The Tasting Panel magazine

May 2015

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70  /  the tasting panel  /  may 2015 COVER STORY Driven by his belief in terroir and armed with a Spanish vocabulary competent enough to "get out of jail," Austin focused exclusively on sourc- ing the best agave from the Jalisco Highlands. The plants grow bigger and sweeter there, resulting in nuanced fruit- and citrus-focused tequilas—a style he prefers over the spicy, herbal expressions of the lowlands. Austin spent months vetting local producers in his quest to create the "best-tasting tequila in the world." Austin eventually landed in the Mexican village of Jesús María. Comparing it to a Burgundian hill town might be a stretch, but at 7,000 feet above sea level, it sits at the high- est point in the Los Altos region of Jalisco. As in most local communi- ties, a Catholic church anchors the plaza where timeworn, weathered men keep watchful eye over local affairs from a bench. It was here that Austin met the López family, fifth-generation growers and future custodians of Avión's agave plants. "I believe they deserve a lot of credit," Austin said. "We've had an incredible collaboration . . . they've allowed me to learn the production process using their 'pots and pans' so to speak. I could create the method and process I wanted, not simply an 'off the shelf' tequila as many are in the marketplace." Brand Propellers Austin cites the marriage of several key factors that differentiate Avión: the quality and care of the plants, three days of roasting in traditional brick ovens, careful removal of heads and tails of the distillate and a proprietary ultra-slow filtration system, all of which results in the use of up to 25 to 30 per- cent more agave than other brands. His Silver, Reposado, Añejo and Espresso expressions all receive the same level of small-batch attention to detail as the top-end, 44-month oak barrel–aged Reserva 44. Avión earned its accolades hon- estly—it won Best Tasting Tequila and World's Best White Spirit at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2012—but Austin and company President Jenna Fagnan had a little help galvanizing the public around the brand. Austin's close friend and Entourage creator Doug Ellin wove Avión into the seventh and eighth seasons' storyline for free (we hear Avión is in the Entourage movie as well) ; Oprah anointed Avión Espresso as "O-List" worthy; and hip-hop artist Jeezy dedicated song lyrics to it in "Me OK." With backing from prominent investors and friends like Coach Leather's Lew Frankfurt, YouTube founder Chad Hurley, AOL's CEO Tim Armstrong and successes in proving ground markets like Los Angeles and New York, Avión inevitably caught the attention of Pernod Ricard. Aware of soaring growth in the tequila category—volume sales of super-premium brands like Avión have jumped 481 percent over the past decade—Pernod Ricard sought to capi- talize on the movement and enhance its portfolio. President and CEO Bryan Fry said, "The biggest trend in tequila has been premiumization." The dialogue between Austin, Fagnan and Pernod Ricard opened four years ago. Pernod Ricard was attracted to Avión for a number of reasons, including a shared ethos with its leadership. "We got along quite well and have similar attitudes, values and ethics," Fry noted. Avión delivered a compel- ling proposition in its packaging, quality, and the buzz already generated around it. Plus, as Fagnan explains, Avión could "appeal to connoisseurs and convert non-tequila drinkers," and it had penetrated the nightlife category, formerly the lucrative domain of expensive vodka. Tequila has repositioned beyond its former role as economy booze for college kids. America's most popular cocktail, the Margarita, once practi- cally guaranteed a hangover from the ubiquitous tendency to mix cheap syrup with lower shelf brands. Now, restaurants and cocktail bars regularly offer patrons a range of trade-ups in spirit quality: the premiumization of the Margarita mirrors the evolution of the category. Fry knew Avión made a perfect base for the classic cocktail, but was surprised at brown spirits drinkers' positive reception towards their sipping tequila, the Reserva 44. "People who prefer whisky and bourbon have been coming over to tequila because of it," he said. Ken Austin (left), Founder and Chairman of Avión Tequila, with Jenna Fagnan, President of Avión Tequila, and Bryan Fry, President and CEO, Pernod Ricard USA. PHOTO: DAVID HANDSCHUH

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