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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