Everyone from Michael Jordan to Nick Jonas has their own agave spirit, but are U.S. celebrities and Mexican tequilas the right pairing?
or many years tequila has been a man’s game. Increasingly, it’s narrowing further to a non-Mexican celebrity’s enterprise. A-listers are converting their cult followings into tequila drinkers and causing ripple effects in the industry, which is now said to be worth US$10.8-billion-a-year.
These days you can sip on stylish agave drinks from the likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Elon Musk, P. Diddy, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Justin Timberlake, Nick Jonas, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan and Chris Noth (also known as “Mr. Big” from Sex and the City). Just a handful of women are on the celebrity tequila guest list including Canadian actress Shay Mitchell of Pretty Little Liars fame, sometimes-singer Rita Ora, and Kendall Jenner (who surely needs no introduction). More and more famous faces are cashing in on this protected centuries-old tradition, but what’s driving the boom, and what do Mexican women, who are traditionally sidelined in the industry, make of it?
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What’s Behind the Gold Rush?
One brand is largely credited with triggering the celebrity tequila influx: Casamigos. Hollywood megastar George Clooney “accidentally” founded the drinks company with property tycoon Mike Meldman and Rande Gerber (his long-time friend and the husband of supermodel Cindy Crawford) in 2013. Just four years later, it was sold to drinks conglomerate Diageo for a whopping $1 billion, proving that there was serious money to be made from agave. The U.S. is now so head over heels for the legendary spirit that sales of full-proof tequila soared by almost 200 percent since 2002 according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). In 2020, Mexico produced 60 million gallons of this liquid gold, which is 800 percent more than it did two decades ago.
George Clooney’s star quality might have certainly helped attract the glitterati. However, the female master distiller of Mexico’s top ultra-premium tequila cites the heightened focus on actual product quality from distillers for the drink’s rising popularity. Clase Azul is the Chanel of tequila brands and Viridiana Tinoco is the master distiller for all its products. “The tequila industry has changed and the work that is being put in behind the scenes to make the products incredible is part of the reason it’s growing exponentially,” she remarks. Gone are the days when you would take shots of unpalatable tequila just to get drunk. “Now you want to sip the tequila neat and simply enjoy it,” she adds.
On Mexican Culture and Craftsmanship
Viridiana Tinoco works out of Clase Azul’s Guadalajara office overseeing a largely female staff and is thoroughly involved in each element of the brand’s winning trifecta: impeccably smooth sipping tequilas, a collector-worthy decanter, and culture-rich experiences. While some of Tinseltown’s tequila brands merely borrow from Mexican culture for their brand identity, Clase Azul’s is deeply rooted in it.
Last year, it launched A Taste of Culture, a reservation-only, multi-sensory storytelling tasting room tucked behind their boutique at Cabo’s The Shoppes at Palmilla. This luxury speakeasy-cum-educational experience celebrates the richness of Mexican cuisine, the artisans that painstakingly sculpt and paint the bottles by hand, and the craftsmanship that goes into tequila production. In 2022, the doors will swing open to the Clase Azul Loft in Dumbo, Brooklyn, which will host art exhibits, tastings, and talks. As tequila’s image is being elevated, the brand seeks to take Mexico along with it.
Appropriate or Cultural Appropriation?
Celebrity agave spirits have drawn swathes of criticism largely because the individuals have little to no actual connection to Mexico or to tequila which is so ingrained in the culture south of the U.S. border. Eyebrows have also been raised because often, the jimadores, artisans, and distilleries involved are not credited in the marketing. No brand has been derided more than model Kendall Jenner’s 818, however.
When 818 debuted in February of this year, detractors cited cultural appropriation and the gentrification of tequila due to the product name which was inspired by the area code of the San Fernando Valley—in California. “The area code 818 is home to me, but the earth is home to all of us”, as the brand story elucidates. Jenner was also lambasted for proclaiming to have made “the best-tasting tequila,” a cringe-worthy ad depicting her on a horse in agave fields, and grammatical errors in the Spanish on bottle labels, which suggested a disregard for and ignorance about tequila. Despite the above, it is worth noting that Jenner’s 818 brand has faced much more criticism for cultural appropriation than any male-owned celebrity tequila. As she certainly isn’t the first foreigner to launch an agave distillate firm, some say her condemnation, in particular, has sexist undertones.
One Mexican woman that is indeed pleased with the light that household names like Jenner shine on the segment is the Master Tequilier for Tequila Cazadores, Tania Oseguera. “As a woman, it’s great to see female presence increasing in the tequila industry as a whole,” she says. Tequila Cazadores makes “real tequila for real people” with a portfolio consisting of five core tequilas and three gluten-free, ready-to-drink cocktails. “While Tequila Cazadores is proudly a non-celebrity brand, personally it’s exciting to see the upward momentum for the category.” She adds that any person that becomes a tequila ambassador—man or woman—should seek sufficient information about tequila to be able to talk about it correctly. “Overall, what I feel like is lacking with these new celebrity tequila brands is education around the category as a whole as well as showing respect to the Mexican culture that this beautiful spirit originates from,” she laments.
The Ethics of Non-Mexican Agave Distillates
Many celebrity labels are made strictly with the U.S. market in mind without a single point of sale in Mexico and mass-produced in unnamed distilleries. The star’s involvement also varies drastically. Some simply take on high-profile roles within the companies, a few are co-founders, while some own their labels outright. George Clooney and Rande Gerber maintain active roles in Casamigos and are still said to taste every barrel. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is also more than just the face of his brand, Teremana. He and his founding partners built their own distillery with a Mexican family so when sales skyrocket, everybody gets to eat (or drink in this case).
For Mexican-American entrepreneur Sonya Vega, who created the woman-owned and operated firm Doña Vega Mezcal, The Rock’s model is ideal. “When you think about it, celebrities have been endorsing all kinds of brands for years, so this is hardly a new concept. The difference we are seeing today is that celebrities are now founders or investors in these brands, which requires them to take on a higher level of accountability for the products they are creating or endorsing,” she states.
On the topic of non-Mexicans producing tequila, Vega is open. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with celebrities from anywhere getting involved in the industry… but authenticity is so crucial.” Ana María Romero Mena from Tequila Corrido concurs. “As a female Master Distiller, I’m happy any time people celebrate our authentic culture and the hard work people put in every day from the fields to the delicate distillation process. It’s a pleasure that more and more celebrities around the world recognize and appreciate the art of tequila-making”.
So how then can this art be perfected, and what should the main ingredient be? According to Clase Azul’s Master Distiller Viridiana Tinoco, it’s passion. As a lifelong tequila fan, she cried tears of joy the first time she attended A Taste of Culture in Cabo after working with the executive chef to create the perfect pairings. “I love everything about tequila and to me, this will never feel like a job,” she says. While a celebrity might be lured to the industry by George Clooney’s 10-figure success, it’s pure, unadulterated love for tequila at the very least that should keep them there.