Businessman Arturo Lomeli is tall and robust with a beard like a small bush and a nose trained in both the classroom and the boardroom. His friends call him Oso “Bear,” and the story of Clase Azul, his tequila company, is an example of study and planning, rather than instinct, and of a strange audacity and flexibility to exploit the economic and social reaches of the free market. Has neoliberalism failed? Does it lack ambition and social conscience? Lomeli’s business provokes debate on these issues.
“Where are the Mexican Samsung and Hyundai?” asked Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang. He said Mexico and similar countries have failed to develop production capacities throughout the years. Over 30 years and six governments, he said, the free market has been a philosophy and model in Mexico. While, by some measures, Mexico has failed to create unique products, it has also created objects of extraordinary quality, closer to pieces of art and technological perfection than examples of the serial exploitation of the free market.
Over 23 years, Lomeli transformed his business from selling $30 Teporocho tequila — a distilled rascuache in a bottle shaped like a man with a mustache and a hat — to a luxury drink in the vein of the finest cognac: Clase Azul Ultra, retails for $1,800 extra aged for five years in reclaimed sherry casks.
It’s the Rolls-Royce of tequilas is an art collection called “Mexico through the time” aged 15 years in port and sherry barrels and bottled in sculpted ceramics and decorated by artisans with ancient amber and precious metals, plus a box of olinalá to put it to rest. All for a staggering cost of $30,000 USD.
Lomeli was born in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco, the land of tequila. In his mother’s kitchen, the family would gather to extract the little red seeds of pomegranates providing cover for the chiles — to make a punch with tequila, rum or mezcal and sweetened with honey or sugar.
In 1997, Lomeli and a friend founded the Teporocho tequila company, making all the possible mistakes: a throw-away bottle and an elemental design that included a little straw hat. Disoriented, Lomeli pursued a master’s degree in marketing and, after three months, found some answers. He quoted his partner as saying that the business had no competitive or cost advantage: “We have to burn everything and invest. Make another formula.” His partner told him he had no time or money.
Lomeli decided to go it alone. He asked his father for a loan and followed the advice of his thesis adviser: Create a tequila specific to a region of Mexico, with an add-on that is original to that region. Lomeli ruled out vanilla, raicilla and sotol, until one product made sense to him: talavera pottery.
He discovered in Puebla that the way talavera pottery is produced didn’t allow for the bottles to be sealed and that their firing produced lead. His sister helped him design a bottle that resembled a Gothic table leg, and he went to a factory in El Salto, Jalisco, to order the production of 500 hand-painted containers inspired by talavera.
In 2002, he was already exporting a few bottles of La Pinta — the pomegranate liquor — and El Teporocho, to the United States. He buried the original presentation of the ordinary tequila and created a ceramic bottle with the crude image of a moustached man.
It was a success with tourists. El Teporocho opened the doors of the airport duty-free shops to the company in 2004, selling La Pinta for $39 and Clase Azul rested tequila for $75.
A year later, Lomeli’s operations were concentrated in Cancun and San Francisco until Hurricane Wilma disrupted the Mexican port and brought sales down 50%. Lomeli took refuge in Los Cabos, where he was surprised that the luxury hotels did not ask him for free tequila, but rather for good service, training, and supplies. There, he sniffed out the trail of a different class of tequila consumers.
U.S. department stores were flooded with “premium tequila,” but the luxury conglomerates, including the French LVMH, didn’t dare go any further. Until Lomeli came up with a new concept: luxury tequila.
He agreed with his partners Juan Sanchez and Jorge Berrueta that the business model required investment in infrastructure, increasing quality, and raising prices. They did so and no one protested. “We concentrated on a niche that was the top and ruled out competing in the mainstream,” the three visionary “amigos,” said.
In 2008, their tequila was on everyone’s lips in Los Cabos. That’s how she met several celebrities, like the actor — a gallant with gray hair — and a supermodel. For eight months, they embarked on a project around the concept of a luxury tequila, and that was only the beginning.
“We didn’t imagine that we were going to be in the business of selling super expensive bottles regularly,” he said.
Lomeli considers himself lucky that he launched his luxury spirits as Americans were getting a taste for premium tequila.
U.S. sales of high-end and “super premium” tequila have surged by 67% over the past decade, recently surpassing sales of cheaper varieties, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.
Clase Azul’s most expensive offering with a $30,000 price tag features a ceramic bottle studded with items like amber and 24-karat gold. A collection of 15 of these luxury bottles were created to celebrate Clase Azul’s 15th anniversary.
Clase Azul spirits are made in Mexico, but Lomeli has no plans to market the product to his compatriots — although he does sell a few bottles to wealthy U.S. tourists at beach resorts in Cancun and Los Cabos.
Instead, Clase Azul concentrates on export markets in the U.S. and Europe.
“We decided not to sell to Mexicans from the beginning … because it’s difficult to make them change their preferences,” he explains.
In 2016, the company sold 234,000 bottles of Clase Azul, with U.S. sales up 46% from the previous year.
Lomeli says his tequila is for savoring, not mixing in a cocktail or downing as a shot.
“We want people to taste the tequila, to make them erase that bad memory that every single person has about low-quality tequila,” he said. “You can sip it and enjoy it neat without having that nightmare of hangovers.”
Connect With Clase Azul Spirits
Clase Azul is world-renowned for its superior quality and rich flavor profile. The attention to quality begins with the selection of the finest organic agaves and extends to the spirit’s decanters, which feature handcrafted artwork from Mexican artists, and are meant to add an additional layer of sophistication to the experience of Clase Azul.
Source: .zimbio.com, money.cnn.com, northamericanproject.com, claseazul.com
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