Over the past six years, a booming American market for agave spirits has produced a rush of both celebrity marketed brands and craft labels backed by multinational conglomerates. That means a number of small producers (including non-distilling producers) have focused on hyper-targeted demographics, often releasing product in just one or two metropolitan areas.
Jon Basil Tequila is one such example, having focused exclusively on the Chicago market since its official launch in 2018. And CEO Uduimoh Umolu — who at 29 years old is a rare millennial founder in the space — has no regrets about keeping their initial market small. But with plans to expand in both distribution and the number of expressions offered, Umolu and his team are focused on developing their storytelling along with their brand.
Recently, Umolu sat down with Drinkhacker to talk about launching a tequila label in the era of celebrity brands, along with the hurdles (and advantages) that come with being a millennial and minority-owned spirits company.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Drinkhacker: Tell me a little bit about your inspiration behind the brand and how you first got the idea to launch your own tequila company.
Uduimoh Umolu: I’ll give you a brief history around the name, because I think that ties a lot into it. So Jon is my grandfather’s name, and Basil is the name of the person who made it possible for my dad to come to school in the United States. So he was the first person in his family to do so, and that ultimately gave us the opportunity to be born and raised here. So in our tradition, when you name your oldest son, your first son, you’re supposed to name him after your father. So, um, I just wanted to pay respects to that legacy, and also pay homage to the folks that have come before us, to really set us up to have the opportunities that were afforded today.
I think a lot of Americans, a lot of Black Americans, a lot of first generation Americans can all identify with that fact that a lot of sacrifices had to be made to be where we are today.
As far as tequila: It was kind of right after craft brews were really taking off in Chicago. So we had Goose Island, Lagunitas, and brands of that nature. Spirits were always something that I felt kind of brought people together. I remember at a funeral of a buddy of mine from school, we all kind of came together over a spirit. Then I got really into music management and I was doing a lot of events, a lot of production, a lot of concerts, and different spirit brands would reach out to align with those curations and experiences that we were behind. I felt like it was really important for us, and really integral to start having ownership in some of these brands that we were pushing. And so that’s where the idea stemmed from, and from there it’s been history.
Drinkhacker: Tell me about the initial sourcing process, figuring out where the juice was coming from so to speak.
Uduimoh Umolu: I went to Tequila, Jalisco for the first time in about 2014. Then 2015 is when I really got to spend a lot of time to really learn about the process. We ended up going at a time when this was pre-George Clooney and the Casamigos wave. Tequila was in its relative infancy here in the U.S., there were a lot of regulations in order to bring a brand to market at the time. But we went down and we had some great teachers, we got to study under some really world class distillers, Felipe Camarena being one of them. We ended up sourcing the agave from both the high and lowlands of Tequila, Jalisco to create our profile, because we wanted the citrusy notes as well as those earth tones in our profile.
We took a lot of those traditional things that made tequila, like the rich spirit that it is. And we tried to put like a few tweaks, a little bit of a twist, to make sure that we’re able to open it up to our target demographic and group of drinkers who maybe weren’t fully versed in tequila at the time. So we were going for a really, really smooth profile for our Blanco.
Drinkhacker: Let’s talk about your go to market. What was the initial strategy?
Uduimoh Umolu: So initially, we started small. We had about 500 cases when we were first starting out, which is tiny when you’re thinking about it. Most people kind of come with their Blanco, Reposado, and Anejo all at once. We started with our Blanco, we aged that for 11 months and then we launched Reposado, we still haven’t launched our Anejo. So we just really took it slow and steady at the time. It took us three years to actually get to market after finding the right partners that are now family. Once we were here, we wanted to start in our home town, but also Illinois is one of the most competitive spirits markets in the world. Chicago is one of the craziest cities to launch a brand in. But this is our backyard, and this is where we have organic reach; it’s where we have authentic connections to the community that we were building around and servicing.
We started in the mom and pop shops, we had about two liquor stores, my business partner’s family had one. I had some relationships through working with the Jack Daniel’s family of brands. And we had about two stores to start for the first month. And then since then, we just kind of built it up from there.
Drinkhacker: Do you have any numbers you can share regarding the brand’s sales and target numbers for 2022?
Uduimoh Umolu: This year we’re pacing to clear our 10,000 case mark here in Illinois, which we are ecstatic about. We’re still only in Chicago. So doing 10,000 in one market with two skus was exciting for us. Now we’re looking to expand; we’re coming to Brooklyn. We’re going to be moving in the next couple of months for sure.
Drinkhacker: I want to talk about being a minority founder in American spirits. Is that something that has been a hurdle to overcome, or do you think the spirits industry is at a point where people are ready to embrace more diverse founding stories?
Uduimoh Umolu: We started this company seven years ago. So at that point in time, it was still in the early stages of where brand growth is today. I definitely remember being like, “Wow, there’s really no multicultural or millennial-owned and operated tequila brands at all that exist in the world.” We were 23 years old, we were minorities. We were trying to do this, we were trying to launch this brand, and I think people hadn’t seen it before. So it took us a little bit more convincing and a little bit more proof of concept in order to really start making our headway.
So we launched with the smallest amount we could, we got the first store and the first sale and the first consumer to taste. And as that started to grow, things started to become a lot more accessible for us. I think initially it was our age that was sort of shocking for people to swallow. I think now though, the industry’s so ready, you’re starting to see a lot of brands launch out. I think now is the perfect time. Founders of brands are from colorful backgrounds, the experiences in general of those drinking, the spirits are so colorful that it’s great that now the representation and the ownership in the space is starting to reflect that as well.