For the fifth ‘Sig Survey,’ we talked tequila with Ken Austin, founder of Tequila Avión. Launched in July 2010—a scant 15 months ago— the company makes exactly three products: silver (blanco), reposado, and añejo tequilas. However, despite its incredibly short time on the market, Avión has gone on to become one of the fastest growing spirits brands in the world, decidedly writing itself into the storied 250-year history of tequila itself.
Given Avión’s own incredibly compendious story let’s take a look at history of tequila in the U.S., which can be easily divided into three distinct epochs; conveniently Tequila Avión hits the pinnacle of the latter (and arguably best) period:
The Dark Ages (circa 1760 to 1963): José Antonio Montano y Cuervo, the first tequila producer, and the first José Cuervo of note, purchases an existing tavern in 1758 and renames it “La Taberna de Cuervo.” Subsequently he obtains a land grant for “Cofradia de las Animas” from King Carlos III of Spain. The property is abundant in agave plants, and La Taberna de Cuervo becomes the first legally registered distillery in Mexico. In 1795, King Carlos IV of Spain transferred the deeds of both properties to the second José Cuervo, Jose Maria Guadalupe Cuervo, as well as granting him the first concession to commercially produce Tequila. In 1873 Don Cenobio Sauza, founder of Sauza Tequila, is first exporter of tequila to the US—eight barrels. Two prohibitions (one in Mexico, one in the U.S.) and a revolution later, spirits importer Heublein Inc. brings Jose Cuervo Tequilas into the US in 1964 —fraternity and bachelor parties and rock stars are never the same.
The Renaissance (1973-2003) In 1973 Sauza releases Tres Generaciones Tequila, the first tequila export made for sipping, not shooting. It doesn’t really catch on. In 1983, the first shipment of Chinaco Anejo was imported into the US—it attains a cult-like status among true tequila devotees. In 1989 the late Martin Crowley (whom I had the pleasure to interview numerous times throughout the 1990s) and John Paul DeJoria co-founded Patrón Spirits, importing the first mass ultra-premium, 100% pure blue agave tequila to the U.S., and in doing so created what is now the world’s top selling ultra-premium tequila. Eventually Patrón, Herradura, Don Julio and others usher in higher and higher demands for tequila worldwide— unfortunately resulting in (and coinciding with) an agave shortage.
The Golden Age (2004 to present): With the agave shortage mostly rectified, tequila continues its upward trend in popularity and consumption—a plethora of major and boutique brands now all vie for market share—thus ushering in a new and completely mainstream era of premium tequila. In 2010 Ken Austin, “a Cinderella story, out of nowhere”, founds Tequila Avión, which rises from the pack of boutique tequila brands at an unprecedented stratospheric trajectory (in no small part due to one of the single greatest media product placements coup in recent memory: when Doug Ellin, creator of the hit HBO series Entourage—a childhood friend of Marquis Jet Founder and Tequila Avion partner/Director Kenny Dichter—wove the brand into the storyline of the shows two final seasons.) Today, there are over 1,000 registered brands of Tequila; however, all but a very few have true global brand name recognition—among them is Avión.
Prior to founding Tequila Avión, with the goal of creating the world’s smoothest ultra-premium tequila, Austin was a founding partner and served as both the President and Vice Chairman of Marquis Jet Partners, the groundbreaking private aviation firm that literally launched the private aviation jet category before being sold to NetJets, a Berkshire Hathaway company. Starting Avión was no whim on Austin’s part; prior to Marquis he honed his spirits expertise as the youngest SVP at The Seagram Beverage Company. Before Seagram he held numerous positions at E&J Gallo Winery, which brings merlot to the masses as one of the world’s largest jug and box winemakers, but also offers up the premium and award wining Gallo of Sonoma vintage wines.
Our interview transpired via email.
How would you describe Tequila Avion style? Tequila Avion style is best embodied by the standard we’ve set for ultra-premium tequila – what we call “Taste Elevated.” It’s about character, innovation and going that extra step, or several steps, to create something extraordinary. It’s a mindset. How you look at life, and the opportunities you discover in that journey.
What’s your definition of luxury? Luxury is not about need, but about a deeper level of fulfillment. It’s finding what enriches your life and is truly inspirational on a personal level. Luxury’s gotten a bad reputation, but I think that’s because we’ve allowed the term to be co-opted by so many things that are the antithesis of true luxury.
What’s your assessment of the luxury market today? There will always be people who seek out the finer things in life, whether that’s an experience, an artfully crafted creation of special significance or some other form of investment where the return enhances one’s lifestyle. The challenge for luxury brands is to remain relevant to their existing audience, while adapting to what the next generation considers to be luxury.
Is the US still a market driver for your business? Our vision for Tequila Avion is global. It’s one of the reasons we signed a global distribution deal with industry powerhouse, Pernod Ricard. But our focus is also very much on our own front door. In just one short year, we’ve taken Tequila Avion from two markets to 23 states and, in partnership with Pernod, taken it into every U.S. market. My goal is to make sure everyone who’s legally able to try Tequila Avion has the opportunity to find our product in their market.
What has been your most challenging project to date? If you consider launching a spirit brand in a hotly contested marketplace a “project,” then Tequila Avion is it! I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life, so I knew to some extent the challenges ahead of me when I decided to launch Tequila Avion. And as an entrepreneur, you listen to the advice you are given but in the end you need to forge your own path. We faced overwhelming demand from the outset, which is a nice problem to have, but it also meant we faced distribution challenges we might not have had if we weren’t so convinced this brand was going to succeed and sold in the dream to everyone we could.
Describe the ideal Tequila Avion client… Our consumer is educated, discerning, has great personal style and is looking for something different. It’s not an age, per se, more a state of mind. As I said, “Taste Elevated” is how we refer to everything we do. And I think that state of mind has been part of our success. It’s why HBO’s Entourage featured Tequila Avion as almost another character on the show for the last two seasons and why Tequila Avion t-shirts are highly sought after items.
What’s the ‘next big thing’? I’m not one to predict the future. It’s moving so quickly these days it’s a fool’s game to try. I do know this: the speed at which things change and grow opens up so many opportunities for true innovators to push forward, create and innovate in ways we’ve never imagined. I’m excited by it and it’s what keeps me going with a smile on my face every day.