We recently sat down with Jake Sharpe, founder of The Whisky Baron, to talk through his first year as an independent bottler. Here’s what he had to say.
Last year a new independent bottler emerged on the scene: The Whisky Baron launched in April 2019 with single cask expressions from Fettercairn, Glenrothes and Bunnahabhain. The Infinite bottle has followed, while an upcoming premium line called Renaissance is on the cards, along with an exclusive bottling made in collaboration with The Summerton Whisky Club. Founder Jake Sharpe, who bears a resemblance to the ‘baron’ on the labels of the bottles, has always had a keen interest in whisky. His love of the good stuff started as most people do, with classics such as Johnnie Walker and Highland Park.
He got involved in the whisky industry in 2015 by selling casks and eventually he helped set up an independent bottling company. “I started learning a lot more about the number of distilleries out there and came across people who would say they didn’t like whisky. I would think ‘what do you mean you don’t like whisky, there are so many different types of whisky out there!” Sharpe explains. “I was learning so much that it became a passion of mine to champion a style of drinking that was about searching for different experiences. Whisky seemed to fit that approach, and I’ve never looked back!”
A drive to take his passion to the next level meant that Sharpe soon decided to step out and do his own thing. “I’ve always wanted to have my own business. I was that guy who at nine years old would sell sweets at school, I’ve always had little side hustles,” he says. “I had built up a network of clientele who were very supportive and who trusted me. The opportunity arose and I had the idea for the brand, The Whisky Baron, and I had almost an epiphany moment, this very clear idea in my mind where I knew I needed to create this thing”.
The inspiration for his brand, the ‘whisky barons’ were a group of men, including James Buchanan, John and Tommy Dewar, Sir Alexander Walker, James Baron Stevenson, Sir Peter Mackie, Douglas Haig, Captain William McCoy, Francis Berry, Walter Berry and Hugh Rudd. They were innovators and entrepreneurs whose expertise and vision helped lay down the foundations for what the Scotch industry is today. “They were fascinating gents who essentially revolutionised the spirit. They made so that if you were anyone, you should be drinking whisky. They brought in a lot of marketing techniques that are still used today,” Sharpe explains. “They sold whisky in America during Prohibition, they created brands that we know and love, that we see in supermarkets and that are still around today. I was really motivated to base a brand around them and their contribution”.
Starting your own drinks brand appeals to lots of us who love this industry, but the actual process of turning that idea into a reality is one fraught with difficulty. “It’s not easy, I’ll tell you that. It took me 13 months to get fully licensed. Ultimately it also comes down to who you know. It’s all very well and good to want to start a brand but if you can’t have access to spirit you’ve obviously got to make your own which is a huge investment and a big old wait,” Share explains. “As an independent bottler, it’s about figuring out the market, learning the best place to buy casks from and being able to lay down stock for the future. You need investment. I’m lucky enough to have some fantastic private clientele who invest in casks with me. Ultimately it is self-funded, so to have private clientele help me invest in casks and build up that stock has been a big part of it”.
The Whisky Baron launched with a core range, The Founders Collection, comprised of single-cask, unchill-filtered bottlings from Fettercairn, Glenrothes, Bunnahabhain. They’re not at cask strength because Sharpe added a splash of water to open up the spirit to what he considered was the best the spirit has to offer. “I called it The Founder’s Collection because they were casks that essentially allowed me to set up the business. The Founder’s Collection was really about presenting what the distilleries have done and the best of what they offer. What I also wanted to do was to present three different styles of whisky with as many different elements in there as possible,” says Sharpe. “We’ve got three different regions: Islay, Speyside and Highland. We’ve got three different casks: bourbon barrel, hogshead, sherry butt. Ultimately it was focused around the quality of the spirit but that variety helps with that conversation and helps expand people’s vocabulary. The Fettercairn is light, it’s easy, it’s a great entry-level dram so somebody who maybe wouldn’t drink whisky can get involved. The Glenrothes is rich, it’s bold, it’s everything I love about sherry cask expressions. The Bunnahabhain is a very classic expression that showed the distillate’s real character and everything that’s so elegant about the distillery”.
The most recent launch is the new Infinite bottle, a 200ml foundation blend that consists of 35 different expressions including family favourites such Jameson and limited edition releases such as The Macallan Easter Elchies Black 2018 and Springbank’s 12 Year Old Burgundy which you then top up with anything you fancy to create your own unique blend. Sharpe explains: “What we wanted to do was really create the first ever truly infinite infinity bottle. Each bottle is individually hand-numbered and has a unique code. You log into our database through our app or online and type in your code. It gives you all of the whiskies that we started with as a foundation. Then you can add your whiskies, their age, how much you’ve added, when you’ve added it and keep a log. Provided you never finish it, there’s always a little bit of that first whisky that you added. I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to whisky and I love the chemistry of it and the idea that you get to become a blender and have your own bottle that nobody else has in the whole world”.
As much as he enjoys acting as a blender, Sharpe is first and foremost an independent bottler, a role that he believes is fundamentally about educating consumers and championing the range of delightful distilleries. “It’s also about starting a conversation and helping people to understand and to learn a little bit more about what they’re drinking. When it comes to the point that you’re buying an independently-bottled whisky, you’re probably interested and want to know more,” says Sharpe. “An independent bottler to me is somebody who humbly presents other people’s spirits, in the best form that they can for the market. We love the distilleries we’re paying homage to them. I make no bones about it, I’m not making my own whisky. I don’t pretend that I do this alone, I’ve got a fantastic team, I work alongside some very highly educated, highly revered people in the industry who help me taste my samples, who give me advice. I’m still very much learning about whisky and I’m at the foot of the mountain.”
Sharpe has also embraced technology as a tool to inform consumers and offer insights into their whisky with distillery information, cocktail recipes, food pairings and more through an AR app that brings labels to life. “The way it works is that you can download the Whisky Baron app for free whether you’re on Android, iPhone etc and it essentially reads the bottle as the marker. You do need a bottle to make it work, people have said that they’ve printed off a picture of your bottle and it doesn’t work, but that’s not what it’s made for!’ You need to have your camera pointed at the bottle and the Whisky Baron figure on the bottle will jump off the bottle, onto the table in front of you and he will give you a guided tour of the whisky, the distillery and the tasting notes,” Sharpe explains. “It’s very futuristic and quite techy, which I love. A problem with whisky is that people will often look at a well-stocked shelf and if you’re not a whisky drinker it’s very intimidating, it’s hard to know where to begin. Why is that bottle £20 and this one £100? What are all these Scottish names and what do they mean? I wanted to give people a way to interact with the bottle so you’re not trying to go through Google and find the information that’s actually relevant. We give you all the information. It’s all at your fingertips”.
One of the key aspects of this AR app is the cocktail recipe and food pairing stations. Sharpe is someone who has embraced the culture of enjoying whisky in numerous ways and rejecting the more traditional approach. “It’s a big part of what we’re about. I don’t tell people how to enjoy their whisky. I would ask that they try it neat just to understand what it’s about. But not everybody wants to drink neat whisky, certainly not all the time. So if you want to make a nice cocktail, we have got a bespoke cocktail made for each one of our expressions, to bring out the best of the character but to offer you a different experience,” Sharpe explains. “For the food pairings, I compare it to wine. We drink wine with food all the time and it brings the character of the wine and the food out and becomes a whole experience. Why can’t whisky be that? That’s the thing with the AR app. It’s really about getting people to learn a little bit more and enjoy it how they want and offer as many different opportunities and experiences as we can, to give you the most. It’s not just a bottle of whisky, it’s a whole experience”.
The Whisky Baron also offers investment opportunities for those fancy having a barrel of whisky to call their own. Sharpe has seen a rise in investments since he began in the industry and feels this trend is only going one way. “ Since I started, five years ago, a lot of people are becoming more involved and we’re going to continue to see large amounts of investment, particularly in markets like Germany and Poland which are already heavily saturated,” says Sharpe. “Towards the end of last year, it became a more accepted alternative investment. What are the banks offering? The markets, because of Brexit and all sorts of factors, are in flux. People don’t know where to put their money so they turn to real assets like gold, property and wine. Whisky shows strong returns and there is a tax efficiency to it for private individuals. We’re going to see that grow a large amount in 2020”.
Sharpe has had a lot of interest, but it’s a market of risk and being informed and methodological in your approach is key. “Do your homework. You need to work with companies that are licensed to do cask sales and cask investments. You need to be advised by somebody who knows what they’re talking about, not somebody who’s just trying to make a sale and a quick buck. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the industry, with the boom, with all this media attention, that have come in to make that quick buck,” says Sharpe. “We’ve seen in the bottle market that it can become oversaturated and people that don’t know what they’re buying into are now left with a lot of rotten eggs. Get secondary independent consultation. I’ve been talking to the Scotch Whisky Association recently. They will be releasing information about cask investment and the things to take into consideration, so I’d urge people to look out for that. If you buy a cask you’ve got to consider that the intrinsic value of that is only as good as the bottles you’re going to get out of it. There’s duty to be paid, bottling costs to be paid, distribution costs. You’ve got to create a brand which has to be sustained. I can tell you as somebody who’s started a brand, it’s not cheap!”
As well as an increased investment market, Sharpe also believes that 2020 will see people move from gin to become new whisky drinkers. “Ultimately, the old school whisky drinkers need to learn to embrace it, otherwise they’re going to be left behind. To say you can’t enjoy it the way you want to enjoy it is ludicrous and it’s just going to drive people away! We need to be welcoming,” he explains. “We need to get people into the category and find out what they like and what they don’t like and how we can grow as a whole. So I think in the UK, in particular, we’re going to see that wave of non-whisky drinkers come over”.
As for The Whisky Baron brand, its 2020 will entail continuing launching the Renaissance line (I can’t reveal much at this stage other than they’re delicious) and embarking upon various collaborations. “We’ll hope to do some collaborations with Milroy’s new bar The Dram House in Spitalfields, which is kind of like my second office. They’re exactly like me as they want to teach people about whisky. We’ve already done a collaboration with the Summerton Club, a subscription box run by a very good friend of mine, Dan which again is about getting people to try different things and learn about whisky and so as soon as met Dan we just hit it off. We did their December bottling and will hope to do another bottling later this year,” Sharpe says. “We’re working on a lot of different things in the background. I’m currently trying to get our bottles over to China and America. I’m confident with what we’ve bottled, the quality of our product, the experience that we provide, that we are very unique. We just want to keep growing on that and the more people we can get involved the better”.