Jenson Button in the dunnage with Coachbuilt.
On a quiet Friday afternoon in March, I find myself being shown around Jenson Button’s personal whisky collection at his Los Angeles home by the British racing driver himself. Sure, it may have been via Zoom, but I still got a glimpse into what kind of whisky drinker the 2009 Formula 1 Champion is, with his boatload of Lagavulin (he’s into his peat), some Glenfiddich Grand Cru and a rather special bottle of Macallan he tells me he received as a gift.
But I’m here to talk to him about another whisky altogether: Coachbuilt, a new blended Scotch created by Button in collaboration with whisky writer and consultant George Koutsakis. A blend of the five whisky-making regions in Scotland (Highlands, Lowlands, Campbeltown, Islay and Speyside), Coachbuilt has been created to represent all of the regions’ profiles, from fruity to peaty, with a final ageing and marrying process in sherry casks.
Having had the chance to try the whisky at its glittering launch party at the St. Pancras hotel, it’s an impressive dram, with both summer and tropical fruits playing on the nose followed by toffee and warm cinnamon on the palate and with a smooth, almost oily texture – all underpinned by a gentle but recognisable whisper of smoke.
Button’s handiwork will be making a pit stop at a whisky shop near you
“When I was introduced to George, it was perfect timing,” Button tells me of the project’s beginnings. He was in the process of reviving Radford Motors, a British coachbuilding company, which in its day made cars for the likes of Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers. Coachbuilding – for anyone who doesn’t know – is the art of building the body of a car around an off-the-peg chassis, often bespoke to the owner or to a luxury spec.
“I could see the parallels with blending whisky,” explains Button. “It sounded like a great thing to be a part of and, for me, I’m very lucky to be in a position I can pick and choose what I want to do.” While Button brought the story and branding experience (and the big name), the liquid itself was left in the hands of Koutsakis.
“I always wanted to make my own whisky,” Koutsakis tells me. “I always thought there was something lacking in premium blended Scotch and there was room to do something.” He was starting to work on his new brand when he was introduced to Button through his manager – between Koutsakis’ idea for a whisky and Button’s love for coachbuilding, Coachbuilt was born. Tastings were done over Zoom (Koutsakis is in Taiwan, while Button is in California), which meant 6am starts for the driver – “I wouldn’t recommend it,” Button jokes – and the look of the bottle nods to elements of classic cars, including the wheel nuts used in 1950s racing models.
Button may have put his face to a whisky, but his memories of his first encounters with the spirit aren’t particularly fond. “I must have been 18 or 19 and it was in that period where you’re trying to work out if you like alcohol… It was the cheapest whisky we could get, but it was so horrific we mixed it with Coca-Cola – it wasn’t good times and it put me off whisky at an early age.”
That was the case until Button got the chance to work with Diageo’s Johnnie Walker (a then sponsor for McLaren) on a signature blend for its Step Inside the Circuit series in 2014. “The process was quite unique because I wasn’t able to taste the whisky… I was still an F1 driver and I was racing that weekend, so the blending was more about understanding smells.”
Nevertheless, it ignited Button’s love of whisky and, eight years later, he’s developed a curiosity for the spirit. “I have a good friend here, the CEO of a car company, and he is a big fan of whisky… We spend evenings together tasting the different whiskies that we have – it’s a fun process.”
A close-up view of Coachbuilt.
Button has also spent considerable time in Japan (when driving for Honda), where he got to see first-hand the nation’s love for Scotch, as well as Japanese whisky. “I’ve been to a few whisky tasting rooms in Tokyo, in Roppongi, with another F1 driver and we’ve had a great time” – who that driver is, though, he’s keeping strictly to himself.
While he might have already had a taste of the blending process, it wasn’t until Button began work on Coachbuilt that he appreciated the influence that barrels can have on the final spirit. “I had no idea that the barrels made such a difference, depending on which ones you use… the wood that’s used and what’s been in the barrels… [the] big effect it has on the whisky.” He notes that his involvement with Blue Coast Brewery (alongside other F1 names such as Daniel Ricciardo) could lead to some interesting cask releases for Coachbuilt in the future.
And there certainly looks to be more ahead in the future for Coachbuilt, as Button has enjoyed his first tastes of whisky industry life. “It’s been very positive!” he continues. “It just seems like everyone has been very friendly [and] very welcoming.”
For Koutsakis, who is no stranger to the world of whisky, the next job will be to take Coachbuilt into new, exciting markets as well as to create new liquids. “My goal is to do a hybrid e-commerce and select distributor model… Then I want to add some blends to the core range while also doing some cool partnership blends. We can play with grains – there are a lot of fun things that can be done in the category.”
With Button residing in the States, it is likely that some US partnerships will evolve, while Koutsakis’ connections in Taiwan mean that Asia could be on the cards too. For now, though, Button is enjoying the ride. “If it’s not fun it’s not worth doing. This has been such a cool process, working with people who I now call mates. We like drinking whisky – and we think we’ve produced something really special.”