Airborne with Avión
By Don Winter & Rory Winston
Privileged Access… Tips from the Top… Memos from a Mogul…? No. We didn’t need one more of those columns that brandished recycled quotes from industrial magnates as though they were surefire formulas for amassing fortunes. Our age had a surfeit of how-to books where Google-searched aphorisms passed for wisdom and serendipity posed as science. Reading such ‘recipes for success’ often felt like watching a celebrity chef lend his name to a TV dinner. It didn’t bring viewers any closer to earning a Michelin star. And yet, as someone regularly exposed to luminaries in the world of business, I knew there was invaluable information to be had – stories worth sharing, lessons that could benefit both startup companies and newly ordained entrepreneurs alike.
After months of raptly listening to stories about my meetings with business dynamos, My Feature Editor finally convinced me that it was time to let our savvy Resident readership in on the secret. And so, I decided to go to one of the most dynamic entrepreneurs I knew, a man who eschews rehearsed responses and approaches situations with childlike fascination and passion, a man who truly lived with both feet planted firmly on a cloud: Ken Austin, founder and chairman of the very aptly named Tequila Avión.
After all, when it comes to flights of fancy, gravity defying leaps in branding, elevating the public’s appreciation for a product, and a sky’s-the-limit mentality as regards premium quality, Avión was a perfect place to begin.
Armed with an M.B.A., Ken Austin went from Price Waterhouse to Gallo to Seagram to Marquis Jet and also serving on boards such as Steve Case’s FlexCar (merged with ZipCar) – each of these roles an essential component in bringing to life a vision that was about to be born.
As Ken is the first to admit, “My time at Gallo and Seagram taught me a lot. I learned about what the ‘drink space’ entails. I could afford to make my mistakes and grow having the safety net of large organizations. Our company President at Avion, Jenna Fagnan, also did her time in this sector working for Moët Hennessy. This is a real advantage as compared with entrepreneurs who think they can catapult themselves into the billions by whimsically deciding to come up with the next spirit. Experience counts. It helps you know what to look for. The fact that I was one of the guys who started Marquis Jet also gave me clearer insight into high end luxury products and what the select consumer demands. In a sense, I wanted Avión to taste and feel like flying a private jet… pure luxury.”
The inception of the Avión Tequila concept, however, did not come by way of careful deliberation but arrived with the force of a revelation. As Ken admits, “Intuition is my best ally… having the spider senses telling me whether this or that person is right to align with, knowing if a brand or product will serve a consumer need or finding a need that people aren’t even aware exists yet comes from a gut feeling.”
In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood movie, Ken’s intuition literally took flight: Ken sits at a closed NetJets poker tournament that goes down annually in Vegas. High stakes. (figuratively) Small circle. As the angle widens, we see Warren Buffett warily eying him across the poker table. The two men know each other. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns NetJets Aviation while Ken is president of Marquis Jet. It’s Austin’s play. He pauses; then orders tequila from the cocktail waitress. Buffett is wondering about Austin’s hand and strikes up a conversation about the Mexican spirit. Austin answers in stride, explaining that he is a “tequila guy” and aside from Patron there were essentially no key players to challenge the brand. Buffett finds this odd and says that is very interesting. Austin sips his drink and as he explains, “that was the moment I had the epiphany” and decided to head to Mexico to work on creating a superior ultra premium sipping tequila. The scene ends without us being told who won the tournament. Austin does say he knocked out his chum Dean Cane (known to many as Superman) and that Janet Gretzky who is a “heck of a poker player” ultimately knocked him out.
One week later, Austin is on a plane to Mexico – on his way to visit a family that has grown agave for 5 generations – the plant known for producing tequila; Jesus Maria in Jalisco, Mexico. Austin is eying the agave plantations. At 7000 feet above sea level, this is the highest elevation in the region. The rich soil and major temperature swings make this the most sought-after location for growing what is a considerably naturally sweeter agave. But Austin wants more. He wants to create an ultra premium tequila – one that people can drink without getting the ‘burn’ – one without that bitter aftertaste that Denis Leary in No Cure for Cancer referred to as the ‘old whiskey drinker’s face’. It is this ‘burn’ that keeps women at arms distance from the spirit, and the same burn that makes many mistakenly think of tequila as solely an ingredient in a cocktail or a spirit to be mitigated by limes and salt.
Weeks pass. Austin works day and night with the Master Distiller. Hand-harvesting, roasting in brick ovens for three days, getting rid of the heads and tails or the part we don’t necessarily want to drink of the distillate. Employing a proprietary ultra-slow filtration process, it is clear that yield or efficiency is a secondary issue. As Ken explains, “Our goal wasn’t money. The mission was to create a liquid of extreme purity that isn’t “off the shelf” tequila. One that maximized the flavor of a crop that took seven to ten years just to grow. It wasn’t just about going to a distillery and starting a brand. We go the extra mile without compromise. We don’t cut corners. It’s all about creating a consistently great product. To this day, I taste every single batch that’s bottled.”
The spirit hit the market in 2010. As for the next chapter in Austin’s story… Fans of HBO’s hit TV show classic, Entourage, are likely familiar with some of the aspects. The brand did more than make an appearance in the show; it became an essential component of the plot, a driving force behind the main characters. No product placement, no marketing money devoted to its inclusion, Avión was written into the script in an attempt by Doug Ellin (close friend of Austin and partner Kenny Dichter) to increase interest in the character Turtle. Turtle would be a kind of obsessed Hollywood entrepreneur with Austin’s interests. All the former idiosyncrasies of the character would remain but he would also take on parts of Austin’s own obsession. When we hear Turtle’s dialogue: “slow down; the bottle is a cool shape, I’ll admit that; but I’ve promoted clubs and I’ve bartended and the simple fact is that you need a bottle that’s easy to grip,” the information came directly from Austin’s own concerns as the Avión bottle was designed with just such a task in mind. As a side note, actor Bob Odenkirk – who was Mark Cubans partner – played Ken Austin on Entourage.
“The show made a big difference,” says Austin. “But we were only in NY and Cali at the time and most people didn’t even realize the brand was real or was such a high quality tequila. It may have brought us the 21 to 45 year old audience but we’d still get questions like ‘which came first the brand or the show?’ and this is years after I created the product.”
By 2012, Avión had won the highly prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition in the category of “World’s best White Spirit” and “World;’s best tasting Tequila”, having beat out all tequilas, vodkas, gins and white rums in a blindfolded taste test by scores of industry experts.
As with Entourage, Avión was once again included in pop culture without any marketing money being transferred: Young Jeezy has mentioned the brand in his lyrics in the company of Jaguars, Mercedes, Audemars, and hot women who were “On the Avion”. Meeting up with Jeezy months later, Austin was impressed by his perspicacity and work ethic and soon decided to make the hip-hop mogul his Multicultural Advisor. “The fact is, African American consumers are extraordinarily brand loyal and quality counts. They don’t get respected enough from marketers. It usually takes about 10 years to earn their trust as a brand, but in our case, we did it in 3 years. I think it’s because everyone can sense there are real people behind this product. Tequila itself doesn’t discriminate as mostly everyone will drink a fine tequila. Unlike other brands that could point to a target specific audience, our audience is anyone with good taste. The sole reasons we’re not the most expensive tequila is because I want the brand to remain an affordable luxury to all. Remaining attainable is as important to me as maintaining premium quality based on my personal values.”
By late 2014, Pernod Ricard – that had initially bought a 20% stake of Avión back in 2011 – upped its interest in company’s holdings by investing over 100 million in order to gain majority. “Pernod Ricard’s involvement was and is indispensible in terms of distribution. They can get into markets and accounts that are difficult for entrepreneurs like us. The better we did, the more the competition used its sheer size to try and stop us. Pernod Ricard put an end to that imbalance. The brand is still run by me and my team, but now that Pernod Ricard has more skin in the game, we are getting into a way larger number of markets. In tequila, there’s a limited window to become an iconic brand. We aren’t there yet in the sense that our brand is a staple in every bar the same way that Absolute Vodka, The Glenlivet or Jameson Irish whiskey is but, that said, we are well on our way and managing to break through in a market with an otherwise limited shelf and bar space. It is an amazing feeling to see people now requesting Avion in restaurants, bars and liquor stores”
When asked what accounts for his success, Austin doesn’t hesitate: “People, product and belief”, then after a brief pause, “Look, luck helps but luck many times is no accident. By people, I mean surrounding yourself with people you like and trust – those who are smart and very positive thinkers. Not cheerfully oblivious, mind you. Because I certainly keep a distance from Yes people and sycophants. I love people who are up for a challenge and know things can be done if they really try and work out how. Negativity is way too easy. It’s lazy thinking. Believing in things that may not be in the realm of the probable but are definitely possible is essential for any entrepreneur. You need to actually be able to envision results, to visualize them in your head. Working with people you enjoy makes you work harder because days don’t feel long and you want to win with and for them.”
Based in New York, Austin – in the words of Jeezy – ‘puts on for his city’. As Ken says, “Being part of this city is a big advantage and I love New York. It’s a clean market with a strict liquor authority, which I love. Brands really have to play fair here. I was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island and still work most of the time in the city when not on the road. Bartenders and consumers here are very diverse, demanding and savvy. I learn a hell of a lot from them on a regular basis.”
Now that Avión has mastered its many lines – Silver, Reposado (aged six months), Anejo (aged 2 years), Espresso Liqueur (with Italian espresso), and its highly sought after Reserva 44 (aged 43 months in oak whiskey barrels and an additional month in petite oak barrels) – and the bottle designs have been perfected, and Pernod Ricard is distributing, what was left for Austin to busy himself with? “Besides brand related things, mostly blocking and tackling… meaning getting everyone to taste Avión at least once and hopefully falling in love with it.”
As my Feature Editor and I reread the final draft of the Austin interview, we decided a final toast was in order. And so we downed a glass of his remarkable tequila and called it a day. It did not take long before the two of us looked at each other, recalling Austin’s final words: “Once people taste Avión, it’s very hard to go back to drinking anything else.”
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Don Winter is the CEO & Co-founder of EMG, a sister company of Resident Magazine.