No Pretenses, Just Tequila
By Jessica Slate
Photography by Leslie Hodge
Tequila is bold. Tequila is risky. Tequila is unforgiving. Tequila and entrepreneurialism are more similar than one would think. For Scott Willis, tequila embodied the future. A future where Austin’s fun and casual disposition was bottled up and represented in a local brand. As a result, Tequila 512 was born.
Willis moved to Austin to pursue music and the comforting vibe of the unique city. When working in the music industry didn’t pan out, he looked to Austin parallels to determine what his next direction would be. Austin is known for being lighthearted and fun-loving, and to Scott, this sentiment is embodied by tequila. It started as a hobby and pipe dream, but he was determined to make the perfect tequila for his new home.
First, it needed a name. The area code 512 is transparent, evident and genuine. Unlike many tequila names, it isn’t in Spanish, a language he doesn’t speak. And it isn’t micro-focused, it incorporates the entirety of Austin. Tequila 512 is as pure and inclusive as Scott hoped the actual product would be.
The goal: “to make the perfect anytime tequila,” says Willis. A tequila without a specific occasion. It can be sipped and appreciated for its profile, or it can be thrown in the blender on Taco Tuesday for margaritas. There are no rules for how to enjoy Austin, and there are no rules for how to enjoy Tequila 512.
Getting it on shelves, “the basic, initial concept was high quality, great tasting tequila, on the retail shelf, under $30", says Willis. He didn’t want to make a ‘velvet rope’ spirit for a town that thrives without velvet ropes, “This is a town of no pretense, but still high quality,” says Willis, and he wanted his new tequila to reflect that.
Maintaining both quality and reality was a balancing act. To achieve his dream tequila, he would need a manufacturer who could make an elevated product at that cost.
He had the name. He had the concept. Making it a reality took additional commitment. Sitting in the airport on the way to Mexico for one of his many trips to carry out due diligence for his product, Willis dialed up his boss, “I quit. Hung up, got on the plane, flew to Mexico without a job." After spending over three years balancing a full-time job, and being an entrepreneur, tequila won the battle.
Looming overhead was the continued need for tequila research and the naivety of entering a new and competitive industry. “If I’d come from the industry, it would have been tougher for me to convince myself to do it,” so Willis turned his potential apprehensions and weaknesses into strengths.
Without a full-time job consuming his time, Willis was able to focus on making Tequila 512 a tangible product. He started pulling together the pieces. He knew his priority was a quality product and he wasn't going to let anything stand in the way of that. “What’s inside [the bottle] needs to be the most important thing about it, no matter what,” says Willis. So he did countless tastings of sample products in search of what he wanted to bottle.
Some research doesn’t compete with the value of skilled local farmers. He spent much of his time consulting distillation specialist Luis Trejo. Willis learned the age to harvest the agave and how the flavor profile of an agave plant changes every year you wait to harvest. Equally as important was securing a location to harvest the agave, selecting a fermentation process, and deciding upon a filtration duration.
Willis wasn’t on this journey alone. Luckily his then girlfriend, now wife, was the perfect partner for the job. “I have the important role of the unsophisticated palette,” says Lauren Willis, “He knew exactly what he was looking for. Most people who drink tequila don’t. So I was just looking for the one that didn’t make me shiver when I tasted it.”
Lauren eventually stopped traveling south for the tastings, as they started their family together, having four children. Teamwork indeed made the dream work, as Lauren stayed home, allowing Scott to continue making trips to Mexico. The balance was challenging, but worth at least attempting, because in his own words, “it might fail, but you’re never going to know unless you do it.” This tequila, in a sense, was also his baby.
It took six years of tastings and samples, but Willis finally concluded that the agave harvested in central Jalisco, Mexico, specifically Tequila, was crucial to secure a specific flavor. Next, to use traditional preparation methods, “Stone ovens, roast [the agaves] slowly, let the ovens cool down, remove them, and finally, the extract the juice from them,” says Willis. Then, he settled on a three-part distillation process and the length of his fermentation, using stone oven-created yeast. Per Willis, “It’s all about the hands and the mastery of the people that are producing it…and deciding that this is what I want in my bottle.”
You’d think years of product design would be all the adversity an entrepreneur could handle. There was more to come.
Unlike the many popular Texas vodkas, to be labeled as 100% authentic agave tequila, it has to be manufactured in a specific region made up of five states in Mexico as regulated by Mexican law. “Those barriers that attracted me to tequila, are also the cause of the hurdles, problems, and initial issues of getting the product here,” says Willis, “We’ve streamlined it. It’s better, but there are still issues.”
After traveling down the dirt roads from the rural distillery, and past all the international shipping complications, Tequila 512 made it to Austin. However, once beyond the language and culture barriers, Willis still had to get bars and stores to actually carry the spirit.
He entered the tequila into spirits contests and found inspiring success. The Blanco variety won Double Gold and Best in Show at the World Spirits Competition, the most prestigious award. In the blind taste test round it won Double Gold again, as well Best Tequila Overall. This success was just the push he needed, “Once that happened, we decided, okay we need to figure this out. We’re either going to do some real fundraising, raise some money, and try to really build this up, or continue slugging along like we are,” said Willis.
There would be no more ‘slugging’ for Willis, as he set out to raise money. He refused to let his dream die.
With the money raised, he was able to rebrand the tequila and expand his team. Pre-rebranding, no matter what sales tactic Willis used, some bars or distributors secretly weren’t interested in the product only because of the label. With a new label, Tequila 512 found increasing success.
The growth didn’t deter Willis from his plan though. He was determined to see his dream become a reality. “If you have a strong presence in the state of Texas in the tequila business,” says Willis, “you could have a really successful, strong brand everywhere.” Willis was resolved to being a Texas tequila. Distributing for the sake of spreading was of no interest to him.
His 5-year plan includes having a solid command over the Texas market. He claims it will take focus and commitment to avoid jumping at every opportunity. However, it will pay off in the long run.
Tequila 512 has expanded to having three varieties, Blanco, Reposado and Añejo. The Blanco is “bold and welcoming. Just like the 512.” Typically, Blanco also referred to as Silver tequila, is aged for the least amount of time, making it the purest. The Reposado is a modified Blanco that has camped out in charred oak bourbon casks for six months. True to the translation of its name, Reposado means “rested” as its time in casks would imply. It also often takes on a more golden color as it takes on the character of the barrel. Similarly, the Añejo is rested in bourbon casks for an entire year and takes on the flavor and aroma of the nearby mango fields. Añejo translates to “vintage” reminding you of the more extended resting time, making it the most known for sipping.
These tequilas are available in nearly 700 locations. A significant improvement from Willis was going bar to bar to sell his product to anyone who would take it. Tequila 512 is in bars, restaurants, liquor stores, all over and especially in Austin.
With the company’s growth, they have been able to give back, “Part of being a local brand is being part of the fabric of the community,” says Willis. Tequila 512 looks for local opportunities where it’s appropriate and expects nothing, not even an Instagram shoutout in return.
It has taken ten years now to get to this point, but Willis sees the reward. “If you have an idea for something, even if it’s joining a crowded tequila market, great. Do it. It may change your life in the best ways ever.” A marriage, four children, three tequila variations, and expanding growth in the state of Texas; Willis accomplished everything he set out to do and more, and it all began with an idea.
All entrepreneurs have to take some leap of faith. They take risks. They’re bold. They are not dissimilar to tequila. Willis is able to capture both the culture of Austin and the nature of entrepreneurialism with Tequila 512 and share it with the community he cares so much about.
To learn more about Tequila 512 and find out where you can purchase it visit their website, Tequila512.com.