With the explosion of craft cocktails and beer, people are expecting more from their liquor. Sure, it used to be acceptable to choke down whatever was cheapest and on offer, but not anymore. We want liquor from a brand that we like. We want the story and the hipster cool factor that comes with drinking something we know a little bit about. Several grassroots companies have found footing in this new era of drinking awareness, and Montalvo Tequila is one such brand. Not only it is a small powerhouse, it also presents a new kind of tequila, one that is triple distilled so you can sip it slowly, like you would with a fine whiskey or brandy. We were lucky enough to chat with Montalvo's Chief Development Officer Isaac Gilmore (who just so happens to be a dashing former Navy Seal who inspires rescue fantasies) at the Hard Rock Hotel's rooftop bar Float in San Diego, sampling the tequila of the hour and discovering the business strategy behind the name.
Montalvo has officially been in the United States since May 2012 when the first palates came across the border from Mexico to enter the market. Haven't heard of them yet? That's because the company made the excellent decision to start small and slowly work their way to the top. Instead of forcing themselves out there with a huge boom and fizzling out, they lit a small ember that has been smoldering for a couple of years, ready to now catch fire.
Photo Credit: Heather Elise Photography
Their plan of attack was to focus on San Diego and New York simultaneously, planting themselves on the west and east coast. The very first pallet of tequila was sent over to NYC because they already had connections there, while the second went to San Diego and bottles landed in establishments like the Hard Rock Hotel in downtown and the famous American Tavern in Point Loma. They let the brand sit for a while as they continued to build additional smaller accounts wherever they could.
Due to their relationships, helped by all of the connections Gilmore brought to the brand, Montalvo makes a point to build lasting ties with the people on the ground that have power to sway opinions. "The best, most well-conceived ad campaign with the peak celebrity and really cool and catchy images, it's funny and it gets you — it's probably still not as good as your bartender saying, 'You really got to drink this.'"
Instead of forcing their way onto the tequila scene like other brands, flashing their name everywhere, Montalvo focuses on the quality of their liquor and its place as a sipping tequila. Offering three varieties (Plata, Repodado, and Añejo), the tequila is made from the finest Blue Agave plants from the lowlands of Jalisco, Mexico and produced in small batches. Some may scoff at the fact that it's distilled three times (the norm is two), but the extra distillation is what allows you to sip it slowly — it's actually pretty liberating not having to knock it back shot-style.
"Tequila typically finds itself in one of two categories," explains Gilmore, who was still an active duty Navy Seal when he became a partner with Montalvo. "If we appreciate it we understand the quality [and] we understand what it takes to produce this — we love it. If you don't get it, you just stay over there. Or it's mainstream and there [are] no efforts given to understand the industry or the quality of the product." Gilmore points out that nowadays consumers are much more aware of liquor and want to understand what it is they are drinking, which is why part of Montalvo's upcoming campaign will have a strong educational component.
Photo Courtesy of Montalvo
"I do not think that Patron or Avión could do what they did now; the consumer is too educated. They want quality, they want a story, they want to understand what it is they are consuming. If you look at the craft beer explosion, even the average [person] wants a little more for their dollar. We see ourselves as really the first company that has access to the mainstream companies — like The Light Group…getting import in Vegas — but still cares and values the product and the history behind it to get an education about it." Speaking of The Light Group, Montalvo officially announced that they're launching with the company this week, starting with a kickoff party in Las Vegas to celebrate.
Though triple distillation can leave a slight metallic taste in the tequila that a trained palate may pick up, Gilmore isn't worried because they are able to keep just as much body in the tequila as other brands. While they want connoisseurs to appreciate the change they're trying to make in the tequila industry, Montalvo isn't actually for them — it's for the average person. They want the everyday consumer to have a better appreciation for tequila and to realize that not all tequila comes with that burn and dreaded morning hangover — you don't have to do shot after shot with salt and limes just to choke it down.
Photo Credit: Heather Elise Photography
While Gilmore may have a background in combat, he's also personally familiar with what works onscreen from his time as a television actor on Last Resort (he's also working on a screenplay he describes as "A Man Apart meets Broken City" and a script for a TV medical drama). With such a diverse wealth of knowledge, the engaged father of two is the perfect person to be responsible for a media campaign, which is one of his biggest concerns now. The plan so far is to create an online database that allows consumers to test their tequila IQ and gives them a rank.
"My plan on delivering the educational content is through little web series, but instead of a person standing in an infomercial way, it will be a woman basically giving information to another person — whether it be different celebrities…or everyday people." Once you're done watching the video, you'd take another test and get a higher rank, making it an interactive game. They're also planning on giving incentives for reaching certain ranks, like tickets to shows and bar discounts.
Photo Credit: Heather Elise Photography
"On the cool side, there's two things we wanted to do differently from other tequilas," Gilmore explains. "If you look at…Cuervo, […] it's a male lead and it's always about what happens that night, all the crazy stuff you do while you're drinking the tequila. We're going the opposite…with a female lead, a very strong astute woman and it's about the quality of life and what you do the next day."
He gives an example of a commercial, highlighting the heroine at a bar with a group of friends who are all drinking other tequila brands — the average scene we're all used to seeing from liquor ads. The heroine shakes her head at her friends as she sips some Montalvo. Cut to the next morning and while she's up and ready to start her day, her friends are way too hung-over to function. The ad is a great idea that presents Montalvo as an accompaniment to your everyday lifestyle, instead of the Las Vegas party drink we all hate ourselves for in the morning. Gilmore's vision may be a bit tough to cast, since he speaks of her as the perfect dream woman who is adventurous, intelligent, savvy, goofy and personable. He wants the drink to take a little bit of a backseat to the lifestyle it projects.
"I want our heroine to not be so…balls-out extreme sports athlete or CrossFit chick that she alienates, but the girl that would go try a dumbbell class or would go to CrossFit or would try to take a lesson in kite boarding even though she doesn't do that stuff all the time," explains Gilmore, pretty much describing Jennifer Lawrence. "But would also…she wakes up in the morning and goes and has brunch with her mom and sister while everybody else is still a wreck."
Urging people to give tequila another chance, Montalvo is breaking serious rules by offering a sipping option and encouraging people to be a little more creative with how they interact with the spirit. With its smoothness, you can do whatever you want with the tequila — even if it's bypassing the heavy mixers in favor of juice. "We're going to encourage people to do different things with it and to experiment with different craft cocktails that are traditionally made with other spirits," says Gilmore.
With a solid foundation that keeps getting stronger and a fully developed story behind it, we can't wait to see how Montalvo changes the way people think about tequila. Spirits like whiskey have had their time in the spotlight, but we I think it's time for a new "cool" guy to step up.