Spotlight QA: Avion Tequila

I recently spoke with Ken Austin, the founder of Tequila Avión, who created the brand after seeing what he called an opportunity in the super-premium tequila market. Austin’s spirit-industry career highlights include time at E&J Gallo Winery and Seagram Beverage Company. He also held executive positions at Marquis Jet, which in 2010 became a subsidiary of NetJets, itself a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

SW: What is Avión’s biggest differentiator?

The premise for me in starting the brand was, I’d gotten to a point in my life where I wanted to pursue a dream. So I went to Mexico and began 
working on something – a new tequila – where first and foremost it was about the liquid in the bottle. That became Avión. Everybody says they have a quality product, but sometimes the most successful brands are about the marketing, not the liquid.

For me, it’s about what’s in the bottle. I really wanted consumers to experience a certain taste profile, which goes back to the agave we use, the way we cook it, the way we handle the heads and tails during distillation and how we filter it. All those things make Avión special.

SW: What was most rewarding for you about building this brand?

I had lunch with someone today who asked me what it’s like to be on menus and the backbars at so many restaurants in New York, and I said it’s amazing and rewarding when you go places outside of major markets and they know the brand. Today, we’re a six-figure brand and it’s incredibly rewarding that people know and respect Avión.

SW: What are the biggest trends in the tequila category impacting Avión right now, and how are you reacting to them?

To me, tequila is in its infancy. It’s very big in the U.S. and Mexico, but it hasn’t really hit the world stage the way it will, so there’s a massive opportunity globally. If the margarita is the number-one cocktail in America, why shouldn’t it be the number-one in the world? I’m seeing the gold rush right now in tequila – everyone has identified that it’s going to grow, especially in premium, and everyone wants to play there because the prize is so big. It’s a category that’s really booming with Millennials, much like whiskey.

Like with any business, there will be a shakeout, but right now there’s a rush to market as everyone positions themselves. I feel amazing about our prospects because, while Pernod Ricard owns a majority of the company, the lunatics are still running the asylum. Ownership wants the entrepreneurs running this company because the brand has an entrepreneurial spirit. We eat, drink and sleep tequila.

SW: Speaking of Pernod Ricard, what’s changed in the past year since that company gained a majority stake in Avión?

Not a lot. What happened is what we hoped would happen – the level of passion they have for the brand is now even higher than before. A guy like me loves when people put skin in the game (which they did by writing a very large check) because failure isn’t an option. As Beyonce would say, they put a ring on it, and now it’s “‘til death do we part.”

Alex Ricard is a good friend and he’s incredibly committed to the brand. We both want to reach a million cases, and we don’t want to wait 20 years to get there. Pernod ricard is a very level-headed company – they have a long-term view and want to be number one, but they want to do things the right way to get there.

SW: What’s next on the horizon for the brand?

I was at the distillery recently, since I taste every batch before its bottled, and I can say we’re working on some very innovative things. When we look at a new product it has to be different from what’s already on the market – I don’t want Avión to be a me-too brand. It’s really about innovating in ways that make you different from the other guys on the market. I’ve got three or four ideas in the pipeline right now; the only questions are when to act on them, and making sure they’re done right.

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