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What’s The Big Deal with Celebrity Tequilas, Anyway?

Kendall Jenner, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, George Clooney, Kevin Hart, Nick Jonas, Justin Timberlake… What do these people have in common? No, this isn’t the list of celebrities that made it onto the guest list of the next Met Gala. Rather, they’re all proud owners of their own line of tequilas.

In recent years, you may have noticed the not-so-slow and steady rise of celebrity-branded tequila brands, from Michael Jordon’s Cincoro to Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston’s Dos Hombres. These days, it seems that almost every celebrity has been busy adding “launched a tequila brand” as an experience onto their CV.

In the coming years, many consumers (as many others before) will likely be making their first foray into the world of tequila appreciation – no doubt, triggered by a well-timed, meticulously-created advertisement from a favorite celebrity touting their latest tequila brand. If you think about it, celebrity tequila brands really do have a huge potential to influence the mainstream consciousness around tequila. Less discussed as well, is their long-term impact on industry-standard production methods and agave supply chain dynamics.

 

It’s clear that these celebrity tequila brands are a force that’s here to stay for a while. Yet, not everyone’s a fan. What’s the big deal with celebrities making their own tequila? What are the implications on the industry and for us as consumers? Let’s find out.

Where’s the Passion, Baby!? A Lack of Authenticity in Celebrity Tequila Marketing

I suppose implicitly, one of the main reasons that people tend to feel discomforted by the notion of celebrity brands lies in the issue of authenticity. The question inevitably comes out: what does this singer/actor/sportsman/model truly know about making good tequila?

Of course, you could argue that celebrities do not really need to know exactly how to make good tequila. So long as they’re true lovers of tequila and know what good tequila should taste like, they can technically hire a team of distillers that would help them craft the bottle in their vision. After all, Toto Wolff isn’t the race car driver driving the car himself, but he sure as hell knows how to run a world-class F1 racing team that bags medals. With genuine passion, anything is possible.

“Both are strong, but this one is less strong…” – Kendall Jenner reviewing tequilas.

But what happens when even demonstrating an authentic love, respect and interest in the category seems to be too high a bar for some celebrity tequila brand owners? A core memory that has been seared into my mind is a video of Kendall Jenner reviewing two tequilas side-by-side with all the enthusiasm of a student taking an exam they’re unprepared for: “both are strong but this one… is less strong”. Contrast her lukewarm review with the passionate way in which many tequileros of family-owned heritage distilleries in Jalisco wax lyrical about their tequila, and it kind of sucks that the latter group never seems to get quite as much attention and recognition.

Just an average day in the life of Kendall Jenner, strolling around in agave fields in Jalisco Mexico..  (Image source: 818 Tequila)

My take: I get it, every brand is ultimately a business (even the craft ones!), and every business needs sales. What better marketing is there than a name-stamped seal of approval from a celebrity with a huge following. And can we really blame celebrities for wanting to enter to tequila game? There’s big money to be made in creating and distributing a brand, and valuations for different celebrity brands can reach some pretty eye-watering levels. George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila was acquired by Diageo for $1 billion, and while this is impressive, this even pales to the $3.5 billion valuation tagged to The Rock’s Mana tequila.

While still privately owned, valuations of The Rock's Teramana tequila are reportedly at the 3 billion range. (Image source: Teramana)

But! Is it really so much to ask that some celebrities try harder to be a bit more authentic when making their appeals for sales? Truth be told, I imagine the wide majority of tequila fans out there are actually pretty keen to support and consume celebrity tequila brands, so long as they felt that the celebrity owner was genuinely sincere in their appreciation of their own product and more transparent with the degree to which they were involved in the production of the bottle. Personally, I feel the same. A good example of this from the world of gin is Ryan Reynolds, who has been pretty upfront about his lack of involvement in the creation of Aviation Gin. Rather, Aviation Gin was already an up-and-running distillery before Reynolds bought a stake in it in 2018, after he tried the gin at a distillery tour and found himself enjoying it as a consumer. 

Shortcuts in Production: Is The Quality of Tequila Being Compromised?

Another issue that is often subject to debate is the fact that many celebrity tequila brands tend not to be produced with as much attention to detail and adherence to craftsmanship. 

The nifty thing about the Tequila NOM classification system is that you can easily search up the NOM  (4-digit code) on any bottle of tequila to find out more detailed information about where and how that tequila was produced. A closer investigation of celebrity tequila bottle NOMs actually indicates that most often than not, many of these celebrity tequila brands are produced at mega distilleries that may be producing up to 60 other different tequila brands at the same time.

For example, 818 by Kendall Jenner is produced at NOM 1137, where George Clooney’s Casamigos and The Rock’s Mana used to be produced at as well. At NOM 1137, over 60 other brands are also being produced, which gives you a sense of the large-scale industrial level nature of the operations. It’s almost like an OEM of a tequila, if you will.

It's not uncommon for celebrity tequila brands to be made in mega-distilleries like La Cofradia, which churns out over 60 different brands of tequila and often relies on additional additives to artificially manufacture flavors in the tequila. (Image source: Tequila Matchmaker) 

As a result, many of these mega distilleries that celebrities contract with often wind up using artificial sweeteners, coloring or flavorings to give an illusion of variability and uniqueness among the many brands of tequila it churns out. Yet even with additives added, you’ll often find that many celebrity brands still maintain the label of “100% agave” on their bottles, which can be misleading to consumers.

They are able to do this by taking advantage of a loophole in the tequila labelling regulations. That is: that you can still include up to 1% of additives in a bottle of tequila and still claim it as tequila made from 100% agave spirit.

This of course creates concern that many of these artificially flavored celebrity brands would give consumers a warped perception of what truly 100% agave tequila should taste like. Some have argued this may even wind up hurting the few tequila producers who truly devote the time and attention to making hand-crafted tequila the artisanal and traditional way.

Okay fine, if George Clooney hand cleans every bottle of Casamigos tequila, you'd bet I'd buy a few... (Image source: Casamigos)

My take: Truth be told, I’m less of a stickler when it comes to the issue of additives in tequila. I know, I know. But as mentioned before in an earlier discussion on Clase Azul tequila, I just simply believe that consumers should get to drink what they want and enjoy it how they like – even it is proliferated with fake flavorings or tastes artificially sweet. I would just (over-optimistically?) hope that brands that do this be more transparent with what is inside in bottle, and not try to posture otherwise in order to slap on an exorbitant price tag. And this applies not just to celebrity tequilas but all tequilas in general.

The Race for Agave: Hurting Local Lands

Perhaps the most glaring issue with celebrity tequila brands is actually something is more often overlooked, primarily as it tends to happen behind the scenes away from the glare of the consumer.

A jimador hard at work harvesting agave. (image source: Noal Farm)

Due to the sudden growth of new tequila brands, led in part by the high production demands of celebrity brands, demand for blue weber agave – which is what tequila is made of – has sky rocketed in the span of a few short years. Existing agave supply has, for the most part, struggled to keep up with this sudden surge in demand, sparking environmentalists’ concerns about sustainability of the agave crops in Jalisco, Mexico.

It typically takes at least eight to ten years for an agave to mature and be ready for harvesting Yet, to keep up with red-hot demand, many local agave farmers – called jimadors in Mexico - have resorted to harvesting younger agaves way before their ripe. The issue is that young agaves do not often have enough sugar content to be fermented, yielding lower quality tequila. (As an extension of the earlier point, this is also why distilleries may use artificial additives to redress the quality lapses in these young agave made tequilas).

Is an impending glut in agave likely to send prices into freefall? (Image source: Tequila Matchmaker)

With reports of farmers having their agaves stolen in the middle of the night, local observers are starting to worry that a bubble has been building in agave prices. Local farmers have began planting more agave, in some cases, replacing all their crops to agave in anticipation of a sizable payout down the road. In some cases, this had led to increased deforestation and an impact to the bat population in the area. These farmers use present day skyrocketing agave prices as an indication, yet experts are starting to warn that this over farming may trigger a glut in supply soon. What this means for the livelihood of the jimadors and potential wastage of planted agave should cue more concerns about sustainability on current trends.

My take: Do celebrity brands contribute to the demand driving the agave rush? Yes, they do. Yet, are they entirely to blame? I’m not so sure. The agave prices in Mexico has been through this same boom and bust cycle a couple of times now, with history likely to have repeated itself again regardless. This tends to be the case when the crop in question is one of such a cyclical nature.

The problem is that many celebrity tequilas are made in mega-distilleries that may not be as stringent over the quality and the sustainability of the agave cropped sourced. That said, I’ll give bonus points to any celebrity brand that actually works directly with local jimadors to ensure planting practices for the agave used is done sustainably for all parties. They could take cue from some larger distilleries like Patron that offer their jimadors price-guaranteed contracts to reduce the farmers’ vulnerability to price swings, or from some craft distilleries like La Altena that own their own agave fields to retain control over the consistency and quality of the agave.

Summing Up!

At the end of the day, the booze business is lucrative, so we really shouldn’t be surprised to see more celebrities coming soon to a tequila shelf near you. And to some extent, there are benefits to their increased involvement. For a long time, tequila was relegated to the status of cheap liquor used in party shots. Yet having some star power champion the category has no doubt positive for increasing visibility and acceptance of tequila as a sipping spirit in and of itself. Plus, some actually taste really good.

Yet if you come across a tequila fanatic ranting about the influx of celebrities in the market (guilty here!), understand that there are valid concerns about their impact on the broader agave supply chain and the overall quality of tequilas out there on the market.

 

@lotusroot518