Put the salt and lime away: meet the startup changing how Brits drink tequila

Co-founded by former Big Brother stars, Sphynx tequila prioritises Mexican authenticity and craftsmanship to offer a new drinking experience.

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Tequila, lime and salt are the trifecta that most party goers consider to be an unmissable ingredient of a night out.

Regardless of whether a standard British ‘cheers’ or a poorly pronounced ‘salud!’ precedes the shot, most often than not the Mexican liquor leaves a burning trace behind and a foreboding sense of the consequences of drunken choices.

As a signature party drink, tequila has carved its place in the liquor industry. Before the first lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, sales of tequila in UK shops and supermarkets amounted to £17m. Between 2021 and 2022, they reached £33m, according to figures by the Spirit Business.

Tequila’s economic prowess in the liquor industry shows that Brits have a love-hate relationship with the drink, considering how it makes its drinkers flinch after shooting it.

Not everyone thinks that’s the way that relationship should be. At least not with the right recipe and the right approach.

As avid tequila drinkers themselves, Yorkshire-based Sukhvinder and Imran Javeed saw an opportunity for a tequila renaissance, where the liquor could be savoured rather than used as a fast pass to inebriation.

In collaboration with an all-female distillery based in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, Sphynx tequila is distilled with expertise rooted in generations of craftsmanship. Their tequila is aged in wine barrels, offering a different taste that characterises harsher tequila aged in whiskey barrels.

Distilling the right tequila producer

“The idea of Sphynx tequila was born out of drinking lots of tequila,” says Sukhvinder, in a slightly joking tone.

“Me and my husband went on this journey of drinking really bad tequila and then finding really good tequila, and not really realising there were two worlds – there was a tequila that you shot and then a tequila that you savoured and enjoyed,” she adds.

In the pursuit of launching a beverage legacy brand, the couple wanted to reinvent tequila in the eyes of the Brits. As Sukhvinder phrases it, it’s a British brand with the heart of Mexico at its core.

To stay true to that mission, they travelled to the agave capital of Mexico, nested in Guadalajara. The mysticism around the craftsmanship that often surrounds the harvesting of agave and tequila production quickly broke down upon starting the search for their distiller.

“I think we’d gone to about 18 different distilleries while we were out there,” remembers Sukhvinder. “It was just the same turnkey operation, the attitude with some distilleries was that it’s just another tequila going to the West – it was very challenging to find real, authentic generational tequila makers.”

At last, the Javeeds found an all-female distiller in the Mexican city – and built a relationship that has become a constant as the business enters its seventh year.

Giving tequila a second chance

Offering a new taste with its wine barrel aged technique, the new task ahead was teaching the British public a new way of drinking tequila. Rather than promoting it with its usual salt and lime package, they chose to pitch tequila on the rocks to bar and restaurant-goers.

Sukhvinder confesses that the British drinkers were not initially receptive to the tequila rebrand they were launching. Bad experiences with cheap tequila posed a challenge.

“I think it’s been more of a learning curve and a renaissance,” reflects Sukhvinver. “We wanted to take that challenge on because it’s such a beautiful drink, it’s unfair that people don’t understand how long this plant takes to harvest for them to just shoot it.”

The revamped identity they’re brandishing tequila with is aligned with a more sophisticated target market who wants to give the drink another chance.

The new face of tequila has landed the couple promising leads on partnerships with high end restaurants who similarly believe in a novel tequila experience. Their major client currently is Master of Malt. Following their soft launch earlier this year in March, Sphynx tequila has also started knocking on the doors of The Ivy Asia and Sexy Fish Manchester.

Turning your supply chain into your business family

Besides a smoother taste, the Javeeds wanted their tequila to be different because of the transparency in their supply chain and their work culture.

“I went to this one distillery that had millions of pounds of investment, and [the agave] just went through these machines,” explains Sukhvinder. “At the end of it, you had a tequila and half the agave was binned – that wasn’t for me, I really think that transparency and building a relationship will build your brand up.”

Sukhvinder and Imran, contrary to other foreign-owned and celebrity tequila brands, wanted to be close to their supply chain, rather than relying on industrial sized operations.

The repertoire of celebrity-owned tequilas is extensive. Supermodel and reality TV star Kendall Jenner launched 818 Tequila, produced in Jalisco and the brand has over 245,000 followers on Instagram.

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson also launched Teremana Tequila, using agave from the Jalisco Highlands. The tequila surpassed one million case sales earlier this year in April, three years after its launch.

Other celebrities who have also delved in the tequila making business include George Clooney, Justin Timberlake, Nick Jonas and Michael Jordan. Celebrity-made tequila is becoming ubiquitous, making it harder to launch a product that stands out from the rest.

To carve its place in the tequila market, the Javeeds chose to focus on authenticity and staying close to their supply chain by nurturing a more personal relationship.

“I think the beauty of startups is learning that if you stay with someone, you start building trust and an understanding, and then they start helping you and you start helping them,” shares Sukhvinder.

“When I looked at turnkey operations, I didn’t want to just be another number, I didn’t just want to be another tequila that had money to throw out – I want the world to see that even though there’s thousands of tequilas out there, you won’t have a tequila experience like this,” she stresses.

In Sukhvinder’s eyes, celebrities aren’t necessarily getting their tequila wrong. The problem is that they lack authenticity.

“There’s no real authenticity because they deal with so many other brands, so you can have a celebrity and they’ve got ten other brands to endorse that you never really feel like they’re true to one,” she argues.

In between sharing her experiences with tequila Anejos and Blancos alike, Sukhvinder shares with a smile that she’s found a second family in Jalisco. The couple travels to the Latin American country at least once a year to meet with the family of distillers and catch up over some high quality tequila (that is sipped, of course).

Raising a glass to the tequila renaissance

Sphynx tequila is not the first tequila to venture into a market that is already highly competitive. Whether it is celebrity tequilas or Mexican legacy names like Don Julio or 1800, it’s difficult to offer something new.

When questioned about how they confront the density of the tequila market, Sukhvinder stresses, “I don’t think we’re competing, I think we’re complementing it – what the current British market says is that we like tequila, we’re a growing market.”

Rebranding tequila is a major feat, considering the close relationship it’s formed outside of Mexico as a party liquor. The Javeeds are strong believers that this can change, despite the steep learning curve.

As for their next steps, the couple are planning on launching a few more lines, miniatures, more collaborations and, as expected, slowly sipping lots more tequila.

Written by:
Fernanda is a Mexican-born Startups Writer. Specialising in the Marketing & Finding Customers pillar, she’s always on the lookout for how startups can leverage tools, software, and insights to help solidify their brand, retain clients, and find new areas for growth. Having grown up in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi, Fernanda is passionate about how businesses can adapt to new challenges in different economic environments to grow and find creative ways to engage with new and existing customers. With a background in journalism, politics, and international relations, Fernanda has written for a multitude of online magazines about topics ranging from Latin American politics to how businesses can retain staff during a recession. She is currently strengthening her journalistic muscle by studying for a part-time multimedia journalism degree from the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ).

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