Tromba Tequila: Little guys open up the premium tequila market
You’ve officially made it when one of the city’s most critically acclaimed restaurants crafts a cocktail in your honour.
Origin, the St. Lawrence hot spot, recently added the Brass Tax to their list of signature tipples. Starring Tromba Blanco, Toronto’s first locally-owned premium tequila, the Brass Tax is a witty nod to the earnest philosophy of its namesake, the man behind the booze.
That man is Eric Brass, who created Tromba—a light, citrus-forward 100 per cent blue agave tequila suitably contained in an elegant blue bottle—with partners, Nick Reid and James Sherry, after returning from an exchange in Mexico.
Time spent south of the border exposed Brass and his partners to a whole new world of tequila. Like most North Americans, they were used to drinking “mixto” tequilas—generally made from a blend of cheap sugars and premium sugar drawn from the Blue Weber agave plant—as opposed to premium brands made entirely from agave. It’s the kind of stuff that scars its drinkers with unforgettable hangovers and deep-seated aversions.
But hanging out in the agave fields with locals, sipping sweet spirits distilled from the plant’s heart, Brass became completely enamored with a product few Canadians venture to sample.
He wondered why true tequila suffered such under-exposure back home.
The short answer—expense. 100 per cent blue agave tequilas are time consuming and pricey to produce, and the North American market is dominated by a handful of popular, premium brands.
“We saw such a gap in the market,” says Brass.
That gap was 100 per cent blue agave tequila at a reasonable price point. Premium brands like Don Julio Blanco and Patron Silver are available in Canada, but cost almost $80 a bottle. Brass knew the market needed a more affordable alternative.
Regardless, he wasn’t the most likely candidate to run a tequila company. With a degree from the Richard Ivey School of Business and a CFA charter behind him, Brass certainly knew a few things about investments and business operations. But Tromba was his first entrepreneurial endeavour, and he had zero familiarity with liquor production or distribution processes.
“I talked to a lot of smart people in and outside the industry. All of them told me it was impossible,” Brass says. “‘You don’t have enough capital, you don’t have enough experience, you don’t have enough resources at your disposal. You won’t get into the LCBO because you’re too small.’”
Still, he soldiered on in the face of discouragement, fueled by a gritty determination coupled with a sincere conviction in his product.
“Sometimes these little niches in the market are formed by risk-takers driven by a vision,” he said.
Tromba’s challenges are constant; there’s stiff competition from big name tequila brands with even bigger budgets, and strict regulations on tequila production and shipping by the Mexican government. For a boutique operation up against Goliath companies, delays in production and distribution make every day an exercise in diplomacy.
But hard work and confidence do pay off. Last February, Brass strolled into a Toronto LCBO and bought his first bottle of Tromba Blanco off the shelf. It’s sitting on his desk as a reminder of what the young brand—only a year and a half old, the only independent tequila on the LCBO’s General List—has accomplished.
And Tromba’s reach extends beyond Toronto—it’s available in select markets throughout Ontario, Mexico, and Australia, and will move into the U.S. later this year.
The brand’s popularity is organic, due in part to Brass’ personal approach. Enamored with his friendly personality and Tromba’s modest advertising budget, bartenders across the city have become well acquainted with Brass. He pops into local haunts frequently, greeting the staff by name and chatting about subjects far afield from tequila. Not surprisingly, they all share an enthusiasm about his product.
Tromba’s approachability makes it an easy sell, perfect for cocktails or sipping straight. And the brand has kept bartenders in mind since inception, even delaying distribution for months because the prototype bottle’s neck was deemed too stubby for a comfortable pour.
It’s a reciprocal relationship; the bartending community has become an unofficial host of brand ambassadors who help spread the word on Tromba. They rise to the task of educating the drinking public on the merits of an often misunderstood spirit—tequila makes up only 1 per cent of Canadian liquor consumption—and are happy to support a local business.
Taylor Corrigan, GM of Origin and creator of Brass’ namesake beverage, not only appreciates the product, but admires the commitment behind Tromba.
“I can text Eric at 1 a.m. on a Friday night and tell him I need Tromba,” he says, “he’ll have it here the next morning.”
Although Brass admits that his marketing strategy is a lot of leg work, he loves a challenging job.
“The constraints gave us a bit of an advantage. We could not throw money at marketing and say ‘grow our brand,’” he says. “We had to do things differently.”