House of Coco had the joy of meeting the fabulous Cleo Rocos, creator of the 100% agave AquaRiva tequila and organic agave syrup, to talk being the only British tequila creator and producer (tequilera), advice from Freddie Mercury and the ethos of business over a couple of AquaRiva cocktails. It’s a hard life!
HOC: Cleo, so wonderful to meet you. So tell us all about AquaRiva, your tequila brand?
CR: Fabulous to meet you too. Do you know what having my own brand wasn’t ever the plan, it was a passion like falling in love with a rock and roll artist and finding yourself on the road!
I hated what I thought was tequila and I think most people are the same. I was in Mexico about 16 years ago in a small place completely off the beaten track. I saw this really glamorous lady in her 60s sitting by the pool in an unnecessarily floaty dress who was sipping from a glass and laughing campily. I asked the waiter was she was drinking as she was having such a wonderful time. He said it was tequila and I reeled in horror! I asked him to bring me what she was drinking and that was the turning point.
From this point I realised we’d all been cheated by not having real tequila! I started to pursue it and learn everything I could. My passion and knowledge grew and in 2009 I received a prestigious award from the tequila industry (CNIT), the only female honoured! I created AquaRiva in 2011. I feel that people are so worried about what they are eating but drink blindly. I feel really strongly that the tequila we’ve all had a horrible experience with is mixed tequila which is only 51% tequila, the rest is industrial alcohol, sugar, colourings, additives; it’s really detrimental to the industry!
HOC: Sounds incredible! How on earth did you go about creating your own tequila?
CR: In 2011 I went out to make a 100% agave tequila with no backing, just a passion. I’m scared to look back as I don’t know how it happened and I’m still scared! I spent 11 months working with a master blender in Mexico as I wanted to create a fantastic tequila. One that is truly great and that isn’t expensive.
The first thing I did was to go the bartenders and found out what bottle they like to work with and they all said a wine bottle. Then I wanted to work on the label. The label for my first tequila was by a 17 year old art student I met on the tube! I had a throbbing tax bill a few years ago and I had the chance to go into the Celeb Big Brother house. Under normal circumstances I’d rather boil my head in rhino phlegm but under these it was the only reasonable option! When I came out of the house I met him on the tube and he was asking me about being on TV and I noticed paint on his hand and I asked if he was decorating and he said he was an art student. I gave him my card and he sent over some examples of his work and I fell in love with it. I commissioned him to design my label, saying it had to feel like the first day of holiday!
I don’t want my tequila to look like other tequilas. I love my bottle and label they are straight forward and mean we can get on with enjoying the tequila. I don’t believe in the ridiculous packaging that most tequila comes in, there’s no point! AquaRiva is the read deal – not an imposter in an artisan bottle. It has won the best of the best in the world’s biggest tequila judging in the USA. I am so throbbingly excited about that.
HOC: And then you brought your tequila over here. How did you start finding your customers?
CR: We had this container of tequila coming over from Mexico and I thought, this isn’t really my field, what do I do? I saw there was a new flight path with Virgin Atlantic to Mexico and called them up to see if I could get a meeting to show them AquaRiva. I got the meeting and went too see them with the tequila and they took it. You can still get it in the clubhouses! So, Virgin was our first customer.
Recently I signed a huge distribution deal. Other than that I was literally going bar to bar to spread the word. I do masterclasses all over the place, in bars, in Waitrose, educating people about the sugar and other junk they are consuming. AquaRiva is a big little brand and I want people to be able to trust in my tequila. I’m in this for the long haul and when I’m doing demonstrations in Waitrose these people come in with odd questions who we just know have been sent in by the bigger brands! I do love tequila people but what happens often is that customers think that they are buying a boutique tequila brand not knowing that it has actually been bought up by a larger company a few years before and then corners get cut and the product quality suffers, telling a different story! There are no secrets with AquaRiva, I used to have my mobile number on the website, anyone could call me to ask questions!
HOC: We love how close you are to your tequila and agave syrup brand, do you ever see yourself moving further away from it?
CR: I am so passionate about it. I go to the fields where the agave is grown and see the sexy Beyonce agaves that get used in our 100% agave tequila and syrup. AquaRiva Organic Agave syrup is the highest quality available, gluten free, low GI and is used by people like Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsey and Gino D’Campo which makes me hugely proud.
I just want everyone to have the experience I had! I want my tequila to feel like the first day of a holiday which is how you feel when you drink it. [You feel] more happy and divine, more like Mykonos, Ibiza and Monte Carlo.
Not so long ago, I was invited to speak at King’s College. The other people who were speaking had notes and iPads and I just got up there and said “I can just tell you what happened, I’m still on the journey”! On the panel discussion we were asked what the biggest drive was for our businesses and I said it was enthusiasm and passion. You don’t feel pain, you see where you need to be and you aim for it!
I own 100% of my business and, if I’m honest, I can’t see myself putting the same amount of energy into something I don’t own. When it’s yours you half dream ideas at 3.30am in the morning and suddenly an email pops back into your head that you didn’t send….If I didn’t own it I don’t know if I could get by on the little sleep I do get!
I remember Freddie Mercury once told me (when I was first getting into television) to always remember the early days. The days when you are scared and don’t know what it’s going on, those are the best days. Once things happen people try to box you. I also feel that you aren’t pushing hard enough if you don’t feel like a lemming clinging to the clifftop!
HOC: Looking at everything you’ve achieved in your career to date we’d say you definitely have an entrepreneurial spirit, where does that come from?
CR: My life has just come together, all the best things just seem to happen! It truly all started as I was late for a ballet class running across a carpark and I’m scared to think what could have happened if I had been on time. It’s all about the moments! I always feel like I’m running through the fire and I hope I can make it through. You have to move on your gut instinct to stay ahead.
For instance, we had this situation where we had contracts coming in and our prices were going up and I needed to pre-buy tequila, fast! So I went to the HSBC bank and I knew I had to get the money. We met at 9:30am and I arrived with my tequila and freshly squeezed lime and my agave and told them all about my brand. We’re all in a boardroom and we shook up some cocktails; they tried not to look too shocked. Needless to say, the meeting went well!
I’m experience and passion drive about building the brand. Money doesn’t matter to me, the brand matters.
HOC: You said you are one of few female tequila makers, what’s it like being a woman in this industry?
It’s a very male dominated industry and I don’t know if it’s because I have brothers and love being with men but I’ve been treated with nothing but respect. I think people can tell that I’m serious! Something I’ve learnt as well is that women have amazing palates and we have far more receptors than men, it’s a natural thing. I never consider myself a woman in business at all, it gives me a strange sense of fear as there are some business women who hate men! The second you say you are a woman in business you create a divide and I honestly don’t think it matters. Sometimes I have to be reminded that I’m a woman as I just don’t think about it.
HOC: We’ve seen some fabulous famous fans of AquaRiva, how do you go about marketing the tequila and agave syrup?
CR: I was invited by CNN to do an interview and it went global to 290m homes which was unbelievable! We also do things like Twitter, Facebook and recently got going on instagram. It’s so funny, when I was doing TV if someone said they were following you you’d call the police!
I do love people but I have a bit of discomfort with the whole selfie culture! I am lucky to have a number of great celeb friends but I’d rather die than ask them to promote my brand. So when they do it’s because they want to, Holly Willoughby recently instagrammed AquaRiva which was great!
HOC: You wrote a book about ‘The Power of Positive Drinking’ , what does a good cocktail mean to you?
CR: We have the best AquaRiva parties, it’s brought so many people together. It’s all about being the favourite version of yourself – not being the office version of yourself. Cocktails should be the catalyst for those magicky moments. The taxman can’t take your memories – yet!
The book I wrote was not for the drink industry but the customers and tells stories of evenings that started with a particular cocktail! Stories and moments that wouldn’t have happened without that one drink. I really feel that people don’t dance enough – you just need to go out and throw your body around. I think let’s just have a party – when I see a table at the start of the evening I want to know if I can dance on it. Oh, the number of chandeliers I’ve misjudged the size of! If you don’t have a good story, what’s the point. We have to be going up and down in life to be alive.
Everyone is so marketed to, people worry about age and I believe that it really doesn’t matter. You are either fabulous and you get more fabulous or you aren’t! Life is a journey, there’s no such thing as a mistake. You just think ‘that wasn’t very pleasant, I won’t do that again’. Everyone is trying to pile guilt on but we should just enjoy it.
Life is a journey, there’s no such thing as a mistake. You just think ‘that wasn’t very pleasant’ I won’t do that again. Everyone is trying to pile guilt on but we should just enjoy it.
HOC: Cleo, you are a fabulous girl boss and we can attest that AquaRiva is so superior to tequila we’ve been drinking so far. You’ve opened our eyes to the power of positive drinking and let’s share another Paloma really soon!
You can try the fabulous AquaRiva tequila and syrup in great bars around the country and purchase online at retailers such as Waitrose, The Whisky Exchange and Drinks Direct.