The Inside Story Of How Michael Jordan And Four Other NBA Owners Launched The Super-Premium Tequila Brand Cincoro
Michael Jordan and Four Other NBA Owners Just Started a Tequila Company
How on-court rivals came together to produce an excellent new spirit
Michael Jordan’s table wasn’t ready—and it wouldn’t be available for another 40 minutes. It was a hot summer night in 2016 at Pasquale Jones, the trendy pizza joint frequented by Jay Z and Beyoncé in Manhattan’s Nolita neighborhood, and the billionaire Charlotte Hornets owner was about to have dinner with a few colleagues who were in New York for NBA owner meetings: Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss, Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens and Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck as well as his then-fiancée Emilia Fazzalari. But the reservation had mistakenly been made for the following week.
A wood-fired oven blazed inside the small space as they waited. Although they all owned valuable NBA teams, the group were virtual strangers: All had exchanged pleasantries in the past but had never really sat down to get to know each other. With no room at the bar, the group found themselves cramped by the hostess stand and started talking about tequila, Jordan’s spirit of choice, which the Italian restaurant didn’t serve but they had all been drinking when they met up earlier at Soho House. It’s the only spirit that feels like an upper, they agreed, and it’s low-calorie and can yield a lighter hangover. By the time they were seated, this multibillion-dollar table was discussing the specific characteristics they wished they could find on the shelf—a tequila with a smooth, long finish like a fine cognac or whiskey.
“That was when we realized there was an opportunity in the market to create a new tequila, a better tequila,” says Fazzalari, who spent 29 years in financial services, in part developing information platforms for the energy sector, and has been heading up the project as CEO. “We let our hair down and became true friends that night.”
Today, Fazzalari, Grousbeck and Edens laugh about their haphazard origin story at a boardroom table in New York’s Greenwich Village district covered with glass flutes filled with Cincoro Tequila, a portmanteau of the Spanish words for five and gold. Their parent company, Cinco Spirits Group, is named in honor of the five partners who bonded over tequila at dinner—and coincidentally the same number as players on a basketball team. Their four tequilas—a blanco, a reposado aged 8 to 10 months, an añejo aged for 24 to 28 months, and an extra añejo, aged for as long as 44 months—launch this month in 12 markets and will go nationwide in January.
Adds Grousbeck, nodding with hometown pride: “We sold 300 cases in Massachusetts in the first three days.” The first reorders came through as well—from Florida, where it was on sale for just a week.
In fact, Cincoro claims it has sold out in four markets even before its official launch party—a Pappy Van Winkle-like strategy in which low production leads to a cult-like following driven by scarcity. The company won’t disclose its inventory, just that it has produced several thousand cases.
Tequila-fueled gamesmanship aside, the idea for Cincoro came at the right time. The United States consumes more tequila than any other nation–about 18.3 million cases last year, or 56% of global consumption, according to consultancy IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. But that amount is still just 10% of all spirits purchased in the U.S., a figure that drops to a paltry 1% when looking globally. The ultra-premium side of the American tequila market (where the starting price is $45 a bottle) is also growing fast—a 19% increase each year since 2013. So the runway for Cincoro is huge.
This spirits category is driving a lot of interest, in addition to competition, according to Adam Rogers, research director at IWSR: Within the ultra-premium tequila segment, new brands less than five years old have grown 46% over the past year, compared with a rate of 9% for existing brands. These startups accounted for 38% of the ultra-premium growth last year.
Cincoro is now among of the most expensive tequila brands sold today. Its añejo retails for $130, a higher-priced alternative to Don Julio 1942 (at $120). And Jordan’s favorite in the new line, Cincoro’s Extra Añejo is in rare air—at $1,600 a bottle. Exorbitant to be sure, but still less than peers like Clase Azul Ultra ($1,700).
“We are competitive, and we are creators,” says Fazzalari, explaining that there are more than 100 tequila distilleries in Mexico that make tequila for 1,800 brands worldwide. “A lot of them are contract distilleries. You can walk in and pick a tequila and put it in a cool bottle and do a marketing play. It never even occurred to us to do that. From that first dinner, we wanted a tequila that tasted great. That was something we were going to create.”
But is Cincoro really worth that price tag? Its agave is hand-selected from two regions in Jalisco, the highlands (known to have soils high in iron oxide, which can create sweet, more floral notes) and the lowlands (mostly volcanic rock, which adds minerality). Often 6 to 8 years old when harvested, the agave is cooked for 35 hours. Despite Fazzalari’s dismissal of a marketing play, Cincoro is manufactured in an existing Jalisco distillery which bottles 96 other brands, according to Tequila Matchmaker, which tracks facilities and the brands they produce. In fact, the distillery manufactures more contract brands than any other in the industry, and some are even blends of highlands and lowlands agave.
After distillation, Cincoro’s tequila is aged in ex-American whiskey barrels for a period it claims is longer than other brands. Whereas Casamigos’ añejo, for example, is bottled after 14 months, just over the regulatory minimum, Cincoro’s añejo is matured for another 10 to 14 months. Its extra añejo is a combination of tequilas between 40 to 44 months. (If you do the math, that dinner at Pasquale Jones was just 38 months ago. So Cincoro’s current extra añejo was produced from the distillery’s private reserves that were hand-selected by the brand’s master distiller. In the future, the extra añejo will be developed from Cincoro’s inventory of aging tequilas.)
The partners won’t say whether they have plans to build their own distillery, but they have already invested several million dollars in the company. And they will need at least $10 million more if they want to grow, or expand to Asia, which Fazzalari says is within their sights. They may choose to make that investment themselves or bring in additional partners.
The tasting team, headed up by Jordan, Fazzalari and Edens, tested more than 1,000 different tequilas before deciding on their own blend. But it took time to achieve the flavor profile the six-time NBA champion was after. “The challenge was finding that balance between smoothness and finish, because what we noticed was that as we were making it smoother, sometimes you lose the finish,” says Fazzalari. “It’s very hard to get an ultra-smooth tequila with a long complex finish with a fine flavor.”
To help reach the team’s lofty goals, Cincoro has attracted some of the best talent in the industry to join the brand. Fazzalari now has 19 employees, including the former head of marketing at the Stoli Group and an executive vice president who was integral to launching Grey Goose and later built Patrón from 100,000 cases a year to 2 million. When Chris Spake, who’s now director of brand and trade development, interviewed with Cincoro, Fazzalari mentioned that if he were hired, she would need him to go down to the distillery in Guadalajara immediately. When she called the next day to hire him, he was already at the airport about to board a plane. He knew his references would check out. “I have tasted every tequila. I had never tasted anything like this before,” says Spake. “No one can replicate this, even if they try it.”
And as with most ultra-premium spirits, selecting the perfect bottle was paramount to giving the brand a mystique. Jordan focused on the design with his longtime collaborator Mark Smith, Nike’s vice president of innovation special projects. He envisioned something “sleek, contemporary and unique” from the beginning, and Smith brought it to life, working with artisanal glassmakers in Mexico for three years until the design met the team’s high standards. Each detail was strategic. The glass bottles have five sides shaped loosely like an agave leaf, with a base that tilts up at 23 degrees in a subtle nod to Jordan’s iconic jersey number. The stopper is an inverted replica of the bottle cast in crystal, down to the 23-degree angle at the top. The extra añejo bottle is even more exotic, made from a hand-polished black crystal adorned with gold.
When it came time to find distribution, Lloyd Sobel of Breakthru Beverage told Fazzalari not to get her hopes up because he rarely said yes on the first try. But then he took a sip of Cincoro. “I actually left the meeting and went back to my office and got a brand that would be in competition to see, face-to-face, how it would hold up, and it blew it away,” says Sobel. “Cincoro is competing in an area with tremendous growth and a limited competitive set. There are only a handful of other brands that have that potential, but the juice is so superior.”
Even with the boom in the tequila market—and the frenzy to acquire the Next Big Brand—the five partners say they have no plans for a quick exit. “We talk about more children to come. We all have a very long horizon,” Fazzalari says. “We’ve already thought about other types of tequila that are going to be really special and other spirits.”
The Michael Jordan Tequila: How good is it? IT’S GREAT!!!!
Per Sip Whiskey, Cincoro Tequila is made using agaves sourced from private farms in both the Highlands and Lowlands of Jalisco, Mexico. The different soil qualities of these regions create unique flavor profiles in the agave grown there.
Additionally, using their proprietary cooking process, the agaves are first cooked in a traditional clay oven for 35 hours and then in a small artisanal autoclave for about 15 hours. The combination of two agave appellations and two cooking methods creates the unique Cincoro flavor profile.
The name Cincoro comes from the Spanish words for “five” and “gold”—cinco and oro—for the five founding partners and their “gold standard” tequila. The bottle comes in four different tequilas called Blanco, Reposado, Añejo and Extra Añejo.
Per Esquire, Blanco is $70 a bottle; Reposado (aged eight to 10 months) is $90; Añejo (aged 24 to 28 months) is $130; and Extra Añejo (aged 40 to 44 months) is a whopping $1,600.
The Añejo bottle was a big winner at the New York International Spirits Competition. Cincoro bottles have a 23-degree tilt at the bottom of the bottle. It’s safe to say Jordan was behind that, as he wore No. 23 with the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards.
Jordan, Buss, Edens, Fazzalari and Grousbeck bonded over a mutual love of tequila at a 2016 dinner, which they credit as the founding day of their partnership.
William Goodman of Spy.com had the pleasure of trying Jordan’s Cincoro Tequila, and he was surprised by how good it was:
Good news there: One sip of Cincoro’s añejo tequila and I was pleasantly surprised. The aroma is subtle but conjures notes of vanilla, caramel, and dried fruit upon an initial sniff. From there, the taste itself is sweet, but not in a way that’s overpoweringly so. Cinnamon and dark chocolate notes swirl around your palate before finishing extremely smooth with almost no bite.
All-in-all, it’s an extremely promising start for a project that could be readily and easily written off as just another celebrity endeavor. Instead, Cincoro is earning glowing reviews. And if The Last Dance reminded us of anything, it’s this: you underestimate Michael Jordan at your own peril.
So, it looks like Michael Jordan has once again topped himself.
The six-time NBA champion and Finals MVP is not only arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, but MJ is now dominating the tequila game.