When Rikki Kelly launched Ego Tequila in Dallas, Texas, this year, she became part of a select group of Black- and women-owned brands in the growing spirits industry in the United States. Hers is the first Black woman-founded tequila in Texas and only the third in the country. And she has set out to make her mark in a competitive landscape that has for long been the domain of older, white, male leadership.
Ego Tequila is currently available in Texas and Kelly is looking to expand to Florida next — given interest received from the area via social media and the website — and working on getting nationwide shipping by the end of the year. Available as a blanco and reposado, with a possible anejo in the works for later, she has her sights set on making this a brand for tequila aficionados looking for something new to try or a good sipping tequila to drink at home. Also differentiating Ego in the tequila world is its branding and affordability compared to other big names.
Learning on the Go
“We just launched. I'm working on building a lot of brand awareness and gaining more exposure in the DFW area and in the Houston, San Antonio and Austin area as well,” Kelly shares. “I started this brand two years ago, but it was a pretty long process, and it was honestly a challenge. I wouldn't have this brand if it wasn't for my mom because she has been in my corner since day one.”
Without a lot of resources, startup funding and experience in the industry, it took some time for Kelly to get to the launching phase — working on details like the labeling, finding the right bottles and caps, and working with the distillery that produces the tequila all on her own. “Not having the experience in this industry, I wasn't sure how to go talk to retailers, who I needed to speak with or how I needed to approach them. Given where we're at now, I think I did a pretty good job.”
On her learning lessons launching her tequila brand, she says, “One is making good decisions. Every opportunity presented to me doesn't mean that I need to take it. Another is smarter choices on making sure I have adequate funding before jumping off and doing something that I cannot even afford.”
The entire venture has been funded by Kelly’s paychecks as startup loans weren’t available — without any revenue coming in or a super high credit score, she didn’t qualify. With a background in accounting and the construction industry, Kelly’s move to the spirits world is driven by an early interest in entrepreneurship and a passion for quality tequila. “I got my first job two weeks after I turned 15 and I knew eventually I want to work for myself, start a business,” she says. “I always enjoyed really good tequila and got tired of seeing celebrities coming up with liquor brands.”
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Building the Business
In researching the spirits industry and seeing how tequila was having its moment in the spotlight, Kelly decided it would be an equally challenging and rewarding pursuit. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. “I'm going to be honest, once I started investing all my time and money, I didn't think I did a lot of research, and I should have done a little bit more,” she admits.
“This is very tedious…but I've already invested a lot of money into it, so I can't back out. There's just too much I've already put in.” Striking to the eye is the bold and vivid imagery on the labels. “Branding was important to me because being in a competitive industry, especially with celebrities, you have to make something that stands out,” she says. “That's where branding comes in. I knew I wanted my bottle to be different.”
She observes that tequilas are typically sold in slender bottles with long necks and decided to stand out with a different bottle style and labels. As for the brand name, she says, “I named it Ego because I know for me, I liked the way drinking really good, well-made tequila makes me feel, just like a whole different type of ego, a whole different person.” Kelly worked with Casa Maestri, a family-owned distillery in Tequila in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, to handle manufacturing and production.
On labeling, she worked with a label producer in the DFW area, and her distributor is in Houston. “It’s a three-tier system. I’m the producer, I can't sell directly to the retailer or to the end consumer, so I sell directly to the distributor who then sells it to the retailer,” she explains.
When it comes to the product itself, the agave is sourced from the lowland and highland regions of Tequila and the water base is from an inactive volcano natural spring. The Ego Blanco rests in stainless steel tanks after it's distilled until it's ready to be bottled, offering a smooth and crisp finish with a delicate flavor profile starring hints of citrus and white flowers.
The reposado is aged for eight months in American white oak whiskey barrels, resulting in a smooth and complex flavor profile. Kelly recommends the reposado as a sipping tequila by itself, while the blanco works well for margaritas and shots or mixed with prosecco for a Mexican 75. And she has plans to release an anejo later for those with a penchant for longer aged tequilas.
Big Visions Ahead
Despite the pandemic gaining strength during most of the countdown to launch phase, Kelly says it didn’t affect the product release much, as she had completed most of the groundwork — research distilleries, visiting onsite, and etching out other details — beforehand. And while being on the younger side of the age range for a tequila brand owner might have posed some hurdles, she says most parties she has approached are open to conversation and learning more about Ego Tequila.
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For now, though, Kelly is laser-focused on expanding to another market or two locally and increasing brand exposure overall. Long-term plans include expansion, distribution in all 50 states, and possibly working on an international presence, starting with Canada. “I have big visions for this company, for this brand that it could be one of those big brands out there.”