Mexican Whiskey: What Do People Think of It?
The growth of the Sierra Norte brand happened relatively quickly, following the same DIY approach that made Scorpion Mezcal a success.
"Nobody would buy mezcal to import it into the U.S.," remembers French of his distillery's early days before the mezcal trend took off. "That's not a trade barrier. That's a lack-of-a-category barrier."
So he founded his own import company, Caballeros Inc., with New York-based partner Barbara Sweetman. It allowed them to keep the product in American warehouses and ready to ship within a week.
The experience put all the pieces in place to hit the ground running with Sierra Norte. Exports began on the first shipments in mid-2016 and nearly 20 distributors signed up in less than two years.
One of the believers is Mario Marquez, a specialist for Pacific Edge Wine & Spirits, a distributor based in Southern California. "Sierra Norte received a lot of backing because Douglas French has that huge experience making mezcal," he says. "He was one of the pioneers in the production and importing of mezcals. This guy knows his stuff and he's highly respected."
A top account for Marquez is Old Town Tequila, a retail outlet in San Diego that specializes in Mexican spirits. At first, Sierra Norte got lost on the shelf when stocked alongside other whiskeys. But sales took off when it was placed alongside Scorpion Mezcal and marketed as a unique spirit.
"It doesn't keep on the shelf. It's moving fast,” says Marquez.
Buyers tend to include adventurous drinkers and fans of craft spirits. Even sommeliers have taken a liking to it. Bartenders also see the possibilities. "It works really well in cocktails too," adds Marquez. "Classics like the Boulevardier."
The key to marketing Sierra Norte lies in educating consumers about the history and culture behind the whiskey. That's why French and Sweetman rarely turn down an opportunity to attend beverage-focused trade shows. It's one way they helped break mezcal in the United States.
"I calculated that Barbara and I alone have given 180,000 tastings of mezcal to approximately 60,000 industry members," says French. "And that doesn't count how many tastings our distributors do for their clients."
So who is the main demographic for Sierra Norte? "Millennials," says French. "They seem to care about where things come from, what it's made from, who makes it and these sort of details. It enhances the value of the product to them."
"Another natural target market would be Mexican restaurants," says Sweetman. "A lot of them prefer to have a Mexican whiskey."
"It's a matter of pride to have their own country's products in their restaurants," adds French.