James Rackham: The journey of Daddy Rack

Outside I’ve got a five-litre, left-hand drive Mustang. That’s right, I watched The High Chaparral, I love everything American. So to make an American whiskey was a dream come true.”

James Rackham, better known as Daddy Rack, is far from conventional. Having been born above his father’s independent wine shop on London’s Portobello Road, Rackham was destined to work in the trade and in 1968 his father organised him a summer apprenticeship with the Camus family, inflaming a passion for French spirits.

“My dad expected me to go straight into the business, but my sister encouraged me to go to university first and while I was working as an economist in Australia he pleaded with me to come back.”

By that point, his father’s operation had grown from one to 15 stores, but Rackham could see the challenges ahead with supermarkets taking market share, and after 10 years of working alongside his dad, Rackham wanted a change.

“At the time I wanted to sell some of the properties but he didn’t want to make big changes, so I set up my own agency called Winefare in 1984.”

Winefare specialised in sourcing drinks from around the world to sell in supermarkets. He landed deals with Sainsbury’s for French cider, which naturally led to calvados and then blending other French spirits, which he had experience with following his time at Camus. This business turned into Emporia Brands in 2005, which now has more than 20 brands under its portfolio and, moving in full circle, Rackham’s son Jack is now heading things up as managing director.

“I thought Jack was going to be a priest,” laughs Rackham. “We’re Roman Catholics and he studied at a Roman Catholic school and then read theology at university, so I thought he was going to go down that route. But then after a summer bartending course he was hooked and later joined Emporia in 2014. 

“We have some good brands and a fantastic team now but when Jack came on board we decided to start making our own products.”

This is where Rackham’s love of America collided with his passion for spirits to make Daddy Rack Tennessee Straight whiskey. Daddy Rack was a nickname given to him by his daughter and Rackham developed the corn-based recipe himself prior to its launch earlier this year.

“The distillery has full traceability of everything it makes and all the high quality corn comes from within 50 miles of the distillery.

“One of my biggest inputs has been on the barrel ageing. I went with a low char and each batch is made up of 20 barrels. Because our maturation happens quickly under the heat of Tennessee, we can play around with barrels from different locations in the rackhouses and it’s really interesting juice. It’s proper authentic Tennessee whiskey, just how it used to be.

“What we’ve got with Daddy Rack is a really good starting point, but it’s not the end of the story. My next project could be a single barrel cask strength expression, for example, but as our stocks grow so too will our architecture. In the next five years I expect Daddy Rack to be in the market globally, which after starting out as a little business isn’t bad going.

“I always wanted to do something in whiskey and I like good corn whiskey, plus America has a big place in my heart. During a family holiday to Disney I decided to go check out a local Ford dealership, and ended up buying a Mustang. I’m a petrol head – I’ve got a Land Rover Defender 110 for my everyday run around and in the garage I’ve got a 1934 Riley Supersport in racing green, which is awesome.”

It’s safe to say Daddy Rack’s character is reflected in the whiskey he now bottles.