Not often do you have two influential experts write about a topic, head to head, under the same roof, and have it published, for all to see – no holds barred! Mike Morales, our Executive Editor and Ryan Kelley our Senior Editor, both had the chance to sit and chat, on different occasions, with Jon Bullinger of the up and coming and very tasty Yeyo Tequila. This is an unprecedented “blind tasting” if you will, in that neither of them had seen the others article on the same subject. So no bias here! This is Part 1 of Ryan Kelley’s conversation.
Jon Bullinger, owner and founder of Yeyo Tequila, is a rare breed. He’s a young man who knows what he wants, goes for it, and ultimately succeeds. I first tasted Yeyo after Jon sent me a bottle early last year, and I found it to be remarkably full of flavor and incredibly well-balanced. It’s only available as a blanco – for now – and distribution is limited to a handful of states. I met up with Jon at a coffee shop in downtown Portland, Oregon, where we took refuge from the cold rain of the Northwest and he shared the story of building his tequila.
At first glance, Jon seems more like a personal trainer than a tequila magnate; a young man in his late 20’s and sporting a muscular build, a freshly shaved head, and a calm, zen-like confidence. He was cool, calm, and collected, but his eyes couldn’t hide a giddiness, and within the first few minutes of our discussion, I learn he had just exchanged his full-time job as a Marketing Specialist for chipmaker giant Intel for “full-time Yeyo.”
As Jon explained, “I’ve been doing 80 hours a week for the last 3 and 1/2 years – both jobs, non-stop. [Yeyo has] been run on coffee and Red Bull and Rockstar. When I got off work at Intel my day started all over again until I fell asleep … [Intel wanted to] give me a promotion; they wanted me to manage more. I just said at that point, I said ‘my brand has suffered.’ Yeyo has suffered by spending more time at Intel. And that’s not what I wanted to do … I worked out how to take my paid vacation [and] my last day was Monday – so now it’s full time Yeyo.
“It’s so much better. I met 7 accounts yesterday – just to show my face. I’m doing the Yeyo tour. I do bartending, tastings, you know, teach them to make drinks and talk to them about tequila. It’s more like an educational tour. Most people don’t know anything about tequila.”
So what do people in Oregon tend to think of when you say ‘tequila?’ Jon shrugs and offers an all-too familiar lament, “They think Jose Cuervo is a great deal and usually get that because it’s cheap. There are so many people at the liquor store [who think this way]. I just did a tasting on Saturday and nobody knew what 100% agave tequila is and they don’t know anything, they think that gold defines tequila.”
The evolution of Yeyo began about six years ago as Jon entered the corporate world of Intel while pursuing a degree in business management. “I was interning at Intel. I had an idea that I wanted to do a spirit – I didn’t know what spirit yet. I was designing bottle labels –Jon B. Vodka. I knew nothing about distilling at this point – it was just an idea at the time, but with 40 hours [at Intel] and then 40 hours at school there was no way I could start a company. As soon as I finished college in 2007, I used the money I got back from my tax returns and hired a business partner.”
Applying what he learned in school and while at Intel, Jon began researching and surveying the spirits market. “I saw that vodka was way too saturated. There was no way I could stand out in the vodka industry – it’s huge … You can go get a license and make it out of your house in Washington! It’s the same thing with gin [and with most] other spirits. And as I was looking at each, I was looking at how well people had done with them: Whiskey has done well; Cognac has done well. I think Vodka – well, there’s a lot of people who do it … I don’t think tequila has always been done right. I think I have a different version of what it should be like and this is what you see today.”
With the decision made to produce a new kind of tequila, Jon recruits a neighbor he grew up with (“Oscar – I call him my foreign relations guy.”) Oscar is from Mexico City and speaks fluent Spanish. “We went all over Mexico and when we got to Arandas a lot of distilleries never let me in past the gate. I’d give them a business card and they’d never call me back.”
But then Jon and Oscar get a stroke of good luck. “I actually found a distillery in Arandas where the gate was open and we drove right in, which is kind of risky because most of the distilleries are very private and they don’t want you to go in. It was the end of the day and we’d been driving a long time and we were trying to find a hotel because we were exhausted. It’s like six o’clock at night … We get to the office and go in – Oscar’s talking and they say ‘no.’ So we walk out and go to the car. I asked Oscar, ‘what did you say,’ to make sure he translated it the correct way. I repositioned what he was going to say and then went back in and he talked to him again, and I don’t know if everything that I say gets translated the right way but [it worked and] we got to do a little walkthrough for a couple minutes. I didn’t get to try any of their tequila but sampled the agave and it was amazing – it was right out of the cooker. I had tried a lot of other agave and I couldn’t even finish it, but this distillery, you could probably sell it on a stick it’s that good.”
After resting at a hotel down the street, Jon and Oscar went back to the distillery the next day. Distillery Feliciano Vivanco (NOM 1414), admired by many tequila insiders and aficionados, would eventually become the home of Yeyo Tequila. For the next three years Jon spent all of his accrued vacation time going to Mexico and working with the distillery and sorting through government red tape. When he returned home to Oregon he took the in-development Yeyo and tasted it for his friends alongside other silver tequila. All price tags were removed from the bottles. Jon recorded what people liked about each tequila as well as how much they would pay for the juice.
“I [brought] my spreadsheet down to Mexico and said ‘hey guys, this is what the palate is saying in the Northwest. What can we do differently?’ And we looked into evolving the distillery … They hadn’t changed the process of evolving their production techniques. So we looked at changing the [ovens]. Instead of the steam coming from the bottom, we [added] slits in the side. We built copper piping so the steam can go all the way around the agave [so we] allow the steam to go up and cook the agave at different angles.” Jon and his distillers tried various cooking and cooling times, and each visit resulted in a bottle “A” and bottle “B” that he would take back to the Pacific Northwest. He would record his friends’ reactions on the spreadsheet and return to Mexico to make additional modifications.
Not only is Jon a fan of his own tequila, but he has a lot of respect for his distillery and the other brands that “live” there: Muchote, Siembra Azul, Nobleza, Buscadores, and Mañana. “Everyone has their own style of doing it,” Jon explains. “The cool thing is I have my own section so I can have my distillation and do my own thing … I’m using all copper. Some guys are using stainless steel.” With a reputation for producing high-quality tequila, Distillery Feliciano Vivanco was recently able to grow twice as big as it used to be, ensuring diversity of technique in cooking, fermentation, distillation, and aging.
With so much tequila in the market, Jon knew Yeyo had to be different. “It feels like everyone in the tequila industry copies everybody else and I don’t know why that is,” he wonders aloud. “I feel like people thought about the tequila after they rushed it…like they threw it together in eight months. I took three years to do this. I made sure it’s been done right.”
For Jon, doing it right is the result of a lot of trial and error. This was not only true in the development of the juice, but also the bottle design, brand name, and marketing approach. Jon’s ideas were both inside and (way) outside the box; he even designed a bottle concept that was made out of wood! “I had 25 bottles [that] I designed [and worked] with three different glass companies.” Once he had conceptual designs, they were tested and he posed questions to bartenders and other members of his focus groups: What do you like about this design? Does this feel good for you to hold? How much air escapes? Will an air bubble get caught in the boot of the bottle? It was important to Jon that the bottle be functional yet also catch someone’s eye. “These are all those little things that take time … All the glass is made in France. Their [error] rate is like 1% and so there’s no giving back the bottles or the corks of the bottles, [but] I’d rather make less money and have Yeyo be good for twenty years anywhere in your house.”
With such a strong commitment to Yeyo and taking into account his meticulous approach, you would think Jon had spent years involved in marketing. But he actually had studied business management originally. His foray into marketing began at Intel, after his internship had ended and he was told he has to get a degree to stay with the company. “I didn’t want to start my masters. I wasn’t ready; I had been in school for six years at that point. I looked at what I wanted to do and marketing was the other degree that I could pick, but it was eight more months of school. So I said ‘alright, I’ll do marketing’ so I can stay at Intel.” His new job was running “continuous improvement,” which involved talking with and understanding Intel customers and development partners to come up with better products and services. Sound familiar?
In a fortunate turn of events, Jon’s job at Intel morphed into running the social media strategy and he was then put in charge of some of the regional software associations, including Mexico. “I used to travel to Mexico and Brazil almost on a weekly basis. It was weird because I would be going down to Guadalajara and I [had to be discreet] because I kept [Yeyo] a secret.” The secret came out a few months before his departure, but Jon has a good reason for why he kept it a secret, “They don’t want you doing anything else [other than Intel], even if there is no conflict of interest…they want you there for life.”
In part two of my conversation with Jon, he discusses his plans for the future of Yeyo – including aging, mixology, building the brand, and the origin of the tequila’s unique name.