Coachbuilt whisky is the new venture from former Formula One World Championship (2009), entrepreneur and Sky Sports presenter, Jenson Button, and whisky expert, consultant and writer George Koutsakis. Selma Day finds out more
Formula One racing star and former British Champion Jenson Button and renowned whisky expert George Koutsakis recently launched a premium Scotch blended whisky. Known as Coachbuilt, it has been brought to life after the duo, who met through friends, discovered a mutual appreciation for the parallels between coachbuilding and the blending of fine whiskies.
I meet the duo in Jenson’s suite at the impressive St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, where the official launch is due to take place that evening. Knowing nothing about whisky – or cars for that matter – I feel a little out of my depth but, within minutes, am made to feel totally at ease and know this is going to be a fun interview. There’s an obvious bond between the two judging from the jovial banter taking place, even though they tell me they only actually met in person the day before.
“It’s all been done via Zoom over two years during Covid,” says Jenson, who goes on to explain how the collaboration came about. “It was about the time we [Jenson and his business partners Ant Anstead and Mark Stubbs] were starting our coachbuilding company Radford and this just came along – I was introduced to George and the more we talked, the parallels between blending and coachbuilding became pretty apparent.”
So, what are the parallels? “With our coachbuilding business, we are working with different people from all around the world – the best in their fields – and bringing them all together to make a fabulous, unique automobile. And it’s the same idea with blending – we are working with the different regions of Scotland [Islay, Speyside, Campbeltown, the Highlands and Lowlands] to bring them together to make this fabulous whisky.”
The result of combining different flavour attributes of all these regions then ageing the liquids in premium sherry casks is a balanced whisky with a depth and complexity to rival some of the best ultra-premiums in the category.
“So it has all the depth – a bit of smoke, a bit of fruit, a little bit of sweetness, but it’s also super smooth,” says George. “Those are the two elements I wanted, so I have no fear about giving it to a connoisseur or a beginner – that’s what I love about it.”
At just £42 a bottle, it’s also a snip compared to other whiskies in the premium category. “I feel like it should be a lot more but then, as George says, we want it to be for the masses,” adds Jenson.
“It’s funny – I got married last weekend and for my 40th, which was two years ago, I was gifted this beautiful bottle of Japanese whisky worth an absolute fortune. I asked George if it was any good and he was like, ‘wow, that’s a very special bottle’. So we were going to drink it at the wedding after all the celebrations but it got to the point where we were so into the Coachbuilt that we actually never touched it!”
Jenson and George hope to release ultra-rare, aged and limited-editions in the future, but for now the focus is on building a “great brand with a fantastic story. As George says: “Coachbuilt began from a realisation that blended Scotch whisky does not receive the praise it deserves worldwide. With our whisky we cast the spotlight on the immense skill required to takes components from dozens of distilleries across the country, and piece them together, to create a liquid defined by balance and complexity. From sourcing liquid from each region of Scotch Whisky, to the final touch added by the sherry cask finish, craftsmanship is the core of our blend.”
As for the bottle itself, Jenson explains: “It’s based on the old racing cars, so this (showing me the indent on the bottle) would be the structure of the car – what would keep the car strong, but also the safety cell for the driver. And the logo here and on the bottom of the bottle is a wheel nut. It’s called a spinner – it’s what they had in the 50s and 60s on race cars so you put the wheel nut onto the wheel and you would hammer down to make sure it was tight. So we thought it was a nice touch.”
I ask Jenson how he got into whisky? “When I was 18, I drank whisky and had a really bad experience – as a teenager you get a little bit silly and I pushed the boundaries a little bit too hard,” he laughs.
“But through my career in motor racing, I have slowly got into whisky (Jenson was an ambassador for Jonnie Walker Blue Label) and blended whisky is interesting – it’s a really exciting process. Just like coach built cars – it’s a really fun process to be involved with.”
A Q & A with Jenson Button
Why did you decide to help revive [coachbuilder] Radford?
I retired from F1 in 2016, did some racing here and there but when you walk away from a sport that is so intense, I needed something else that really could take my focus. I had lots of little projects along the way which have been fun but there wasn’t one big one that I could really sink my teeth into. And my friend Ant [Anstead] asked if I wanted to be involved. It’s been going really well – I worked with Lotus to build up the first car which will be at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in July. So, yeah, there are exciting times ahead but stressful times as well.
Are you still involved in F1?
I still work with Sky Sports F1 so I’m a pundit with them – I do some presenting which is really good fun as well and it’s a great team of people that I work with. And I think that’s what it’s all about – if you’ve got the right team of people, anything can become fun. I also work with Williams – I’m an Ambassador for Williams F1 team so I do some stuff with them over the race weekend and I also do some stuff with Lotus, so there’s a lot going on at the moment.
Any other collaborations?
I’m working with Hackett and I’m really enjoying it. It’s are a great company to work with. And that’s the thing for me – at this point in my life and career, I’m able to choose who I work with if you like and that’s why I work with cool people. I don’t want to work with companies that aren’t fun to work with and we don’t see eye to eye.
What car are you driving at the moment?
I have a Lotus Evora – a little sports car – but apart from that I have a big Ford Bronco, so not such a luxury car. When you have kids [Jenson has two small children – a son Hendrix and daughter Lenny – with his wife Brittny] and it changes things – you need a giant boot to put all the baby stuff in.
Has having children made you think more about the environment?
Yes, I think it does when you have children. You do start thinking about what the future holds for them. As team owner and driver at Extreme EV, we’re racing in five different locations around the world that have been affected by climate change and bringing awareness to those areas. So that’s been really good and fascinating – learning about the environment, what we’ve done to it and how we can improve it for the future. So yes, I’ve definitely started thinking a lot more about how I live, whether it’s small things like recycling to riding my bike to the shops, which also keeps me fit. I’m driving a lot less than I used to and driving EV cars whenever I can. So I’m trying to do my bit and if we all so something in our lives, tiny changes, it makes a big difference.
Where do you see the future of Formula 1?
Well, Formula 1 – people say, ‘oh, combustion engines’ – but they are the most efficient combustion engines on the planet and the technology has pushed so far now that the amount of fuel they actually use is minimal for the amount of time they are at full throttle. Also ten per cent of the fuel is bio fuel now. There are lots of different directions and ideas for the future, for the environment – obviously electric, hydrogen, bio fuels, which is good to see because one is not necessarily the best. We will see in ten years where we are. I think hydrogen is probably the most interesting.
What was the car you dreamed of driving when you were a kid?
I dreamed of driving a Ferrari F40, which was a car from the late 80s and it was a very low-to-the-ground supercar with a big wing on the back and I actually owned one about ten years ago and absolutely loved it – a beautiful car, extremely fast. But I never drove it so I sold it. I was a massive car collector but I thought there’s no point owning these cars – they just sit there. So now I’ve got a much more smaller collection. I couldn’t count them before – that’s when I knew I had too many cars. Now, it’s not in the double figures.
How long have you lived in LA and why?
Six years. Why? My wife – she’s from north California, the Sacramento area. We’ve been together 10 years and are still going strong. I’m enjoying it. We talk about where we want to live in the future and, with the kids, I think living outside the city is definitely the aim for us – a bit more space. We love Italy as well. I don’t know if I want to move there but we are thinking of buying somewhere there so the kids can get a bit of history. Who knows? We’ll see.
Do you spend much time in London/Mayfair?
I do because of work and I also have friends and family here. I have spent quite a lot of time in Mayfair in the past and I’ve had a lot of fun in Mayfair. I’ve lived in London off and on as well over the years. I normally stay in Mayfair when I’m in London because it’s just easy for walking around. I love walking when I’m in London – it’s something you don’t do in LA. If I have a dinner at Sexy Fish, for example, I will walk back to my hotel. And also working with Hackett – they made my wedding suit so I was over here for that as well. I would stay in Mayfair and walk down to Hackett. I love that about London because there’s such beautiful architecture, specially in Mayfair, and I don’t get that in California. When you live in London you kind of forget how beautiful it is.
What’s your greatest achievement so far?
Formula 1 and winning the World Championship is very special and that’s always what I set out to do in life from eight years old – it’s something that’s amazing to have achieved, but it’s still a sport. It’s not like having children. Having kids for me is the best thing I’ve ever done and a lot of people in the motorsport world say, ‘what, how can you say that? Winning the World Championship was always your dream’. It was as a kid but, as an adult, bringing little people into the world is far beyond anything else. After children, then I would say the World Championship.
What ambitions do you still have to fulfil?
Coachbuilt is still an ambition – we want this to grow this into something special and bring people into the Coachbuilt family. I think it’s the experience of what this could be rather than just selling a bottle of whisky. It’s about great partnerships and having fun with it as well. That’s got to be the key. If you’re not enjoying it what’s the point, right?