Uduimoh Umolu, along with friend and business partner Belall Taher, founded Jon Basil Tequila, a multicultural, millennial-owned tequila brand. “Jon is my grandfather’s name and Basil is the name of my dad’s godfather who made it possible to come to school in the States,” Umolu says about naming his spirit venture after the two men who have impacted his life.
“I wanted to pay homage to the folks who came before us and sacrificed to give us the opportunities we have today.”
The Stepping Stone to Entrepreneurship
Umolu’s Nigerian father left his country to attend the University of Miami when he was 17. His Ghanaian mother left her home country to attend college in London, then moved to the U.S., where the two met in Chicago.
Umolu and his siblings came along before their parents separated when he was eight. Afterward, Umolu spent years in London and Ghana, then returned to Chicago when he entered junior high.
The entrepreneur says he loved music and film throughout childhood and wanted to be a creative. “I used to want to do something related to that: music producer, director, actor. I still do, but it always seemed like a pipe dream before. However, we had a lot of financial pressures, which pushed me toward entrepreneurship.”
Umolu studied advertising at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign after high school, and a new passion was born. He immersed himself in tech while building a mobile app called The Mouve.
“It launched on campus, and I planned on using my advertising degree to build a global brand in the tech space.” During this time, Umolu had one foot in sponsoring concerts and musicians and used these connections to bring awareness to The Mouve.
“Through my authentic connections, I could curate authentic experiences that brought people together. Also, during that time, I developed an experience-oriented application. So to populate the app, I threw parties and events constantly to attract new users. This led to concerts by friends who were musicians who were becoming more well-known in their industry.”
With these events and parties comes alcohol consumption, but Umolu took a different approach. “I got on a huge health kick in college and discovered tequila was among the healthiest spirits you could drink. It’s also a stimulant instead of a depressant, making it my drink of choice. My favorite tequila cocktail is a Reposado Old Fashioned.”
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After graduation, Umolu decided to expand his horizons. “I was looking to learn more about the spirits space, so I went out looking for roles I could learn from,” he says. “I started as a tasting representative for Diageo products because a friend managed a tasting company that had them as a client.”
Throwing large-scale events independently and successfully also opened a big door for the future spirit producer. “I was tapped for a role opening up in Chicago to work as an event specialist for Brown Forman brands alongside their multicultural marketing manager, a new initiative at the time. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to learn in this role as well. All of this experience would help me launch my brand in the future.”
Setbacks For a Successful Setup
In 2014, Umolu and his current business partner, Taher, took their first trip to Tequila, Jalisco, the birthplace of tequila. “I love everything about being there: the people, the culture, the food, everything.”
The trip sparked the idea of creating their own tequila brand, and the friends got to work. “It took me four solid years to launch from idea to fruition,” Umolu says. “This was due to a major loss we took while trying to launch the first time working with a middleman. It nearly derailed and made us completely quit. However, I was able to use the lessons learned from the time and money invested to build us up to launch the product we now have.”
Umulo and Taher also struggled to convince an already saturated market full of A-list partnerships that they were serious about tequila. “Bootstrapping was tough,” he says. “You had to find creative ways to get your brand out there in a field already crowded with giants and celebrity-backed brands.”
Standing out in a very crowded market was challenging, but he credits his parents for giving him the determination. “Being a first-generation American, I definitely grew up knowing my parents’ stories. Being aware and empathizing with their sacrifices for our better future taught me not to take the opportunities or space we are in for granted and to remember that our work today is for our future generations.”
Expanding Jon Basil into the U.S. and Africa
Umolu said he and Taher are fortunate enough to have excellent partners that allow them to be highly involved in the process. “Our product is handcrafted, and we are intentional and passionate about the details and process of our product. I often visit Tequila and am on the ground for most fillings of our brand.”
Jon Basil started selling only in two local Chicago liquor stores before expanding to over 300 locations in Illinois, plus eastern Iowa and portions of northwest Indiana. The brand’s offerings include a blanco and reposado, and Umolu says they will start selling anjeo later this year.
According to the Umolu, both flavors are good and the blanco is a great stepping stone for those curious about tequila. “The blanco is smooth while still being boldly tequila. The ripeness of the agave creates a bold palette with many notes, while our distillation process creates an unmatched smoothness. It’s for those who love tequila and those who need a proper introduction.”
Umulo confirms they’re working on brand expansion, especially now that they just received another unprecedented accolade. “We are extremely excited about being the first African-owned tequila brand in Africa after launching this year in Accra, Ghana, with the Black Starline Festival.” He also says Jon Basil will expand into California by November with select partners.