Yes, you can start a tequila company in Utah
Tequila is the third-most purchased liquor in Utah State liquor stores, right after beer and vodka, according to an August 2020 article from the Salt Lake Tribune.
Utahn’s have spent more than $2.7 million on tequila this year, and yet, if I had asked you to imagine Utah’s liquor industry, you probably would have thought of whiskey.
“Utah has been very slow to get on with the coastal cities in terms of spirits,” says Lisa Barlow, cofounder of Draper-based VIDA Tequila and soon-to-be star of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. “There are so many chic, passionate people making great products like whiskey or gin, but I don’t think that tequila has had it’s moment in Utah yet.”
You can’t make tequila in Utah
Barlow, a Manhattan native, was first intrigued by the tequila industry when her husband’s business partner proposed the idea of starting their own tequila brand during a business trip to Mexico.
Barlow, who was already enthralled with the culture behind the spirit, knew that the partnership could be a perfect fit and she went for it, despite living in Draper, Utah. “VIDA was the first tequila brand in Utah,” she says. “We launched at Sundance in 2007, and kind of fell into [the tequila industry], but we knew we could make something amazing.”
After it’s Sundance launch, VIDA became an instant hit and was later named as one of the Top 50 Spirits in 2013 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine (Barlow credits this success to a gorgeous bottle crafted by artisans who truly “get her”).
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Barlow’s decision to start an alcohol business seems an unlikely one―but she’s been confident in her ability to balance both business and personal. “Religion is a choice and business is a choice,” she says. “I chose to be LDS and I chose to own a tequila company. I feel resolve in both of my choices.”
That being said, “technically, a [spirit] has to come from [the region of] Jalisco, Mexico in order to be called tequila,” says Chris Cross, owner and cofounder of New World Distillery in Eden, Utah. According to Cross, the tequila industry is heavily regulated by the Mexican government, and unless you use Blue Weber agave and distill in the Jalisco region of the country using a certain still method, your spirit cannot technically be called a tequila.
Because Barlow wanted her spirit to be considered a true tequila by regulation standards, she opted to house the bottling/distilling aspect of her business in Mexico and then kept the rest of the business housed with her in Utah. “We [distill our tequila] in the most bougie area in the tequila region,” she says. “Here, the agave gets more rain and sun versus low-land agave so it tastes sweeter.”
Barlow acknowledges that being so far away from the distilling center can be tricky to manage, and credits VIDA’s success to her partners in Mexico. Good partners with good processes, she says, is crucial in order to stand out in the industry.
“We are partners with our distiller and when you do that, you just come to expect quality. We own our recipes and have certain standards,” says Barlow, and she makes sure to stay in constant contact with her team in Mexico in order to stay completely involved in the process. “I think [my partners in] Mexico make the best spirit in the world. It’s artful, chic, and gorgeous.”
But you can make agave spirits
Cross too developed a passionate love for tequila while on vacation. “Prior to opening New World, my wife Ashley and I used to visit Mexico two or three times a year to see how many distilleries we could visit,” he says.
When he eventually opened New World in 2013 in Eden, Utah, Cross decided to experiment with tequila, distilling his own in a specialized copper still and calling it an “agave spirit.”
Currently, New World Distillery is the only distillery in Utah producing locally-made agave spirits. Called The Rabbit and Grass Blanco and Repsido, both varieties are distilled from Weber Blue agave straight from the Jalisco region of Mexico. New World has a partnership with another local to Utah company, Global Goods, to import the plant.
Like Barlow, Cross mentions some of the hoops he had to jump through in order to distill such a unique spirit in the US. “The Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Bureau has been in a constant battle with me over the fact that we call [Rabbit and Grass] an agave spirit. The bureau wanted us to call it a ‘spirit distilled from agave.’ And just this last May agave spirits became an official type in the US. So now it’s officially [recognized as a spirit type], largely in part of the work [New World] did.”
Because of this, Cross is proud of what he and his team at New World have been able to accomplish for those who are passionate about purchasing local spirits. “It’s really hard to find a tequila that’s “small tequila” anymore,” he says. “You have to really do your research in order to find something that is still a local, family-owned brand.”
Though Utahns love local booze, Cross suspects that other local distillers are hesitant to get involved with the tequila industry, not because of the regulations, but because tequila and agave spirits are unlike any other kind of spirit from a distilling standpoint.
“Agave is a really tough fermentable to work with, and I think that’s one of the reasons why a lot of distillers steer clear from it,” says Cross, and he mentions that there are some steep expenses that come with the distillation process as well. For one, agave prices are at record-high levels thanks to the tequila boom of the last decade fed by celebrities such as The Rock and Nick Jonas, and agave farmers are struggling to keep up with demand throughout the industry.
Cross also mentions that the stills used for agave aren’t used for traditional liquors like whiskey or gin, and the specialized stills for tequila can be expensive. “It’s really hard using [traditional still] designs to make a high-quality agave spirit,” Cross says, and using the wrong still could affect the taste of your final product. Because of the added expenses, it can be hard for other distillers to consider tequila a worthwhile investment, especially in an economic climate such as the one we are facing today. “Tequila can be a very expensive mistake,” he says.
Regardless of the struggles that come with creating such a unique spirit, both Barlow and Cross say that being apart of such a tight-knit industry is unlike anything else.
“The spirits industry is very Mom and Pop and it’s very competitive, just like the tech industry or anything else,” says Barlow. “We need to give tequila its moment because it’s such a complex spirit. Distilling tequila is not like distilling gin. You can do that in your bathtub. It’s truly an art to make tequila. You have to be patient and you have to love tequila.”