April 2010

UpFront with Alma Tequila

By: Rachel Burkons
Photos By: Maria Schriber

Alma Matters: Introducing Alma Tequila

Nene Gonzalez (left) and Russell Terlecki have combined their experience and connections to help put Alma on the map on the East and West Coasts. The pair hopes to meet in the middle to continue their tequila's juggernaut.

Eighteen years ago, Carlos Flores, a native of Xamay in Mexico's famed tequila region, Jalisco, began to distill tequila on the farm where his family had been growing and cultivating agave for generations. He developed a signature recipe and distillation process, and sold his tequila locally for 14 years, but, until recently, Flores' super-smooth spirit was not available outside Mexico. That's when Flores reached out to his Southern California-based cousin, Nene Gonzalez, to help commercialize his product, now called Alma, in the United States.

Gonzalez, who had built a career in gaming and professional poker television programming, was a novice to the spirits business, but recognized that with a quality product and an ever-expanding market demand for tequila, his family's heritage was ready to make the leap toward U.S. distribution. "I was traveling all over the world as part of my job," explains Gonzalez, "but what got me enthusiastic about joining the family business was watching the expansion of tequila in many different countries while I traveled. I saw Alma as a global brand, but knew we had to start here in the States."

Gonzalez's first step was to create an image for the brand by redesigning Alma's packaging. "I knew that to make it in such a saturated market you have to stand out," says Gonzalez as he points to the gorgeous hand-molded bottles containing Alma's blanco, reposado and añejo expressions, topped off with natural wood caps. "It's a modern rectangular bottle but with a very rustic feel; it has elements of new and old that fit the Alma image perfectly." Gonzalez's second task was to take a crash-course in the various rules and regulations for spirits importing and distribution, as well as how they vary from state to state-a difficult task because, as Gonalez quips, "every state is like a different country." 
Alma's blanco, reposado and añejo expressions will be joined by a limited release of a three-year-old extra añejo in specialty packaging this summer.


Finally, Gonalez also knew that in order to get Alma off the ground on onto the back bar, he needed a team he could trust with his family's rich and flavorful agave legacy, so he turned to a longtime friend with hefty connections: Russell Terlecki, a man who would become a partner and the brand's East Coast Manager. Terlecki, who has a solid background in nightclub and restaurant promotion, including a 40,000-strong consumer email list, would offer the perfect high-end counterbalance to Gonzalez's West Coast efforts.

When Alma got its U.S. launch in May of 2009, Las Vegas was an obvious starting point, thanks to connections Gonzalez had established while working the professional gaming circuit; the California launch followed shortly thereafter, bolstered again by Gonzalez's contacts within the Hispanic community, a demographic that is key for this brand to tap. "I look at a lot of what we're doing with Alma as our way to give back to the community," explains Gonzalez, who has secured Alma's position as the official tequila of the Federation of Clubs of Jalisco, a group of Mexican-Americans of Jalisco descent who raise money for the region. "We wanted to target the Hispanic market first."

  While Gonzalez took aim at both on- and off-premise Hispanic-based accounts on the West Coast, as well as specialty events such as Disney's California Food & Wine Festival, Terlecki took a different approach when launching Alma in New York and New Jersey in the fall of 2009. Targeting his connections with high-end restaurants and nightclubs, Terlecki has managed to place Alma at some of the hottest accounts in NYC, including Delmonico's, Bobby Van's Steakhouse, Juliet Supper Club and the Tequila Library at Zengo NYC. "It is a perfect mix between the two of us," claims Terlecki. "I have high-end relationships with people who own restaurant all around the world, and Nene has a lot of connections in the Hispanic community all over the world. We will collide somewhere in the middle."

After picking up more than 500 accounts nationally within a month and a half of launching each market, Alma seems to be on a collision course with success, but no amount of marketing, packaging design or valuable connections can compete with the superior quality product that's in the bottle. Flores oversees every aspect of Alma's all-natural, small-batch, pot-distilled production-from slowly cooking the piñas whole, to aging the spirit twice as long as is standard in new Canadian oak barrels, to pre-chilling and oxygenating the tequila before bottling.  

Of course, in this economy, the bottom line matters. "Alma is coming to the market right when consumers are conscious of money," admits Gonzalez. "First and foremost, we're farmers, so there's no middle guy, which helps keep costs lower." Low costs, combined with a rich heritage and superior product, have helped make Alma a smash in the five states where it is currently distributed; but for Gonzalez and Terlecki, that's just the start, and this duo's connections will continue to help the brand flourish. "We have the ability to get to almost anybody," states Terlecki. "Once we're at a position to move Alma into other markets, and eventually other countries, we have the connections to make it happen."

Alma is brokered by Great Western and distributed in California by Frank-Lin Beverage.

El Cholo Falls for Alma

Blair Salisbury enjoys an Alma Margarita at El Cholo's Pasadena location.

Blair Salisbury, President of the HMS Restaurant Group, knows a thing or two about tequila. His wildly popular Southern California eateries, the famed El Cholo restaurants, have been a bastion of tequila devotion for decades, and with a new venture set to open this summer just north of Los Angeles in growing Santa Clarita, Alma tequila will bring a taste of tradition to the classic Mexican concept. "Alma is a well, well balanced tequila," attests Salisbury. "In the past boom, some people got away from what tequila is all about, so it's nice to see this classic product do so well."

Alma will be the featured tequila at El Cholo restaurants during the month of May for Cinco de Mayo celebrations, as well as at Downtown Disney's Tortilla Joe's and Universal City's Camacho Cantina.





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