From Down Under to Top Shelf – Australia's Tequila & Mezcal Boutique
We certainly never thought we'd be connecting with Denmark when we began our tequila journey but through the magic of the internet we recently connected with Bjørn Smalbro from tequilalist.com and tequila.dk. After some small talk about what we were each doing, Bjørn invited our director Bradley to join him for an interview about how he started out with tequila and the industry in Australia.
Q: Who are you and what is your background?
A: My name is Bradley Woolf and I was born in South Africa. I moved to Australia in 2001. I completed my bachelor degree in Business Information Systems and my master degree in Business Administration. I have always had a strong interest in technology and commerce, and I have always had a desire to run my own business.
Q: When did you start taking an interest in Tequila?
A: It is a long-winded story but is not too dissimilar to many. Up until June 2016 my relationship and experience with tequila was on shaky ground. I only knew it for being a party shooter that comes out well after midnight to take an already crazy night to the next level. It was in mid 2016 that it all changed.
Q: What were the circumstances that provoked an interest?
A: A good friend had moved to NY and was now getting married there. Fortunate circumstances allowed him to make use of his boss’ villa in Puerto Vallarta for his bachelor party. Having never been to Mexico, or the US before, naturally this was a party I wasn’t going to miss.
From the outset, we all joked about drinking tequila and eating tacos the entire weekend – still with this attitude that tequila was “that nasty tasting, cheap party shooter”.
On the Saturday we headed for Marina Vallarta to spend the day out on the water. Needless to say we were all hung over from the night before but that didn’t stop us from recovery drinks. The water was almost like a lake and it landed up being a spectacular afternoon. With headaches gone and looking forward to the evening, we headed back into port and this is when our understanding of tequila changed… forever.
As we played some drinking games in the forecourt of the OXXO waiting for our bus to pick us up, we were beckoned over to this small boutique that had a sign that read “Mexico Real Boutique Tequila”. Having had some drinks on the boat, we were all in, but it wasn’t what we expected… at all.
The inside was well appointed, and it had a classy feel to it. The tequila bottles numbered in their hundreds with zero brands we had heard of before – some were incredible in their design and presentation. As the clerk started to explain our apprehension away, we all grew increasingly intrigued and jumped at the chance of the free tasting.
WOW… what was this stuff we were drinking? Sweet notes of cooked agave in the Blanco’s, some oak, vanilla in the Reposados and caramels, cinnamon, chocolates in the Anejo and Extra Anejos (we didn’t even know there were different expressions of tequila until then). It was 100% agave tequila. We honestly couldn’t believe that tequila was sip-able. We had only ever had Jose Cuervo Especial.
It was at that point a friend and I knew we had to do something about getting good tequila back to Australia. I think we tripled the store owners yearly revenue in that afternoon.
Q: In Denmark Tequila has an unfortunate reputation as being a very cheap party spirit. Being the cheapest spirit in the supermarket, it means that young people will start their drinking career with Sierra Blanco and forever loose an interest in the better brands. How does the market for tequila look in Australia?
A: Unfortunately, Australia has a similar landscape. Many young drinkers and university students look for cheap ways to party and poor-quality tequila fits that purpose for them. The single biggest hurdle we have when trying to educate people about good tequila, is just getting them to try it. When they smell it, it still reminds them of the cheap stuff. It has tarnished their perceptions.
Q: What spirit do the australians prefer? I would expect it to be whisky or brandy….?
A:Yes whisky, rum and bourbon are big categories here. Gin has also exploded on to the scene with craft beer.
Q:When I started Tequila.dk some 10 years ago, tequila had a really, really poor reputation, but the trending interest in small brands, handmade stuff, special gastronomy etc, has also brought an interest in good tequila an mezcal. And we have some very good “agave ambassadors” in Denmark. How is the situation in Australia?
A:There is a resurgence of craft produced products and liquor in Australia. Tequila & mezcal fits that profile well. We are seeing an increase in people wanting quality agave spirits. There is something romantic about the rich history, remoteness of distilleries and skill that goes in to producing it.
Q:You have a really excellent webshop with a wonderful and elegant design. Can you say a little about the process in making it? What were your thoughts?
A: Everything is inspired by the idea of providing the best possible customer service and experience. It just so happens that we offer part of this through a website. With this in mind I set out to design an e-commerce shop that is clean in its design, simple to navigate and hassle free to check out. We started off on Squarespace and it just didn’t provide the functionality that we needed to offer the “wow” experience. After spending a considerable amount of time researching, we eventually decided on Shopify and whilst it has its limitations, it has so far proved to be a great move for us.
Q: And of course the tequilas!…. How did you manage to figure out what to have in stock? Have you been travelling Mexico or are you depending on reviews, samples etc?
A:Yes! The tequila & mezcal. A lot of time is spent initially doing desk research to find out about the product. Where it is made, how it is made, the reputation of the master distillers etc. If it is possible to get samples, we will of course take the time to review it. We also try appeal to the different needs of our customers. Some like sweeter profiles, some like heavy agave flavours, some like cheaper price points and of course some like the more expensive bottles.
One thing is for sure, we are constantly growing the range in both categories and have a lot more that we will aim to offer in the coming weeks and months
Q: You do have an excellent choice in brands. What are your favorites?
A: As I alluded to above, my favourites have changed over time. At the moment the Fortaleza blanco is a go to. Agave forward, rich vegetal and mineral notes.
I am also enjoying the Arette Gran Clase Extra Anejo. Particularly as we get colder months down here in Australia. The rich vanilla, caramel and oak are well balanced with the agave. There is a touch of citrus which I think complements it well.
We hope you enjoyed getting to know Bradley a bit better and how TopShelfTequila.com.au came in to existence. Please feel free to leave a comment below, ask a question or get in touch.