El Rayo founders and friends Tom Bishop and Jack Vereker embraced a year-long pursuit of agave in Mexico, in the creation of their premium tequila brand. The El Rayo recipe employs 100% natural blends with Mexican slow-grown blue agave, and is a firm favourite tipple at The Conran Shop. We sit down with the duo to discuss the impressive growth of their business and their passion for modern Mexican culture.
1. Hi, Tom and Jack, would you please sum up El Rayo in a sentence?
El Rayo is a 100% natural tequila designed to pair with tonic, turning tequila into your first drink, not your last.
2. Jack, please tell us about your background and what got you into the world of tequila.
After graduating from University, I went to work for an e-commerce startup which was an awesome first job but I always knew I wanted to start my own business, and if it wasn't going to be tequila it would have been something else.
In the spring of 2017, Tom and I were introduced to a bottle of premium tequila brought back by Tom's brother from a business trip to Mexico. After trying it one Thursday night in our flat in Peckham, tequila quickly became our favourite drink. We started ordering a lot more tequila, drinking a lot more tequila and quickly realised there were two big opportunities.
Firstly, from a brand perspective, all of the tequila brands in the UK looked the same, sounded the same and spoke the same way. It was quite dated and traditional and not very exciting. Secondly (and more importantly) was how Tequila was being drunk. At one end of the spectrum, you had the cheap late-night shots as a vehicle to get wasted and at the other end, you had sipping tequila which was very expensive and almost aloof.
We were first introduced to the idea of tequila and tonic by a bartender in Notting Hill and after trying our first T&T, that really connected all the dots and was the catalyst for us quitting our jobs and start to launch an exciting new tequila brand that is designed to be paired with tonic.
3. And how about you, Tom?
It’s a good question! Having left Manchester Uni I started work in the City as an insurance broker for a couple of enjoyable years. It was a great starting point but I knew I wanted to do something more creative and entrepreneurial.
This was around the same time that we were first getting into tequila as a quality drink to be savoured, as Jack mentioned. I was so surprised that there was nothing in the category that was young and exciting - it was all the same brands saying the same things, telling people to drink it in the same way. It wasn’t as interesting as it could be and we wanted to change that.
I guess we’re a good example of those seemingly crazy conversations you have with your mate at the end of the night actually coming off and turning into something!
4. What was it like quitting your day jobs and heading to Guadalajara?
People often ask us what it was like quitting our jobs, but in all honesty, it was one of the easiest decisions because we were both so excited. We knew we wanted to do something different from a design perspective, and before our first trip to Mexico, Tom had found a local artist who was based in Guadalajara called Mario Ballesteros, who ran a small Design Studio in Mexico called Toro Pinto.
Mario was the first person to greet us when we got off the plane and took us under his wing and showed us the real Mexico - the stuff you wouldn't find on TripAdvisor. It was an amazing first trip where Mario introduced us to what we call ‘Modern Mexico’ which is this incredible undercurrent of creativity that flows from the colourful streets to the amazing architecture. We knew we wanted to bottle some of that magic in our brand and bring it to people's homes in the UK.
5. What are the greatest challenges of running a start-up business?
I think one of the biggest challenges of running a start-up business is trying to do too much. For over two years it was just Tom and I running all parts of the business and we were spinning about a million plates and dropping half of them. One thing we have learnt along the way is that doing one thing and executing it to the best of your ability is a lot more impactful for your brand and business than doing 50 mediocre things.
6. How has the pandemic affected your business; have you had the chance to go back to Mexico at all?
With a background in e-commerce, I always saw the opportunities that online and digital could hold for a spirits business. Before we launched, we invested in our website and digital marketing channels which turned out to be a good strategy once the pandemic hit, as we were perfectly positioned to mop up the demand of people moving from buying their drinks in bars and restaurants to buying their drinks online; we saw our sales skyrocket nearly overnight. We knew the pandemic was a huge macroeconomic factor that was affecting how and where we sell, and this year we invested a lot of time and effort into setting up more traditional distribution channels in bars, shops and restaurants and luckily we have been able to continue our growth. Unfortunately, since the pandemic we have not been able to visit our home away from home, Guadalajara, but are looking to visit early next year.
7. On to design: who curates El Rayo’s aesthetic?
As mentioned previously, we worked with Mario to bring the modern Mexican aesthetic to El Rayo and it's super important to us as it creates a real sense of authenticity and a point of difference amongst other spirits brands.
8. What is your favourite design at The Conran Shop?
9. How do you each take your tequila? Plata or Reposado?
This is like asking me to choose between my children, but everyone has a favourite child and mine would be the Plata. I love the spicy, citrus notes and when mixed with tonic it creates the perfect first drink of the night.
10. And what’s next for you and El Rayo; a mezcal perhaps?
Having spent a lot of time in Mexico drinking agave spirits, I have certainly developed a taste for mezcal, but there is not one in our immediate plans (watch this space…). For us, it's really a case of continuing to do what we are doing at a bigger scale as we try to make the T&T the next G&T.
11. Bonus question from one of the fans: What’s the ultimate margarita recipe?
For me, the perfect margarita is using the El Rayo Reposado, lime juice, agave syrup, a dash of orange bitters with a salt rim and garnished with a fresh thyme sprig.