Industry Insiders: Jonathan Rojewski, Tequila Entrepreneur

Great business ideas are often a matter of timing. For Jonathan Rojewski, the time was 2006, when the Mexican government amended its rigid tequila standard to include a category for flavor-infused spirits. With his business partner, David Campbell, Rojewski began working on Tanteo, the first line of infused tequilas, taking advantage of the rise of premium tequila as well as the growing artisinal cocktail culture. Rojewski and Campbell launched Tanteo in 2009 with three distinct flavors, which quickly become popular in such stylish restaurants and bars as New York’s La Esquina. We asked Rojewski about the genesis of Tanteo, its modern production process, and his never-ending quest for the finest agave in Mexico.

How did you come up with the idea of Tanteo? Were you always a fan of tequila? I had always been a tequila drinker and loved that it was a bit misunderstood and mysterious. In 2006 the governing body of Tequila in Mexico amended the tequila standard by adding two additional categories, flavor-infused tequila and extra añejo. This change in the law provided an opportunity to do something new and different that could take advantage of the growing craft cocktail culture.

Where did the name Tanteo come from? The name came out of a brainstorming brunch held one Sunday afternoon at a Mexican restaurant in the East Village. The table was covered in white craft paper, and everyone received Spanish/English dictionaries and lots of different colored Sharpies. I provided the parameters for the name: it should to start with a strong consonant, be easy to pronounce, sound festive, and be visually appealing. After several hours (and lots of margaritas) we had our name.

How long did it take to develop the various flavors of Tanteo, and how did you decide on Jalapeño, Tropical, and Cocoa? Tanteo took two years to develop. The flavors are inspired by Mexican cuisine. The Jalapeño was first, and was the inspiration for the company. Tropical is inspired by the Mexican fruit cart vendors with freshly cut fruit topped with diced chilies, salt, and a squeeze of lime. And Cocoa is inspired by the traditional Mexican mole sauce.

What is your facility like in Mexico? Where does the agave come from, and where do you source the other ingredients? The distillery is modern and clean. All of the equipment that we use in our production has been custom-designed and purpose built. The agave comes from a family-owned farm 10 minutes from the distillery. All the agave used in the production of Tanteo is individually selected and tested to ensure the highest quality and sugar content. The infusion ingredients are hand selected by me and come from small local/regional farms. I spend about four to six months a year in Mexico.

When was Tanteo introduced, and how have people reacted to it so far? The first bottles were sold in NYC in January 2009. The brand took home many awards for design and for the liquid in its first year, including very positive reviews from various spirits writers. The brand is still small but there are no shortcuts in this business. A long-lasting brand takes years to build.

What’s an average day like for you? I wear many hats, and the job continues to evolve as the company grows. At present, the first half of my day is dedicated to running the business and the second half is dedicated to sales, out visiting with accounts – both prospective and existing.

What do you enjoy about your job, and what are some of the challenges? I like the variability of being an entrepreneur. One must be capable of handling several things all at the same time and keep the whole organization together and growing. The biggest challenge I face on a daily basis is time and there not being enough of it. You are always thinking, Did I accomplish as much as I could have today?

What advice would you give to a young person who wanted to do what you do? Do your homework before starting a business. Know everything there is to know about the industry, its players, competitors, etc. Then put your head down, get cracking and don’t look back.

What do you do to unwind when you’re not working? I like to run. It’s the one thing I can do no matter where my crazy travel schedule takes me. I’m particularly fond of trail running. When I’m running I can actually turn my brain off for a while.

[Photo: Guido Marin]

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