D2D Interview: Rande Gerber

When I started doing these Drinking to Drink interviews earlier this year, the goal was to talk with interesting people from all walks of life who truly enjoyed the act of drinking; not just the bling, or the brand names, or the rarity of something collectable and cool. You may not be as aware of it as I am, but a good many people in this modern world are not drinking alcohol because they like it. I talk with people every day who buy expensive bottles of alcohol as investments, with no intention of actually drinking the highly-collectable liquid they purchase. Others get caught up in the specifics. They enjoy drinking numbers, statistics, and scores, but I'm not sure how much they actually enjoy sitting down with old friends and tossing a few back. That's fine, of course. Everyone has their own reasons for bringing home a bottle. I'm just constantly worried that we're going to lose focus of why we drink alcohol in the first place: to have fun.

I'm always asking former D2D participants if they can recommend someone else for the series; is there someone interesting out there who truly loves to imbibe for the sheer joy of it? Two of my previous interviewees told me straight up: "No one likes drinking more than George Clooney." Somehow that didn't surprise me. "You get him and Rande Gerber together," one person told me, "and you'll never see two guys enjoying their alcohol more than this pair." I always figured that Clooney would be how I ended the D2D series; bagging the ultimate white whale, unlike Ahab, and finishing this whole drinking adventure on a grand note. I would have to save George for another time. Rande Gerber was actually more intriguing to me because he had just started a new tequila project (with George), and I had begun to see him and his famous wife Cindy Crawford all over the news; always wearing a Casamigos T-Shirt to support the up-and-coming brand.

Rande Gerber also has experience in the liquor business. He made his start in South Beach with a number of renowned bars and restaurants famous for their atmosphere and mood. The guy has been incredibly successful over the past twenty years in encouraging other people to drink, and to focus on the enjoyment of alcohol over everything else. I knew he was the guy I wanted to talk to. When I sat down with him for a phone conversation this past week, I was quite taken aback by how easy-going and humble he was. His new brand Casamigos may seem like another celebrity endorsement, but it's really just a drinking project he started with his pal George Clooney that was forced into legitimacy. They're not joking when they say it's a tequila "brought to you by those who drink it." Rande Gerber drinks so much tequila that he was actually given an ultimatum: start your own brand, or say bye-bye to your favorite liquid. I know what I would have done, and that's what Rande did, too. He forged on in the name of good booze and good times, making him the perfect candidate for a little Drinking to Drink interview.

In this edition of Drinking to Drink, we talk about Rande's love of good atmosphere, how his quest for the best tequila turned into quite a production (literally), and how Cindy Crawford never thought she'd be drinking glasses of straight liquor until she tasted Casamigos. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of this page.

David: You’re a celebrity with actual experience working in the alcohol industry. You opened a number of trend-setting bars in your day, known specifically for their creative atmospheres. Can you talk about how your previous position compares to owning your own brand today?

Rande: It’s funny because people thought that it was only natural for me to get into the liquor industry simply because I used to own a number of restaurants, bars, and clubs, but this is a very different business. When I first got into the bar business over twenty years ago, I wanted to create a place that felt like my apartment in New York; like my living room, or a place where I would want to go, or typically entertain; When I entertain at home, I light some candles, burn incense and play some good music. The only thing missing from my place were the waitresses waiting on us. We had to get the drinks ourselves!

David: But you were comfortable, at least. Mood is important when enjoying a good drink.

Rande: Yes and I wanted to create this rock and roll lounge atmosphere that really started out of my desire to have a place where I could just entertain my friends. That’s when I opened the first Whisky Bar at the Paramount Hotel in NYC  It was a very small space—only about 1,000 square feet—and I truly designed it like my apartment in New York. It had these comfortable couches and club chairs, dark wood, it was very dimly lit with candles everywhere. I burnt some incense, made playlists, and had a very friendly staff. It was all about creating an atmosphere conducive for people to socialize. From then on I just kept opening these bars and lounges in hotels, and what I loved about that was creating an atmosphere that really felt like your local bar. It was nice for the people staying in the hotel, whether a tourist or someone there on a business trip, because you didn’t really have to go far to get the local vibe of the city. These bars attracted people from around the city and the locals from the neighborhood would come there.

David: Because everyone’s attracted to a great drinking space…

Rande: Yes, and it was nice because it wouldn’t be the same people every night. You never knew who you were going to meet, or who was staying in the hotel. Plus, the guests really got the energy of the city, right downstairs in the lobby at the bar. To me, that was a fun aspect of it. I never worked with promoters, it could be Monday, or a Wednesday and there were always good people there. It was nice to have a place where seven nights a week you never knew really what you were going to get or who you might run into.

David: So your affinity for celebrating the social side of drinking has brought you over into the actual drinks business.

Rande: I wouldn’t say it brought me here. George and I created this out of sheer necessity and desire to drink the best tequila. We like to drink—it’s no secret. We really like to drink, and we’re fortunate enough to be able to afford some of the finer things in life; and that includes liquor. For us, it wasn’t about starting a business. In fact, the furthest thing from our mind was getting into the liquor business. At the time—a little over seven years ago—George and I were building homes in Mexico and spending a lot of time there. And, as you do when you spend a lot of time in Mexico, we were drinking a lot of tequila, and we were searching for the right one—the one we thought could be our house brand. We would stay in different hotels and different bartenders would recommend their favorite tequila. Some of were good, some not so good, some very expensive, some not so expensive. There came a point when we said to ourselves, “Why don’t we just make our own? We’ve been drinking so much tequila, we haven’t found the perfect one, and we have tried many. Why not do our own?” So I thought that was a great idea, but it’s probably not as easy as it sounds.

David: Right, and where do you even start?

Rande: We were fortunate that our friend Mike Meldman, who is also a partner in Casamigos, had friends and partners in Mexico who could introduce us to different distilleries. So we looked at the different options and we found one that we really liked. These guys were truly passionate about tequila-making and sticking to the old fashioned methods. We met with them, we told them what we were looking for, and we knew what we wanted. We knew our flavor profile. We wanted the best tasting, smoothest tequila and we wanted it exclusively for us—as in for our own personal consumption. It was never intended to be sold.

David: So you were just buying it in bulk for George and yourself? That’s crazy! You knew you could handle that much tequila and you had faith in their production?

Rande: Well, because we weren’t making it to sell, we could take our time. We had the patience—and fortunately the money—to get it just right. The process took us two years to perfect, and 700 bottles of samples later we poured a glass, looked at each other, and said, “Wow! This is it.” Everything was right about it. So they would put it in these plastic bottles for us with a sticker that said “Exclusive RG GC MM”—and we would just drink it that way. We started turning our friends on to it and people were so excited about it and the fact that it was so good, they just wanted to sip it straight. It didn’t remind them of the typical tequila from back in the college days—when you’re hungover from doing shots of it.

David: I love it when people drink a great glass of tequila and have that a-ha moment.

Rande: Right, and besides it being so smooth and pure, our friends found that even after drinking it day and night, straight up or on the rocks, and they weren’t hungover the next morning. For us, that was important.

David: Of course! When you drink the way we do—I’m assuming we’re on similar levels of consumption—you want the purest possible stuff. It makes a huge difference.

Rande: Exactly. For us we don’t like mixing it with juices or anything else, we wanted the purity of the agave. So we were drinking it for years, and our friends began turning their friends onto it, until we got a call one day from the distillery, and they said, “Listen, you guys are either selling this stuff on the side, or you’re drinking way too much of it. We’ve been through 1,000 bottles a year for the last two years.” We were like “Wow!” (laughs). We hadn’t been paying too much attention, actually. So they said, “The only way to keep doing this is to start a company because we can’t keep sending you tequila and calling it ‘samples’ anymore.”

David: I was wondering how this was getting done logistically. They were passing all those bottles through as samples! That’s hilarious!

Rande: That’s when George and I said to each other, “What do we do? Do we really want to start a company?” What we definitely did not want to do was stop drinking our own tequila. We wanted to keep making it. So we said, “Why not?” If we sell a bottle, great. If we don’t, who cares? As long as we get to keep drinking it, that’s the important thing. So we started a company and brought it to Southern Wine & Spirits. We sat with about ten executives at a large round table and they all poured a glass, tasted it, and they were blown away. They said to us, “Here’s the deal: with or without your names attached to this, we love this tequila and we want to be your distributor. We are on board.” That was exciting for us. Now we had SWS, the county’s biggest distributor excited about it.

David: I’m sure they appreciated the story as well.

Rande: We told them the story of why we did it, which is where the name came from. Casamigos is the name of our homes in Mexico. and loosely translated, means “house of friends” and that’s really what the whole project was about—a bunch of friends getting together, good times, creating memories over a bottle of Casamigos. So we launched it and it pretty much took off immediately. Word got out that you have to try this, and I think people appreciated the fact that it was not a celebrity endorsed product. Casamigos is made by us, for us, made by friends to share with friends. It’s our money behind it, it’s the name of our homes, it’s our lifestyle, and I think people liked the authenticity of our story. We’re not hired to put our name on a brand. Of course, our name is on the brand because we taste, sign and number every batch before it goes into the bottle.

David: You’re basically saying: “Hey, we’re the ones drinking it.”

Rande: Right, “It’s brought to you by those who drink it,” is our tagline and, since people know George and I like to drink, it's the truth. Two years after we launched, we had people entering us in these competitions, and we began winning them all. So once these contest awards were announced giving us top honors, and the tequila aficionados, began giving it their stamp of approval, saying “Hey, this is the real deal."  That really took us to a whole new level because it legitimized us. We always knew the tequila was great; we knew we loved it. But getting the stamp of approval from the experts was what ultimately had more people trying Casamigos and loving it.

David: As someone who’s famous, do you think it’s difficult for a celebrity to do something outside the realm of what he or she is usually known for and be taken seriously? Do you think there’s a hump they have to get over in terms of legitimacy or credibility?

Rande: I think it depends. Consumers are very smart; you can’t fool them with a fancy bottle and an ad campaign made up by some big marketing agency. You’re not going to fool the consumer. They want quality in a product, which is why our money went into what’s inside our bottle. I think if you’re a celebrity and you’re putting your name on something to make money, there may be some who believe that you’re actually excited about that product, but I think most consumers don’t really care. They don’t really care about your name, they want what’s inside the bottle to be the best. Having a celebrity name attached may help get your product out there, and it may get people to try it once, but only a quality product will keep them coming back.

David: What I really like about your brand is that—in this new era of boutique spirits where everyone’s an expert, and consumers actively search out information so as not to be fooled or taken advantage of by these big brands—you’re not marketing Casamigos with the same tired buzzwords to prove your authenticity. You’re marketing what you think is a really good tequila, but you’re also saying that you like it because it’s smooth, it doesn’t give you a hangover, and you have a really good time drinking it. These are qualities that I think most consumers, and therefore brands, are afraid to talk about anymore because they think talking about alcohol in this way displays a lack of connoisseurship.

Rande: I think that’s to our benefit.

David: Me, too! I think it’s utterly refreshing. It’s not just a bunch of technical stuff that most people don’t understand anyway. It’s based purely on enjoyment.

Rande: We’re just a couple of friends who love tequila and want to share it. We know what we like—and we drink it. Many of these bigger companies have these huge budgets and hire these big marketing teams, to come up with a story to convince people that they have something great. We didn’t have to make up a story. Even our bottle design we have is just the same label that the distillery was sending us our samples in—it was just plastic when we were getting it. We turned the plastic bottle into glass and put a cork in it. There is nothing made up about Casamigos. Its our brand, we run the company, we didn’t hire consultants or experts to tell us what to do. We’re doing this our own way, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes along the way, but they’ll be our mistakes. We don’t have to put our decisions in front of a board, we don’t have to put budgets together. It’s our money in the brand, so we can make our own decisions and then immediately go with them.

David: Organic growth of this type is the best possible kind in this business because it means you’re not a flash in the pan; it means people are slowly coming around to your product through word of mouth and solid recommendations. Have you noticed steady upward growth since you launched?

Rande: We’re the fastest growing ultra-premium tequila in the country, and it’s not because of George and me. People try it once and switch from whatever they were drinking to Casamigos.

David: Yes, letting your own passion for something inspire others around you—naturally and organically—is an incredibly powerful process. It’s the model that I’ve used here on the blog. You just tell people what honestly excites you as a person, and you just kind of let it spread to those who feel like listening.

Rande: That’s the exciting part about all of this: the fact that we truly do live our brand. We wear our Casamigos shirts—custom made for us to be comfortable and to fit just right (laughs). Everything that we’re doing here we’re doing for ourselves. We’re extremely fortunate and happy, however, that other people also appreciate our dedication, what we have, and what we’re doing with our brand—and we’re excited to share it. Casamigos is the house of friends; we’re not exclusive. We’re all-inclusive. We want everyone enjoying it and creating new memories over a bottle. That’s ultimately what got us started.

David: How do you drink your tequila versus Cindy? I’m guessing she’s on board?

Rande: We drink it mostly the same way. I drink it either straight up or on the rocks, and she drinks it on the rocks. She never mixes it. No lime, no salt. She loves the fact that she can go out and drink Casamigos, and then work the next morning, so she doesn’t drink anything else at this point. It’s funny because now all of her girlfriends drink it the same way and they say, “I never thought I could drink any liquor just straight on the rocks.” Once they started drinking Casamigos, that’s all they wanted. Cindy was at Cipriani in New York last night drinking it. She told me, “I walked in and I was so happy when I saw I could order it there.” So she had a great time eating great Italian food drinking Casamigos with her girlfriends in New York, which proves that you don’t have to be eating Mexican food to enjoy tequila. Whether its Italian at Cipriani, or sushi at Nobu, Casamigos goes with everything. I think people are really beginning to enjoy tequila wherever they are, which makes us feel great. It’s nice to see all of the new places carrying Casamigos because customers are asking for it.

David: We’re at a really interesting place in the spirits industry right now because the last decade has been about getting away from big brands, or going back to old-timey names. Having fun was kind of shunned by the connoisseur crowd because it meant you weren’t serious about your booze. Now we’re headed towards this combination of both—fun, but with a quality-oriented mindset. People want to separate themselves from all the stuffiness that’s taken over an activity initially rooted in pleasure rather than pedantry. When I look at Casamigos I have to think you guys are at the forefront of this movement. You’re basically saying, “We too like to drink the good stuff, but we’re not afraid to kick back and have fun while we do it.”

Rande: Many brands stick to what is safe and they look very similar because of it. Dress up in a tuxedo, hire a DJ, rent out a penthouse, and have a fancy party where you serve whatever brand you’re marketing. They think that’s what people aspire to do. For us, of course we’re fortunate to have access to some of the finer things in life. We get invited to charity functions and support organizations, and we go to Hollywood parties. But we’re the kind of guys who would rather be in the back room with the employees drinking Casamigos, rather than out in the front schmoozing with the others (laughs). That’s how we live our life, so we took that genuine approach and hoped we could get that message out there. We’re more about jeans and T-shirts, sitting outside by the beach, having a barbeque, and drinking Casamigos. It’s the reality of how we entertain and what we actually do.

David: I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to hear a brand owner talk about consumption and atmosphere rather than the specifics of production. Getting down to the essence of drinking—drinking to drink, and for the purpose of enjoyment—was my goal when I started doing these interviews. What’s funny, is that when I asked two of my previous participants—Steven Soderburgh and Lorenzo di Bonaventura—which Hollywood star they thought truly appreciated a good drink, they both said Clooney. I think it’s great that you and George are known within your own circle as guys who really do like to drink. It’s not an act. You’re just two dudes who want to open a bottle and start pouring.

Rande: (laughs) That is indeed true. We do like to drink, and we also like to laugh and we like to share it.  Having fun with old friends and meeting new ones. That’s what it’s all about.

David: It’s being with friends in those great moments that ultimately makes booze taste better, in my experience. As someone who works in a retail store, I hear people tell me about some great wine they had while sitting in Tuscany with friends, having an incredible meal while staring out towards the vineyards. In my head I’m thinking: “It wasn’t the bottle. It was being in Italy with your friends!”

Rande: That’s so true.

David: If you could have a drink with someone you admire or that you’ve never met—alive or not—who would it be?

Rande: Well, I’m fortunate to have been able to have a drink with a number of people I admire.  But, I would have to say my father. He passed away about six years ago before he really got to experience Casamigos, and he is someone really appreciated family, good friends and great times and he loved to drink.  I would love to have a glass with my dad.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll