Tequila With a Modern Twist: The Story of Yeyo Tequila (Part 2)

yeyo tequila
By Ryan Kelley | 03.15.11

It’s halfway through my interview with Jon Bullinger, founder and owner of Yeyo Tequila, and the rain in Portland, Oregon, continues to fall relentlessly. Having already discussed how he created the flavor profile and shape of his tequila (in part 1 of this interview), it was time to address the curious four letter name – “YEYO”.

“A name has to be simple,” Jon says, “the shorter the better. You can remember it easier.” The name should also be easy to type, roll off the tongue, and have positive connotations with consumers. One possible name for the brand was “Diego.” “People know the name,” he explains, “it’s associated with sunny San Diego, and it’s easy to spell – there’s a connection between the consumer and the product as soon as they see it.”

But like most of the names on his initial list of 50 possibilities, Diego was already a registered trademark. There was one, however, that stood out. “’Yeyo’ actually means a lot of things. If you think of it in North America, it’s [slang for] cocaine … but if you go outside North America it means a lot of things. I had someone buy it at the liquor store just because of the name. She said ‘this means Mother’ [in Swahili] and she bought a bottle for that – the mother of tequila. I actually learned that right then.”

Before I can ask if he’s gotten any flak for the name, he continues telling me aspects of the name that he likes:” I thought it was clean,” he continues, “having two of the same letters – the ‘Y’s – you can do a lot graphically.” Connotation and meaning aside, the name is definitely unique. Jon points out “there is no tequila in the world that starts with a ‘Y.’ Yeyo is the only one. Go to ‘D’ or ‘A’ and there are two pages. Everyone is ‘Don’ or ‘Azul.’”

Being different and standing out from the crowd is a conscious effort. “I positioned myself away from traditional tequila and I’m starting my own category and it’s Yeyo, and I want to be number one in my own category – very different from everyone else.”

When we spoke almost a year ago, Yeyo was already making waves in Oregon, routinely coming in behind heavy hitters Patrón and Don Julio as a top-selling blanco. He focuses on both on-promise (bar and restaurants) and off-premise (liquor stores) accounts, but says he prioritizes liquor stores over the bars. “The money doesn’t come from restaurants and bars, it comes from liquor stores: 70-80 percent.” He breaks it down like this, “I can buy one shot in a restaurant and 25 shots in a liquor bottle – plus you take it home and share it with your friends and then they’re talking about it.” Jon still does work to ensure Yeyo Tequila is placed in bars and restaurants – in fact, some bars in Oregon have ousted Patrón for Yeyo – although he also admits there are some unique challenges. “The bar industry is really flakey … [One day] you have a bartender that loves your tequila and then they quit. The next bartender doesn’t like your tequila and that’s it. And unless you’re a giant it’s hard to get on a restaurant’s menu. [You end up] buying the restaurant’s menus – all stuff under the table – $500 to $1000 for a spot. I’d rather spend my time in the liquor store having tastings and having people try the tequila than spend any money in a bar or restaurant any day of the week.”

The comparison of Yeyo to Patrón comes up more than once in our conversation, but Jon makes it clear that his sights aren’t set on Patrón. “I don’t bag on Patrón, [the bartenders in Oregon] talk about it. I let them vent. Maybe because [Patrón is] mainstream and everywhere so it doesn’t make it as special [as Yeyo]. I don’t know what it is but I’ve heard it from a lot of bartenders in Oregon.” When Yeyo does invade a bar, it seems to dominate and slowly chip away at Patrón’s market. He gives me an example: “Couture down the street [doesn’t] sell Patrón anymore. They say: ‘we sell Yeyo, it’s the same price (per shot) and it’s twice as good.’ They have people try it, they like it and people eventually switch.” This has resulted in Yeyo doing very well in “little towns like Wheeler and Killer out in the middle of nowhere. People try it, like it, and then talk about it. [Bar Patróns become] Yeyo ambassadors – people who are a fan of the marketing and tequila – people who like that it’s got Beaverton, Oregon on the back … these people convince the bar to carry it and they convince their friends to drink it with them at the bar and that’s how we grow.”

This grassroots approach to selling tequila is similar in style to the way Jon designs his marketing campaigns. Press material, publicity photos, YouTube video advertisements, and even the fonts are all done “from scratch,” Jon says with pride, “I don’t copy anyone.” Beginning in 2009, Jon began producing a series of YouTube video commercials. “We began shooting it in August 2009 and then slowly released them. I spent only $4500 on all that, which is pretty cheap.” While he provides advice and input, Jon prefers to let his friends’ creativity go wild. “Everyone who works with me, I let them run with it. I say ‘you’re good at what you do so I’m not going to put any boundaries. Come up with a couple of things and we’ll see what happens.’”

Jon himself is also not afraid to get his hands dirty, and is determined to show people that tequila is not what they think it is. For Oregonians who purchase a case for a party or event, he and General Manager Alex Roosevelt will “go to your house and bartend and teach you how to make drinks with it and tell you about the tequila.” Jon speaks highly of his colleague Alex, who had been working in the bar industry for 13 years. One of the first times they did a party, Jon was amazed at his friend’s inherent talent. “Every other drink was amazing. He went from having never touched drinks before in his life to becoming…a mixologist. Just like that. When I mix a drink, he can tell me what’s missing. I can use the same ingredients as him, but it doesn’t come out the same.”

At these events, Jon’s focus is on reeling in the guests. “Say someone had a bad experience with Jose Cuervo [Especial] – they don’t want to touch tequila. They look at what we’re mixing and say ‘what’s in that?’ I tell them there’s tequila in there and they say, ‘really’?” He then convinces them to try it straight, and “they are surprised they like it.” When mixing the drinks, Jon and Alex often make tequila versions of classic drinks, such as mojitos and martinis. It’s all about changing people’s perceptions of tequila. “I don’t see why we have to use rum or vodka with these drinks.”

Yeyo is currently only available as a silver tequila for several reasons. “Marketing and [building] awareness of one is a lot of work,” Jon concedes. “And to get the right taste is a lot of work.” Jon is researching and experimenting with different woods, but doesn’t feel a need to rush the release of a reposado or añejo. “I have a lot of time,” he says, “and we’ll make sure it’s styled and correct and I’ll make sure a lot of people try it before it comes out.”

Instead of developing and marketing aged Yeyo, Jon is focused on expanding into other states. Last year he was planning to expand into California and had started to build buzz with a Yeyo California Facebook page. He wants to be cautious when moving south into California. “I know it is a huge spot so we’ll probably start in Sacramento and then we’ll slowly get bigger. There’s way too much demand. I don’t even have enough glass to supply even Sacramento. So it’s going to have to go slowly. We’ll grow.”

After following up with Jon last week, he tells me that California is temporarily off the radar. “After analyzing the market in California, we decided to remove it from the current roadmap.  While I personally love this place, we realized that in order to launch a product in states like California, Nevada and New York you need to have a very large budget in place (millions per state) to launch the product the right way.”

Instead, Jon is turning to smaller states, but his goal remains ambitious. “Yeyo is entering Arizona, New Mexico and Texas within the next 60-90 days.  These states do not need a mass amount of capital the big three require.  Yeyo must be in the top 5 selling tequilas in each market it is sold in before we expand again.  I have very high expectations for the Yeyo brand when I enter new states, Yeyo must outpace others in mindshare and sales.”

Our conversation wraps up with Jon discussing another idea he’s had for marketing Yeyo. The “Yeyo Lounge” is a bar where all the cocktails and food feature Yeyo. He would take a unique approach to the design, where people and faces are at the center of it, not bottles and logos. “I don’t agree with the way most bar structures are set up … the Yeyo bar will be pods built for one bartender in each pod.” This Benihana-style bar is on the backburner, however, as Oregon law does not allow owners of liquor brands to own or staff a bar in the state. The Yeyo-dominated food and drink concept, however, is still moving forward. Jon’s friends just opened YOLO Lounge in downtown Portand. It’s a sushi lounge and martini bar and features 5 Yeyo cocktails, 3 Yeyo food items, a Yeyo liquid nitrogen drink, and a YOLO/YEYO honey sauce sold by the bottle.

The coffee is now cold and the rain is still falling in Portland. Jon and I part ways and as I sit behind the steering wheel of my car listening to the rain pounding from above, I reflect on our discussion and am reminded of something Jon said. I don’t know why it popped into my head, but I write it down because it summarizes his attitude and is, perhaps, the secret to his success: “It’s all about what we can do next.”

Never miss and article or review again – Subscribe now!

* indicates required

Email Format

View previous newsletters.

Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Tequila as Jon Bullinger Intends: The Story of Yeyo Tequila (Part 1)

jon bullinger, yeyo tequila
By Ryan Kelley | 03.05.11

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.

Read Part II Here

Never miss and article or review again – Subscribe now!

* indicates required

Email Format

View previous newsletters.

Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!