Can we be frank about something? No amount of sipping a celebrity-owned tequila or tequila cocktails is going to give your guests washboard abs worthy of baring (almost) all on a billboard alongside the interstate. It’s also not going to net them an Italian lakeside villa, nor make them the most recognizable chef on television. Yet, guests keep calling for those celebrity brands.
It has become pretty evident, even as the number of celebrities getting behind tequila increases, that you want to have at least one on your bar to guarantee you capture that tequila drinker, whether novice, or reposado sipper.
Steve Bayusik is Director of Ops/Beverage for a restaurant group in Connecticut and Nantucket which includes Shell and Bones; Geronimo Bar and Grill and Camacho Garage. The group’s four restaurants in Connecticut are on an elite list of US restaurants that hold their CRT Award T Certification from the Mexican government’s Tequila Regulatory Council which recognizes their commitment to, and knowledge of, Tequila. In addition to the lovingly handcrafted, multi-generational tequilas without a famous face attached that Bayusik’s bars offer he carries a few more recognizable options as he says, “We have more than one. The most popular is obviously Casamigos. It’s the big one and it’s a big mover in all of our restaurants.”
Bayusik sees these celebrities jumping into this category that’s growing with the same alacrity vodka enjoyed a decade or so ago. Knowing full well that some of the brands sell because of the celebrity connection and some sell well because they are actually good tequila, he comments on the tequila boom and the celeb partnerships it has fostered:
“Tequila is red hot. I think it’s because they’re fun. Tequila comes with its own tongue and cheek sense of humor, and aligning tequila with celeb owned brands enhances that fun factor and drives consumerism.”
He continues to shed a light on the magical matchup of famous face and agave spirit, “We have a connection with movie stars, or we love music that hits us in the emotional parts of our brains so tying in fun times with responsible consumption and aligning ourselves with cocktail culture and movie stars just enhances that whole recreational time. If you watch Clooney movies, you feel like you know him a little bit. We watch their movies and fall in love with them and identify with them and we feel like they’re a part of our extended family.”
Who wouldn’t want to drink a tequila made (or sold) by your suave Uncle George? Or one of your favorite rockers or fave chef? Dan Butkus, CEO and President of Santo Spirits knows that lots of people want just that, and he is happy to give it to them, but in a way that everyone wins – producer, bar, and guest. He explains, “Having a celebrity involved in a brand obviously brings awareness for that product, but in the case of Santo Tequila, it brings authenticity. Sammy Hagar has been in the tequila business for nearly 30 years. He is the one who started the entire idea of a celebrity tequila. I think when you look at Sammy or Guy Fieri, you know their own personal brands are built around authenticity, so that is what you would expect from a tequila they have worked on. No cutting corners. Only the best ingredients. Time honored production methods. I think that is what makes Santo different from others in the category. So, for an on-premise account you get that one-two punch of knowing folks will be aware of the brand and knowing that whatever Sammy and Guy work on is going to be amazing quality.”
That amazing quality as a reason to try a tequila works when you get an educated tequila consumer as your guest, but that’s not always who is pulling up a stool and ordering Mexico’s heritage spirit neat or in a cocktail. The business of celebrity tequila dictates familiarity rules. It has been said about celebrity-backed tequilas that if you throw it on the backbar it legitimizes you a bit. Sort of like if the restaurant had Sir Kensington instead of Heinz, or if they had sriracha; you’re giving the guest something popular.
Of all the Beverage Directors in New York, Theo Lieberman, who helms the bar programs of Delicious Hospitality Group, doesn’t need to lean on a famous person’s tequila for legitimacy. But he keeps stocking them for hospitality’s sake. And good business. He explains, “If you were to look at my restaurants you could say roughly 30% of our beverage sales are wine, with about 14-16% being alcohol. Legacy Records is a destination restaurant, and we sell lots of fancy wine. Charlie Bird is wine sales forever. But at Bar Pasquale, which is definitely much younger than our other restaurants – our average guest is sub-32 – it is inverse liquor to wine sales. Bar Pasquale is about 30% liquor. Everybody under 40 wants Casamigos. I think it’s been marketed brilliantly. Though Clooney is a good-looking gentleman I don’t think his poster is on the bedroom wall of the Casamigos drinker. But what it has going for it is that in young peoples’ minds Casmigos means premium. They’ve done a really good job of marketing and pricing it. It is not expensive enough to scare people away, whereas Cincoro is a step up that is too expensive for your average 27-year-old who is going out and is going to have 4 tequila drinks at dinner. Casamigos is $2 more than a regular (non-celeb) tequila we pour. It is the fancy tequila that they can afford to drink, and their friends are drinking. And there is that whole ‘I’m going to buy what my friends are drinking and what I have been told is cool’ factor too.”
Which Lieberman is okay with as he continues, “You can have a stance on everything, but it’s not the healthiest way to operate a business. If people want to spend $25-30 per anejo, why am I fighting it to have them give me their money?”
In Miami David Sewell-Ortiz, Corporate Beverage Director of Rocco’s Tacos is more than happy to stock every celebrity tequila he can on each of his nine locations’ back bars and showcase high profile drinks on the menu whenever possible too. He sees celebrity tequilas as a good sales tool for the entire category and remarks, “The reality is that the celeb tequila has brought in a whole new demographic. These are people who weren’t drinking tequila before. But now, they are coming in because they like The Rock, Mark Wahlberg, Guy. Fieri. We are retaining them. Now they had an experience at, and introduction to, our restaurant they never had before.”
Sewell-Ortiz has seen, firsthand, the impact on sales that someone like Wahlberg has. He recalls the flood of people coming into the restaurant after Wahlberg posted video of himself stationed behind the bar at one of Rocco’s Tacos locations. Talk about commitment.
Celebrity ownership is for more than just puffing up a star’s reputation and bank account. Lauren Ryan-Kiyak, SVP Marketing for Flecha Tequilas, shares, “You don’t just have to be a face on a billboard. Celebrities who are jumping into spirits get to flex their creative juices in new ways. With Mark it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. He came on board and said, ‘Throw me in and let me learn the business.’ He knows the power he has in getting people into a bar or restaurant to learn about Flecha Tequila and his attitude in approaching it is, ‘how can I use the network I have built for my career and push you forward? Can I open a door?’ “
That door opens all sorts of possibilities for tequila education. Butkus adds, “As a super-premium brand, I think we have a positive impact on on-premise sales in three ways: first and foremost, we add authenticity to a menu, since we are created using time honored production methods and no additives. We also add a unique offering because we are an agave-forward tequila. A lot of brands try to hide the agave flavor, which we will never shy away from because that is how tequila tasted more than 100 years ago. Lastly, being a higher end product helps capture more margin. A wide range of tequilas across prices points provides a great upsell opportunity for servers and bartenders.”
Sewell-Ortiz notes, The consumer is becoming more educated and that is going to open up interest in exploring the non-celebrity, true to the artisanal style product.
Lieberman sees similar benefits at his spots as carrying a celebrity tequila opens up conversations with guests where a bartender or server can read the table and suggest something that sets the bar apart, “I know you had Casamigos this time, for the next round do you want to try this small batch tequila for something new?” But sometimes he knows it is just the time to leave well enough alone as he concludes, “Operating a restaurant is already a big gamble. Find the thing that is easy and makes people happy.”
SIPS TO SAVOR
Talk about celebrity drinks… two household names came together in one can as the iconic Jack Daniel’s & Coca-Cola cocktail just debuted as a ready-to-drink (RTD), pre-mixed cocktail for the first time in the United States.
As it is called for all over the world, this crowd-pleaser is made with Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and Coca-Cola, and a Coca-Cola Zero Sugar version is expected on US shelves in May, right behind the regular version rolling out globally.
It’s unmistakable can design marries the two legacy brands that are over a century old; Jack Daniel’s was established in 1866 in Lynchburg, Tennessee. (ABV) is 7% in the US and the SRP is $12.99 per 4-pack.