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The South African who invented Johnnie Blue

With a newly minted UCT MBA in his pocket, the 26-year-old joined Gilbey’s as national sales manager on January 11 1970. Heading a team of “piss artists” (salesmen who were the best advertisements for the products they were pushing), he supplemented his monthly salary of R300 with a generous monthly product allowance of R200, which he used to the full.

He moved to London in 1977, the first non-Englishman to be appointed worldwide marketing director for International Distillers & Vintners, forerunner to Diageo, the world’s largest liquor company.

Espey and his university friend and business colleague Peter Fleck (rugby Springbok Robbie Fleck’s father), launched Malibu rum worldwide. It was invented by Peter Fleck at Gilbey’s SA, and Espey took it to London. The rest is history.

James EspeyDesk-hopping to United Distillers, Espey considered its flagship Johnnie Walker brand to be in serious need of a “good shake-up”. After the discovery of a barrel of 60-year-old whisky and the “homeopathic” blending of it with 15-year-old spirit, Johnnie Walker Oldest was born.

Later rebranded Johnnie Walker Blue, it quickly grew to be the world’s most aspirational blended whisky, selling around 3m bottles a year – and became the future spirit of Soweto.

Espey next founded Keepers of the Quaich, an exclusive haggis and bagpipes club for liquor buyers based at Blair Castle, near Blair Atholl. As a marketing opportunity, it takes no prisoners. Founded in 1988, it kept up the SA connection (the 11th Duke of Atholl, John Murray was born in Johannesburg).

Kicked upstairs to the chairman’s La-Z-Boy recliner at Chivas Brothers, Espey tried to repeat his success with Chivas Regal, arguing that the 12-year-old blend needed the “halo brand” of an 18-year-old. Edgar Bronfman, the Canadian autocratic aristocrat of alcohol and chairman of parent company Seagrams, disagreed, and Espey decided to “go plural”, swapping Chivas for the directorships of several other companies.

He helped fellow South African Vivian Imerman – “the man from [food producer] Del Monte”, who made £380m selling tinned fruit to Anglo American – source whiskies for Whyte & Mackay, a company that was sold on to Vijay Mallya for £585m in 2007…..

Financial Mail: Read the full article

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