Interview with Cleo Rocos – How I Built Aqua Riva Tequila
We are very lucky to have spent some time a few weeks ago with the immense Cleo Rocos, once starlet of the Kenny Everett Show, Celebrity Big Brother alumni and more importantly, proprietor of the fiendishly good Aqua Riva Tequila.
Aqua Riva is a 100% pure Weber agave tequila, and is made with hand-selected, eight-year old blue agave plants to make an eminently drinkable tequila. It’s super clean to taste and is devoid of any nasties (the antithesis of some of the ropey tequilas that live in most pubs or branded bars).
Due to this process, Cleo is adamant “Aqua Riva doesn’t give you a hangover..no matter how much you drink!”
We can leave everyone to make their own assessment on that.
So tequila has had a bad rap over the last decade, with the UK market flooded with cheap iterations of the Mexican national spirit. We won’t name any here, but you all know what we’re talking about.
However, things have definitely changed for the better, from entry level to premium spirits, if you tread carefully, there are some excellent tequilas out there – hangover or not.
We have had a great time working with Cleo and Aqua Riva over the years and she has been an absolute pleasure to work with. This interview really doesn’t do Cleo justice, but gives people a little flavour of the tour de force which is Cleo Rocos.
What gave you the inspiration to start Aqua Riva Tequila?
I was in Mexico about 16 years ago in a boutique hotel. There was a very chic older lady sitting at a table by the pool in a wafty resort dress, working on her computer, sketching a design and laughing on the phone. I noticed that she kept drinking from a long, thin fluted glass. I asked the waiter what she was drinking and he brought me what was to be my first ever 100% agave tequila.
From that moment, my life changed and I decided to learn everything I could about tequila and how it is produced. My quest became to create the highest quality, most ravishing and also affordable tequila for everyone to enjoy. I created Aqua Riva so that barmen (my heroes) always had a top quality tequila to work with and one that customers loved to drink.
What were the biggest challenges of setting up Aqua Riva Tequila and how long did it take?
It was all a challenge. I spent 11 months with a master blender in Mexico creating my 3 tequila profiles. Then there are all the trademarks and banking/cashflow etc. I went to HSBC who have been wonderful in helping me to grow my business.
100% Agave Tequila is the most strictly regulated spirit in the world. It is origin of appellation and there is a huge amount of registration/paperwork and approvals at every stage. The Mexican government owns the word Tequila and has to grant permission for the word “Tequila” to be on your label.
Is it tough to compete with the global corporate tequila brands as an independent? What makes Aqua Riva stand out?
I do not compete, I just go out with my brand and let the bartenders and customers taste it and choose for themselves. Corporate tequilas throw a lot of money at their brands. The difference is that Aqua Riva has true provenance and authenticity. It matters to me that I am making a tequila that people want to drink.
I started by going from bar to bar with my little suitcase asking bartenders to try it. My label was designed by a 17 year old art student who I bumped into on the tube. I go to Arandas, Mexico and I love getting to the fields first thing in the morning for the harvesting and I go to the distillery to see everyone there and I jump on the production line. I always get excited to help with the bottling. I love my brand and nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing people enjoy drinking it.
The one thing corporate big brands cannot be is a genuine brand, with real provenance. We all want to know that what we eat and drink has real provenance and authenticity; Aqua Riva has both.
What are your plans for the brand over the next 5 years?
My plans are to keep growing my brand. Aqua Riva is now house pour in some very big national accounts including TGI Friday’s, Bill’s, Mojo’s, Red Dog Saloon, Gino D’Acampo and many bars and clubs nationwide.
Last year I started exporting to India and Aqua Riva is registered and has distribution in 5 key states. Aqua Riva is also registered in 6 key States in the USA. So I am working on expanding more globally.
What advice you would give someone looking to start a spirits brand in the UK?
My advice to anyone starting in the spirits business is to absolutely LOVE what you are doing and go out to create the very best quality there is. You cannot underestimate the amount of work/research it takes and how many roles/jobs you will need to do to make it happen. It is seven days a week, 24 hours a day. You live it and dream it. So you absolutely must love what you are doing otherwise you will quickly find it overwhelming. The best piece of advice I have is to prepare for success. It is harder to prepare for success than for failure.
And there we have it, some incredible insight into Aqua Riva’s journey and we think some great advice for anyone considering starting a drinks brand. As ever a huge thanks to the most influential women in the world of tequila…Cleo you are a legend and we salute you.