is that Sam Bronfman (the Seagram patriarch, known as Mr. Sam) was presented with a range of candidate products for a blended whiskey and ended up choosing the one he liked — the 7th one presented to him.

Whatever happened to Seagram’s 5? During the Second World War the government asked distillers to cut back on alcohol production to aid the war effort. Seagram’s 5 was not doing as well as 7, so it was discontinued. Also, Seagram’s 5 was higher in alcohol at 86.8 proof.

How did the 7&7 come to be? (Another apocryphal story.) Well, those were the days when distributor sales reps tried to build brands rather than just fill orders. So, an aggressive sales rep thought it would be clever to link the 7 in 7up with Seagram’s 7. Much to his surprise it was great and the 7&7 was born.

Here’s What Else I Can Tell You

  1. At Seagram and since then, I’ve heard it referred to differently. Internally, we referred to the brand as 7 Crown. Among consumers and generally outside of Seagram it was called Seagram 7 or just plain ‘7.’
  2. The event linking the brand to Dive Bar Day was organized and run by Greg Leonard and his company Proof Media Mix. Greg is a former Seagram and Diageo PR and activation executive and, for my money, the best in the business at making ideas and events come alive,
  3. Did you know that Seagram’s 7 — a blended American Whiskey contains a large percentage of grain neutral spirits? Check the packaging, right on the front label it says “75 per cent Grain Neutral Spirits.” Even back in the day, GNS was a significant proportion of Seagram’s 7. In fact, the US regulations for blended whiskey allows a blend of straight whiskies and up to 80 percent neutral spirits.
  4. I’ve often heard it said that brands have a life cycle — from creation to maturity to decline, and ultimately gone. Maybe. Here’s a brand that had its heyday in the 1960s and 70s and is still alive and kicking. Like I said, manufacturers kill brands, consumers don’t.

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I wish to thank the following people whose thoughts and experiences helped shape this article… Rob Warren, Greg Leonard, and John Hartrey. Special thanks to John for sharing his collection of Seagram memorabilia and photos. In fact, John has the dubious distinction of being the last Seagram’s 7 brand director at Seagram.

Diageo activation at the 2018 Firefly Music Festival  (Photo by Jack Dempsey)
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