We interviewed Scott Willis with Tequila 512 about their lineup, building a brand and challenges faced when launching his tequila line.
Do you want to tell us a little bit about the brand and how it got started?
Scott Willis: Yeah, so I’ve been in Austin about 20 years. Came here to be in the music business actually. Twists and turns led me to a real job, some sales positions, technology companies in town. Then, about 13 years ago, read an article about a guy named Tito, named Tito Beverages, who started a vodka company you might have heard of. For those who don’t drink tequila, he’s a very big vodka brand on the market. 13 years ago, read the article, got inspired and said, “Okay, maybe this is what I need to be doing. Music didn’t pan out. I didn’t come to Austin to do something in technology field. I want to do something fun, interesting, exciting. I’ve really just dove head first in and started learning about the spirits’ industry. I sat down and decided, “Okay, if I’m going to do this, it needs to be something I drink and enjoy.” Tequila was it. It was what I drank the most of. But frankly, at the time, didn’t know a lot about it, other than I liked to enjoy it. I went down that road of learning the industry, federal level, state level, production methods, types of tequilas, really zeroed in on the type that I like from a certain area that I liked. Then, found a guy online that was willing to drive me around Tequila. I flew to Guadalajara 13 years ago, or about 12 now actually, and he drove me around Guadalajara. I had one question for every distillery that I met with in tequila, which was, “Can you make my own flavor profile? I don’t want to put your juice in my bottle.” We found a distillery that was willing to do that at the time, called La Cofradia. Worked with Luis, the master distiller, met the family, got to know the family really well. We created what would become Tequila 512. I had no name, no money, no idea how to start the business back then but ended up coming back with about three liters of samples, tasting everybody that I knew on it. Everybody seemed to love it. I said, “Okay, this could be a real thing.” I spent six and a half years researching the industry, getting permitted, learning how to sell the stuff, learning how to be in the spirits’ business. I had no background in the industry at all. Then, six and a half years ago, my first cases arrived in Austin, and just started really selling out of my truck. I was driving around with a case of tequila at a time, knocking on doors saying, “Hey, I’ve got a tequila company, would you like to try it?” It was one store, two stores, three stores, five, 10, 20. Continued to grow. Got little over a hundred stores and I thought I’d finally made it. Then in 2015, we won the world’s greatest competition for best vodka or tequila.
Can you tell us about your blanco?
Scott Willis: This Blanco is triple distilled. As you guys are probably aware, it’s a central lowlands tequila. Ours tends to be a bit sweeter than most central lowlands tequilas. I believe a lot of that has to do with the fact that the location of the distillery is in a mango grove, which is very unique to that area. Our water outside is extremely unique to that area. It’s only found right there at the distillery. Volcanic spring water that we harvest right there on site. Triple distilled, 100% agave. We use traditional stone ovens. We use big stone ovens for steaming. They’re 25-ton ovens. Naturally cooled down in the ovens. Open fermentation tanks. Again, kind of ties in to the mango grove. We don’t say the mangoes affect the flavor, but we also say, “Look, it’s open fermentation in a mango grove with four types of mango trees that are flowering and fruiting. It cannot affect the flavor profile of the tequila in some way. Only here. I won’t tell anyone else. Once it cools down, open fermentation tanks and another unique thing for us, we take the yeast that forms in the oven. We have a natural forming yeast that forms in our oven. It’s after they cool down. Natural yeast, ferment them in the fermenters, obviously. We use triple distillation. We use stainless steel pot stills that are copper lined. Then, obviously, the triple distilled. That’s unique to us as well. We use a 24-hour filtration, and we have an oxygenation process. Which, when we were doing the oxygenation process 13 years ago when I found Luis and La Cofradia, there weren’t a lot of brands doing it. There’s a few more doing it now but that creates a fantastic mouth feel and really makes the overall flavor of the tequila a lot smoother.
I heard interesting story about when you were running the first run of your bottles. The tequila plant had some issues? Maybe an explosion?
Scott Willis: Oh wow, you did your research man. Yeah, my old bottle, my old packaging. Same juice in the bottle, but I had my old packaging. Actually, it was the same shape of the bottle, same glass, but we had different decoration on it. It was an agave plant, a wild maguey, with the Texas capital behind it. We were doing that very first run of decorating, and I get a phone call, and we’ve been waiting for months and finally get it, thinking we’re getting it done. They said, “Yeah, the plant that decorates our bottles has exploded.” We say, “So exploded, like blew up?” They said, “Yeah, and we think somebody blew it up. Also it’s the only plant that can do your decoration.” Needless to say, it was a bit stressful. We spent about three to four more months working with my bottle manufacturer at the time to retrofit some of their decoration plant in Toluca to be able to do my bottles. Wasn’t as good of quality, but we did get our first batch of a thousand cases down to Austin. I was off and running at that point. Quality wasn’t there. I’ve got a couple bottles here that are … I show people when they come in, and they’re like, “Yeah, put that away.”
When you’re in a situation, lets say you’re at a bar, and there is no Tequila 512 available, what are you deciding to drink?
Scott Willis: My current go to, honestly, is Don Julio. I think Don Julio makes some good stuff. I think it’s a good go to. It’s safe. I don’t want to try much new unless the bartender’s really pushing it. If mine’s not available and I ask what kind of good tequilas you have, if it’s the standard run of the Patrons and the cheaper Espolons and all of those, I’ll say just give me some Don Julio and I’ll drink that. Yeah, and it’s easy to get. It’s always kind of good. It’s a standard go to. Don Julio 1942, if I want to spend a little bit of money. Clase Azul makes some fantastic stuff on their higher end stuff. There’s some really good high end stuff. I tend to, whether out of design or just because I think it’s good, is I’ll lean people more towards the expensive stuff if they don’t have mine available, because I think a lot of the stuff that’s in my price point’s just really not that good, frankly.