Most of the requests we receive from tequila brand owners and importers here at Tequila Aficionado Media are for our current ad rates and special promotions.
Their goal is to achieve maximum coverage over several of our powerful social media networks in order to gain worldwide exposure for their agave spirits, whether it’s tequila, mezcal, sotol, raicilla or bacanora.
It’s not often that we’re confronted with a reverse situation, however.
In a rare turn of events, one particular tequila brand owner has asked us to help peddle one of the most exclusive tequilas we’ve ever encountered.
Exclusivity Breeds Demand
Following the path of one of the infamous co-creators of Patrón tequila, and brazenly emulated by such standard brands like Partida, the Black Swan of Tequilas has it all and more.
Adorned with a wearable engraved symbol, this beveled sleek and sexy bottle is crowned with a unique and patented locking cap.
Extensively photographed by a Grammy award winning art director, its image exudes elegance, naughtiness, high fashion and luxury all at once.
This platinum blanco tequila comes equipped with a cult following among the elite. Sipped and lauded by a who’s-who of economic, political, financial, and international leaders and celebrities.
Hell, it even has its own sultry theme song!
A statistical anomaly in the spirits industry, every minute detail was carefully crafted and painstakingly devised to entice the global traveler.
[Between seminars during the Fourth Annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference, Tequila Aficionado Media was invited to the Ambhar Tequila Relaxation Lounge inside the historic Sheraton Gunter Hotel where we finally sampled each expression of this elusive brand with a jaded past.
The following day, we caught up with the new Ambhar CEO, Jaime Celorio, at the acclaimed Bohanan’s Restaurant while the staff prepared for the busy dinner shift.]
The Deceptive Dragonfly
In the spirits realm, and in particular, the tequila segment, brands come and go for a variety of reasons–
Either the juice is not up to par, or the ineptitude of the brand owners or importers causes a rift between them, or the marketing is all wrong. You name it, it happens.
Every once in a while, a brand gets lucky and all the elements click and a star is born.
Partida’s Gary Shansby, a self-proclaimed student of one of Patrón‘s founders, Martin Crowley, once declared that a tequila brand needed three things to be successful–
Good juice, a pretty bottle, and a symbol with a story.
Ambhar appeared to have all three.
On the other hand, a tequila label could experience the worst
case scenario, but for some reason, it just doesn’t go away.
The latter may be the perfect example of what happened to Ambhar tequila.
All That Glitters…
Launched in 2009, Ambhar was originally based in Austin, Texas, but made its big splash on the Las Vegas Strip.
Owing to key friendships among the principals, Ambhar became a part of the Tropicana Hotel’s facelift in 2010 and established the Ambhar Lounge.
More key relationships allowed the brand to have a very visible presence, especially among the MGM properties. Ambhar soon became Las Vegas’ go-to tequila for many events including several outdoor pool parties during the warmer months.
Then, things began to unravel.
After unbridled spending, Ambhar accrued a rumored debt of up to $2 million. Another round of funding gave it a much needed infusion of $2.7 million from investors in 2011, but still, rumblings of unpaid bills and payrolls persisted.
To make matters worse, a series of ho-hum reviews, including this scathing blog by the OC Weekly, made Ambhar the butt of jokes among the tequila cognoscente who took particular issue with the label’s claims of being distilled five times.
It seemed that the powers behind Ambhar at that time had been blinded by the glitz and glam of Las Vegas, and paid a hefty price.
Saving A Broken Brand
Coming from a solid financial background, Jaime Celerio, CEO of the newly formed Ambhar Global Spirits, LLC., explains what attracted him to purchase the troubled label in 2013.
Here, Jaime explains the dilemmas of taking over a broken brand and what is being done now to revive it.
Further, he illustrates the problems in dealing with the Nevada market, and which states Ambhar will target, instead.
Overhauling the former sales and marketing division, Jaime Celorio has surrounded himself with both a young, enthusiastic crew along with some premier seasoned veterans to reestablish a foothold in Ambhar’s home state of Texas.
Damage control, and distancing itself from the past, also requires making some improvements to the packaging.
No tinkering will be done to the substantial and elegant bottle, but the corks will be changed from real to synthetic, and the stoppers, as well as the wearable dragonfly charm around the bottlenecks, will be made of a much lighter alloy.
To continue to win back customer loyalty and regain goodwill,
Celorio insists on concentrating on Ambhar’s strong points by demanding complete honesty and transparency on the website, subsequent point of sales (POS) materials, and from his sales team.
The More Things Change
When we met with the Ambhar Texas unit, they admitted that Jaime Celorio felt the brand itself would not have survived its tumultuous circumstances had the juice not been favorable in the first place.
Celorio next discloses the reason why Ambhar’s flavor profile, especially that of its añejo, remains intact even though it’s more labor intensive than the reposado expression.
In this snippet, Celorio recounts the improvements since rebooting the brand, and its focus for the future which includes sales in Mexico and exporting to China.
Here, Celorio discusses the focus on the dragonfly logo and what it means in China.
It’s Not All About Tequila
Like a good portfolio manager, Jaime Celorio has diversified by establishing a sister company to compete in the vodka sector of the spirits market.
The Texas Vodka Trail
In this clip, Celorio reveals plans for Cinco Vodka’s distillery based in San Antonio, Texas.
Cinco Vodka–Imported All the Way From Texas
Jaime further reviews plans for the Texas Vodka Trail Tour and its similarities to tequila distillery tours in Mexico in aiding to educate consumers.
In this portion, Celorio considers how competitive the vodka market is in Mexico, and where you can find Cinco Vodka.
Jaime Celorio, gives his explanation as to why he chose to sell tequila in the first place.
Same Old Friend, Whole New Character
Described as his “elevator pitch,” Jaime Celorio, gives us the one thing he wants people to know about Ambhar, and shares his vision for its future.
Whether in the US, Mexico, or even China, look for the recalibrated Ambhar tequila to continue to make splashes, but in a much more precise, targeted and cost effective way.
With all the accolades, praise, and taste test data, how come Partida isn’t taking the country by storm and trying to dethrone Patrón’s grasp on the premium tequila market? Shansby retorts, “let Patrón be Patrón, and Patrón is what they are. It’s probably the most brilliantly marketed spirit brand, certainly tequila, in the world today [but] it doesn’t win any taste tests, and doesn’t even enter them anymore.” So even though other tequilas are obviously vying for Patrón’s market, Shansby prefers to remain above the fray. “Nobody should get ahead by beating someone else up,” he says.
Shansby made a name for himself by building popular brands in a variety of industries, and part of success in marketing products is to know about the people who consume or use (or, who should consume or use) one brand over another.
“People today are interested in exploring and discovering on their own,” he says. “They’re not interested in copying anymore. That’s kind of passé. They’ll trade up to good brands which they discover on their own and they love telling their friends about it.”
This moment of “discovery” is important to Shansby, and it is paramount to Partida’s marketing strategy. “Don’t try to talk them into it,” he advises, “just entice them into exploring. If they explore and discover it [on their own], they’ll like it more!” He does his part, too. Shansby lectures about tequila in the U.S. and Mexico, “with no commercials” – although it often ends with a tasting. He strives to educate (or in many cases, re-educate) people so they can have a better understanding of tequila. “Once a year we do a ‘tequila immersion day,’ where we bring in 40-50 up-and-coming bartenders from an area and start from the basics.” They are taught everything about tequila, and given information they can pass on to their customers – and managers.
Shansby is proud of his tequila, (why not – it’s delicious!) and is fond of sharing it with others. On a vacation in Oregon with Partida investor, and hugely successful winemaker, Michael Mondavi, Shansby brought a case of Partida with them and held a tequila tasting. He noticed four gentlemen who were ignoring the tequila. Upon asking, they told him they “did not drink tequila” and preferred to sip their single malt scotch. Shansby tasted their scotch and “praised them for how good it was.” They were very proud, and so he asked that they humor him, and have a “tiny taste of añejo – knowing that they drank single malt scotch. They reluctantly agreed. So I went over and got four champagne glasses, which kind of blew their minds, and I put about half an inch in the bottom and they tasted it. The first comment to come out was: ‘that’s not tequila!’ I told them it was very fine, estate-bottled tequila. The next comment to come out was: ‘you know, I can drink that!’”
When not enjoying Partida (“reposado – neat – in a stem glass”), Shansby does enjoy other tequilas. His “second favorite tequila is El Tesoro. It’s a very different tequila than ours. It’s cooked differently. It’s from a different region. It’s a highlands product, and not a big brand, but it’s a high-quality brand.” Shansby also likes Don Julio reposado, Gran Centenario añejo, Chinaco, Siete Leguas, and “Cabo Wabo has a fairly decent reposado.”
All the effort in developing and producing Partida has paid off. Shansby has a solid product and it’s validated every day by tequila and spirit enthusiasts around the world. He has, indeed, met his goal of developing “a really fine tequila, [and] it’s delivered beyond my best dreams. Now it’s my job to make sure it stays as good as it can be – and consistently good. The awards we have received have been gratifying, and the mixology community loves us, and I don’t dare let anyone down.”
After a thorough study of the tequila market, Gary Shansby, the founder and chairman of Partida Tequila, had the knowledge he needed to succeed, but didn’t yet have any tequila to market.
Then, he met an agave farmer (a jimador) named Enrique Partida. Partida had “thousands of acres” as a tequila farmer, and “he was selling agave to whoever would buy it” (Cuervo, Herradura, etc.).
During my telephone interview with Shansby he noted,
“[Enrique] had a burnt face from the sun, an old cowboy hat, and a twinkle in his eye. I thought: he’s central casting! I can’t call this tequila “Gringo Gary’s,” so I might as well see about calling it Partida.”
Shansby checked, and “Partida” had never been used or trademarked anywhere in the world. “Without telling Enrique, I trademarked him, and basically took ownership of his name…He was not a happy camper at first, but since then he’s delighted, and we’ve become friends. He’s not an investor, but he is the farmer and does manage the farms.”
But, how does Partida Tequila get its award-winning flavor? Shansby explains that “by using an older, more mature and sweeter agave; and by cooking it in a stainless steel autoclave versus a stone oven” he would be able to produce “a more pure, agave-tasting product.” Unlike many tequila, premium or not, Partida is completely estate-grown and bottled. This means that the agave all comes from the Partida farm and it is cooked, distilled, and bottled on the estate. (Shansby rebuilt Enrique Partida’s “hobby distillery” into a fully functional tequila distillery that is capable of producing all of the Partida tequilas.)
Once Shansby had his tequila, he took it to the Mexico CRT (Consejo Regulado de Tequila, or Tequila Regulatory Council) where he “won all the taste tests.” A similar taste testing was done with Julio Bermejo, the US Ambassador of Tequila, at the San Francisco Wine and Spirit festival, where it also blew everyone away.
The product was ready for consumption. In his meticulous way, Shansby went through 600 variations of a bottle before it was finalized. The bottle is truly a work of art – slightly larger than Patrón and easily handled by bartenders. The bottle is mostly clear, exploiting the beautiful color of Partida, except for the branding, which includes the Partida spirit bird.
I had never heard the legend of the spirit bird before and Shansby revealed that it “is a tale I developed, and now Enrique [Partida] tells me it has been in the family for a hundred years! The story…has believability to it because we made it believable.” Most tequilas don’t have a logo (except Herradura’s upside-down horseshoe) and Shansby, an experienced brand-builder feels strongly that to build a brand “you need a Nike swoosh, and so my Nike swoosh is the Partida spirit bird.”
The tequila is purposely priced just a little higher than Patrón. People often ask Shansby how he can do that, especially as a newcomer to the tequila market, but he dismisses skepticism with a challenge: “Just taste the product and tell me if you agree. Nobody has ever said it wasn’t better, or at least just as good [as Patrón]. I don’t claim it’s the best, my job is to keep it among the very best.”
Quality and consistency is how Shansby plans to maintain Partida’s success. “Everything is done to perfection. We age reposado precisely, to the day, six months in the barrel. We rotate our barrels for 36 months, 3 at reposado and 1 at añejo, which is [aged for] 18 months, and then we destroy it.” The barrels are all purchased from Jack Daniel’s. “They’ve been used once for Jack Daniel’s. We then hot distill wash them twice, dry them, and use them ourselves.” Shansby claims that if you go into other distilleries (which he has done), very few people will be as consistent. “If they get a good buy on Bordeaux barrels that have been used five or six times, they’ll buy them. I won’t do that.”
Consistency is so important that Shansby has everything done on site. “We’re managed in Mexico – totally by Mexican employees. I go down there about every month for 5 or 6 weeks and stay there for 4 or 5 days and talk to the workers.” From the farming and distilling, right into the bottle; everything is done on the Partida estate. “It gives us full control, which I find enormously important.”
Shansby and Partida’s other investors have invested over $30 million into the product, which they also distribute. It’s easy to tell that he really has a passion for his product, but would he ever sell the brand and retire? No way, he says, “I’m doing this as a hobby and it’s not for sale. And I’m going to retire when they carry me out feet first.”
Tequila is one of the fastest growing spirits in the U.S., and Partida Tequila, one of the newest entries into the premium tequila market, is one of the most celebrated. Partida has won multiple accolades, and was the only line of tequilas to be awarded with 96-100 points for all three types of tequila in Wine Enthusiast’s 2008 Tequila Report.
The man behind Partida’s success is its founder and chairman, Gary Shansby; and I was able to speak with him for about an hour last week to learn more about Partida and the man behind its success.
Shansby is an experienced brand-builder and has spent his career developing and marketing more than 50 household consumer brands – everything from Famous Amos Cookiesto MetRx and Vitamin Water. He has a vineyard in Sonoma – “a tremendous way to lose money but a beautiful hobby;” and it was only 8 years ago that his journey into the spirit business began.
After being asked if he had ever considered the spirit business, Shansby – experienced in food and beverages, but not liquor – studied the industry. He discovered that
“the growth of important premium [spirit] brands was coming from entrepreneurs and not the big companies. Most of the entrepreneurs were mavericks in their industry, or they had no industry experience, and they were defying the logic of the big companies.”
He met with some of these mavericks, like Grey Goose’s Sidney Frank, Patrón’s Martin Crowly, and Skyy’s Maurice Kanbar (who has a minority stake in Partida), and concluded that they were “all passionate about their brands,” and intent on “building a brand and not a company. They were all driven – not for monetary gain – but for their love of what they were doing; and they were all having a great time.”
Shansby’s study of the market revealed that Patrón was the only brand in the tequila category that was poised for success; however, he “also noticed that the tequila industry had pretty much ignored women, yet about ½ the consumption in the United States is by females, mostly driven by the margarita.” With a strong background in branding, Shansby set out to find a tequila that would become successful in the American spirits market.
But, how do you develop the perfect tequila? Shansby began meticulously researching tequila. An MBA student was dispatched to Mexico for a tequila fact-finding assignment, while Shansby surveyed the market. Thorough knowledge about tequila – how it is made, what makes one tequila different from another, etc. – and understanding the tequila consumer were paramount. Shansby concluded that “the American consumer…likes a smoother taste – a product that brings out the natural agave and a little less of the old shot environment that had existed in the earlier years of tequila. I had to find a method to make something much smoother, but has the same alcohol content, but didn’t reek of it. I knew that the age of the agave, how it is cooked, how it’s processed, how it is aged; each little element had a different twist on it and I studied the different things that could be done.”