How a trip to Mexico sparked the idea that led to Cleo Rocos setting up award-winning spirit business AquaRiva Tequila

Known for being ‘slammed’ and thrown down throats with a lick of salt and a mouthful of lemon, tequila says hard partying and excruciating headaches. Or does it?

 Premium tequila is an altogether different experience. And it was this discovery that changed Cleo Rocos’ life. AquaRiva_Cleo_bottle AquaRiva Tequila launched in 2012 and is quickly becoming a spirit of choice. Brazilian-born Rocos, who shot to fame starring alongside Kenny Everett in The Kenny Everett Television Show, has been dubbed the ‘Tequila Queen of the UK’, reigns as the president of The Tequila Society, and lives the life of an incorrigible evangelist for all things pure tequila.

Already an award-winning spirit – a Masters Medal at the Spirits Masters – AquaRiva is selling mouth-watering volumes in Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Harvey Nichols, and Virgin Atlantic’s Duty Free range while proving equally popular at her private tequila parties with celebrity guests.

Available through a growing roster of high-end bars, restaurants, wholesale, and retail outlets across the UK, the company is proof that much like champagne, provenance and luxury still go down well in tough times. And it all started thanks to a spot of travelling.

Here’s how travel inspired Cleo’s record-selling drink brand:

Where were you when you got the idea?

I was in Mexico. I went out there about 10 years ago and like everyone else I had previously had the most appalling experience on what I thought was tequila. In Mexico I discovered 100% agave tequila. The lily plant resembles a cactus and like champagne it has to come from the origin of appellation. In the case of tequila there are only five states in Mexico that can produce tequila – AquaRiva Tequila comes from one region in the highlands of Jalisco.

Why were you so inspired?

100% agave means there are no additives and I realised that what I had been drinking was not tequila at all. Once I discovered proper tequila I was so inspired it grew into a passion. When I eventually started my business, I decided I wanted to make tequila that had all the components that I liked, without the harsh burn but still with all the flavours. I wanted to create a really high quality tequila that was not expensive and could give anyone a great tequila and cocktail experience.

cocktails_startupWere you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it just seem too good to pass up?

I wasn’t looking to find a start-up idea at all. Tequila became a passion and from then on when I was asked to do celebrity cooking shows I would do them just so I could use great tequila in the cocktails and cooking and show people that good tequila is a very clean, versatile and pure spirit. Soon after, I started to import pure tequila brands, but it wasn’t a business. I did it because there were some great Mexican brands and I tried these tequilas and thought: “Why can’t we get these in England?” After that a friend and I started doing talks and master classes on tequila around the country and it became the right move, so I cut out all the middle men and we just worked directly with the producers, the master distiller and the distillery.

How easy was it to start the business on your return?

Keeping up my enthusiasm was easy and I could envisage the future of the business. But the reality of getting there was not easy at all – I dealt with everything from the trademarks to the label personally. It’s extremely difficult to make tequila and secure the licenses and legalities. It’s the most strictly policed spirit on the planet and it can only be made in certain approved areas. The agaves need to be harvested at their peak, which is eight years old, so it’s not something that just grows every single year like a grape. In Mexico I had to find the master blender, the right distillery and the right people to work with – it’s very important that you have people you can trust and who can do the job really well. It’s a lot of hard work and I work with very good and honourable people, but I still go back and forth to Mexico and make sure that the standard and quality is maintained on every level.

What research did you have to carry out to learn more about the sector and the market opportunity?

I learnt all about tequila by being on the ground and getting involved with the brands which I had imported. Giving master classes enabled me to gauge people’s reactions to good quality tequila and teach them more about it.   I wanted to change the perception of tequila and give it its true image, because most people drink a mixed tequila, which is 51% agave and the rest is sugarcane-based alcohol, which is like drinking a liquid headache. I listened to people and the more I tasted, the more I learned what I like. I still go and stand in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose for six or seven hours and offer out samples – I love engaging with people.

How did you replicate what you’d seen overseas or use your experience there? Did you modify the idea for the UK market?margarita_tequila_startup

The cocktail industry has increased 36% in the last year and that’s the market I’m appealing to. I wanted to offer a premium product that appealed to both customers and barmen, so I’ve created a very simple, inexpensive, bar-friendly bottle. I met a young artist Jamie Stiby-Harris, on the tube and commissioned him to design my label. I didn’t want it to feel anything like a traditional tequila bottle. I wanted to revise the whole idea of tequila and make it a younger, happier, first day of holiday kind of spirit. It’s called AquaRiva, which isn’t even a Mexican name. It’s a modern tequila for cosmopolitan and stylish people. It’s essentially a lifestyle in a bottle.

How much did you invest in getting started?

Around £70,000. Every bit of work I had along the way I’ve invested into it and I’m the sole shareholder.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you’d describe as ‘success’?

It always feels like I’ve just started, even though we are in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. I went to lots of meetings with stores and went up against the big brands. I think I appealed to them because they get to deal with me directly. It’s only been on sale since November and it has already broken sales records in Waitrose.  Richard Branson liked it so much he took a case of it to Necker Island and it’s also available at Virgin Clubhouses.

Where did you go for advice?

I didn’t really take much advice initially because people said, “Oh god you’re not going to start a business in this climate are you?” For me it’s the perfect time to start a business – I feel there are lot more open doors now than when everything is going well and people don’t want something new to come along. There is one expert Tomas Estes – I tried my first margarita at his bar with Kenny Everett when I was 16. He’s one of the world’s greatest tequila experts and a constant source of advice and inspiration.

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

It sounds so boring, but it is so important to research. I can’t stress enough how important it is to ask around and find the right people to help you. If your business has to be set up abroad like mine, make sure you have reliable suppliers as you cannot let your customer down. When people are starting a business the enthusiasm can get the better of them, so it’s important to watch your expenses. Many expenses can be arranged differently – if you are going to get a trademark, a trademark lawyer will charge you £2,000 but you can actually do it yourself online for around £200.

What are your future plans?

To go global. We’re actually getting calls from the US, so we’re proactively looking for a distributor over there at the moment. We’re also looking at Brazil, because we have some interest over there and we’re considering Canada.

ABIGAIL VAN-WEST, published this post originally on startups