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Impact Seminar: Jim Clerkin And Ken Austin On Tequila’s Opportunity

October 5, 2022

Given Tequila’s status as one of the key growth drivers of the U.S. spirits market, it’s little surprise that the topic loomed large at last week’s 46th Annual Impact Marketing Seminar in New York. A number of veteran industry execs weighed in on Tequila at the event, including one of the category’s leading entrepreneurs, Ken Austin, who spoke on “State of Play: The Booming Tequila Market.”

Austin began by recounting his journey in the drinks business from his early days at Seagram and Gallo, through his time away from the industry as founding partner of Marquis Jets, which was sold to Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets in 2010.

Austin rejoined the drinks business with the launch of Avion Tequila, aiming to compete with Patrón, which at the time stood nearly alone in the above-$40 segment. The brand gained early traction—and the attention of Pernod Ricard—which put its muscle behind the franchise and acquired it in full in 2017. After a foray into Irish whiskey with Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey—sold last year to Proximo Spirits—Ken and his partner Jenna Fagnan joined forces with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to launch Teremana Tequila, which has soared to 1 million cases on a rolling 12-month basis.

“The Tequila category has been on a terrific run, and that will continue,” Austin asserted, noting that the biggest headwind currently is the spirit’s popularity straining agave supplies. He called Diageo’s $1 billion acquisition of George Clooney and Rande Gerber’s Casamigos brand “the gift that keeps on giving,” because it catapulted Tequila into the public eye like never before, and opened the door to the wave of new brands and celebrity partnerships now fueling the category. And Austin isn’t finished innovating in the drinks industry: two more brand projects are in the works from his team.

Longtime drinks executive Jim Clerkin likewise sees plenty of runway for Tequila, and he’s targeting the category with new brand propositions. Clerkin addressed the Seminar on “Retired But Still Working—A Look Back And Forward.”

Clerkin has covered a lot of ground in his 46 years in the business, rising from his first post as a forklift operator at Guinness, where one of his coworkers was a young Liam Neeson. He rapidly ascended the corporate ladder, serving in key roles in North America for Diageo, Allied Domecq, and Beam, before eventually becoming president and CEO of Moët Hennessy North America.

Most recently, Clerkin has partnered with investment banker Jeff Menashe on a new venture, Demeter & Co., where he serves as CEO. After launching non-alcoholic spirits brand CleanCo in the U.S. last fall, Demeter & Co. is gearing up for a second-quarter 2023 debut of Cierto Tequila in the super-premium segment. “I see a long way to go for Tequila,” he explained.

Clerkin also serves as chairman of e-commerce player ReserveBar as well as Onda Sparkling Tequila, an up-and-coming RTD brand that is headed for 260,000 cases this year and targeting 400,000 cases in 2023. “RTDs like Onda,” Clerkin noted, “are bringing spirits into new occasions” previously dominated by beer. If it sounds like he has a lot going on, Clerkin says that’s the plan. As good as the drinks business has been to him for nearly a half-century, “I will never retire, never quit,” he said.

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