One on One with Don Julio’s Global Brand Ambassador, Deano Moncrieffe
Don Julio was the first luxury premium tequila founded by Don Julio Gonzalez. His passion for the brand has pushed him to improve on every aspect of the spirit making it what it is now. Their popular products include The Blanco, Anejo, Reposado and The 1942. Their most premium brand is The Real. This year, Don Julio sought to enhance the customer experience by offering mentorship sessions with the very first Don, their global brand Ambassador Deano Moncrieffe.
The ambassador who is here from 28th January to 4th February will take charge of mentoring bartenders, mixologists, and connoisseurs on the heritage of tequila and the ultimate Don Julio experience. His visit here will culminate in the annual Pan African Arts and Cultural Festival; Africa Nouveau which is set to be held on 3rd February 2018 at the Ngong Race Course Water Front. Their new Don Julio Draft and Craft mobile bar will be the one to look out for. I sat down with him to get to know more about his world in the tequila business.
Please tell us a little about yourself
I was born in London. My parents are both Jamaican but my dad is half-French. I lived in Jamaica for a little while. I, however, started travelling at a very young age because I felt I needed to see the world. Nobody in London knows this but I went to Paris because I had dreams of becoming an accomplished author, I had even published my very own poetry book.
So what inspired you to get into the bar industry?
I actually got into it by accident. Once I was in Paris, I very quickly realized that I could not sell enough books to sustain myself so I became a bartender. The very first bar I worked in, I met an amazing manager who for some reason told me he would take me under his wing and teach me everything he knew. And I loved the experience. I also had to learn how to speak French which was also great. The little bar I worked in had a combination of locals and tourists. They also used to have live music so it made the experience all the better. I used to work well into 5 am in the morning but I absolutely loved it. I actually entered into a bartender competition about 9 months later. I later travelled around Europe and got a chance to work as a bartender in many other countries.
What prompted you to work with tequila?
As a bartender, you are surrounded by very many different spirits. I grew up around rum because of my parents. So I grew up surrounded by a certain culture which was great at that time. However, when you travel the world you are introduced to very many drinks. From my background, I did not know much about tequila but eventually, I got to try and it and I loved it. I believe different types of alcohol give you different sensations. The feeling I got from tequila was amazing. I also believe tequila is unique. It brings people together. I remember actually asking one of the master distillers at Don Julio who is one of my mentors, which was the best way to drink tequila and he gave the perfect answer- In good company.
How long have you been working with Don Julio and how has been the experience?
I have been with Don Julio for about 9 years now. I first started working with a marketing agency for about 7 months. I approached the brand and told them that I would love to work with them but then a mixologist job came up so I took it. Later, the agency set me up with a vodka job but I kept tapping on that door because I really wanted to work with Don Julio and eventually it happened. The experience has been so amazing because I get to travel the world and meet so many different people. I also get to learn more and more about tequila and how it can be used to cater to the various needs of different people in the market.
What makes Don Julio so unique?
All tequilas are made from the Blue Agave plant. Tequila production is actually only legal in Mexico in 5 different states with Jalisco state having the bulk of the production. When Don Julio Gonzalez, the original founder of Don Julio, had the idea to start making tequila, he decided to do things differently. He spaced the plants wider apart so that they could get more sunlight, he harvested the product 7-12 years as opposed to the 6 years people were used to, and he let the plant product stay in the oven for a longer time. All these changes made the end result way better. So much so that other tequila brands decided to do the same. Tequila in itself is a very versatile product in the market. Most people may misunderstand it and think that it gives you massive hangovers. However, it depends on how you take it. The beauty of luxury tequila such as Don Julio is that you can take it without adding any soda or lime. Simply just take it slowly while chilling with a few friends. That way you get to really enjoy it.
How many countries have you visited as Don Julio’s brand Ambassador and what makes Kenya so uniquely placed for the brand?
I have literally been all over the world. This is, however, my first time in Kenya and Africa as well. I am really excited to be here because this is a relatively new market in the luxury tequila business and it is great to be here to see the start of the business. When bartenders and customers realize how versatile tequila is, there is nowhere to go but up. The luxury brand category is actually the second fastest growing alcohol brand in the world.
When it comes to Kenya, this region has been blessed with a great climate all year round which works perfectly for outdoor events. Secondly, people do not want to wait that long for something so the local ingredients that one can use to make cocktails are diverse. We actually came here with an idea of the cocktails we wanted to make but when we got here and got into the supermarkets we loved the different local ingredients. So we tried them out. I especially loved the tree tomatoes and the mangos. I found them to be exceptionally sweet. Also, you will find that products like coconut water or sugarcane water taste very differently here as opposed to what I am used to back at home so this gives us such great products to work with. We will serve a few of these drinks at the Africa Nouveau Festival coming up so people can have a chance to try them out.
During your stay here you will be mentoring bartenders, mixologists, and connoisseurs. What is the importance of such programs?
The mentorship program is an avenue to teach various people who work in the bar industry about tequila as a category. I can teach them on how to use the versatility of the product to cater to the needs of their customers. Here in Kenya, I will be mentoring about 30-50 people in a couple of bars. At the end of this week, I will also mentor a few other people in Germany.
The idea is to keep the conversation open. I never have a set script when mentoring. I let the audience ask questions about what they want to know. It is a great opportunity to have conversations about competition in the market, the history of the bar industry, trends, ingredients etc. There is so much information that can be shared in such forums. I too learn from these people. At the end of the session, I will also get to make a cocktail or two just to give them an idea of how to work with the brand itself.
Having been in the industry for a while now, what are some of the challenges and opportunities that you have experienced?
I have been in this business for over 13 years now. One of the things I have had to learn is how to pace my days. Every day is different. Some days I am out talking to people, other days I am taking interviews and other days I am in the office coming up with strategies on how to boost the brand. It takes a while to find a balance to all those things.
When I started I felt like a fish out of water. There is much I did not know but I learned that it is about being open to learning more every day. I have had a chance to interact with some experts who are masters in their craft which have been of great help to me.
Also one of the things I have enjoyed watching is how the drinking culture has changed over the years. The way that people used to take alcohol has changed. Be it the drinking flasks, or drinking habits or even alcohol packaging.
What are some of the lessons you have learned over the years?
It is important to be humble in different markets. Do not go into these markets and assume that you know everything about them. The drinking culture is primarily based on the people who consume it and you cannot know everything about places you have never lived or people you have never interacted with. Take your time to know how a market works so you can adequately be equipped to cater to the needs of the people in that market.
Are there any tips or tricks that you can share on how best to drink your tequila?
Truthfully, I cannot tell anyone how they should drink their tequila. As a luxury brand, we cannot push for mixing it with other products. For example, I prefer to take mine as it is. However, there are those who prefer to mix it with lime or soda. So if you are having your friends over and you have some lime in the house, then by all means, enjoy yourselves. The company essentially is what matters. When making your own drinks, you can grill the lemons a little before use then sprinkle them with some salt for flavour.
What are the plans for the Africa Nouveau Festival?
I am really excited about getting to talk to people about our tequila. We will set up a craft and draft bar. It will actually be the first of its kind outside The United States and Europe. So here we will serve the drinks I had talked about earlier that we have been working on. It will lovely to see people try them out and hear their feedback on the same.
What would be your advice to anyone who wants to get into the bar industry?
One of the biggest eye-openers for me when I got into the business is seeing how many people were in this business. I met so many people and I had no idea what their job titles really meant. What it made me realize is that there are so many people in this industry. From the people who are working on the farms, those who create the product, to those who make the labels etc. There are so many jobs here. So you may start as a bartender but you do not know where you can end up.
From a person who got into this business accidentally, do not think that you can only be a bartender for a short while. This is what I do. This is my career; it is what I am passionate about. I have been able to travel so far and meet great people. One thing about this industry is that the job is whatever you want it to be. Be willing to learn. You must know your craft. One of my mentors actually told me to read behind the bottles. You can find out so much information about a product or brand just by reading the information behind the back of a bottle.
Any future plans for Don Julio?
We are looking into getting into new and strong partnerships with other companies all over the world, especially in countries we have not quite ventured into. We also seek to educate people about the products we offer and about the differences between good and bad tequila. You should look out for the 100% Agave print on the bottle because if it does not have that, it means there are other additives. There are also plans to produce a new limited edition which we will release sometime next year. However we really want to build on the brands we already have; the Blanco, Reposado and the Anejo.