Monday, December 5, 2022

How Tanteo Leverages America’s Love for Tequila to Support Communities Along Mexico’s Rio Santiago

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As Mexico’s Rio Santiago and its communities struggle with the impacts of pollution, Tanteo Tequila is using its platform to bring a three-pronged resource effort to the region.

Tanteo Tequila’s CEO and Master Blender Neil Grosscup says that of all of the tequila brand’s products, his personal favorite is the Jalapeño, even though he finds himself drinking the Chipotle flavor more often. “I love [Jalapeño] because it is the number one crowd-pleaser in our portfolio,” Grosscup tells Ethos via email. “Tequila is meant for margaritas, and margaritas are meant for a group,” he says.

That mentality—a focus on the larger community impact—threads through all areas of the tequila brand’s reach, including how it sources, the community involved in its production, the environment, and the relationship with the consumer.

Tanteo Tequila
Tanteo Tequila | Courtesy

Tanteo is the largest independently owned ultra-premium tequila brand in the U.S. and the only distillery owned by its agave farmers, a co-op in Jalisco, Mexico, the tequila capital of the world.

There’s been a recent surge in craft tequila and mezcal brands led in large part by celebrity founders including Dos Hombres, the Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul mezcal brand, as well as Kendall Jenner’s 818 and Eva Longoria’s Casa Del Sol tequila.

But they likely wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Tanteo. It was founded in 2008 by the late Jonathan Rojewski. Tanteo helped to put craft tequila on the map, specifically building the booming spice category. This positioned Tanteo as one of the most admired spirits companies in the world.

Like a number of companies, though, Tanteo experienced a significant decline during the pandemic—like Grosscup said, margaritas are meant for a group, and that all came to a standstill in March 2020. But despite a 44 percent decline in sales in the first two months of lockdown, the company’s 2022 sales are projected to be triple 2020 numbers.

“Our strategy is threefold: improve the local community’s health, provide educational opportunities and foster entrepreneurship.”

– Neil Grosscup, Tanteo CEO and Master Blender

That means good things not just for the brand, but for its nonprofit partners, too. Un Salto con Destino, which means a jump with destiny, is one of Tanteo’s nonprofit partners. Located in El Salto, Mexico, it supports communities struggling with the impact of pollution on the Rio Santiago, known as “the Niagara Falls of Mexico.” Conditions for the river communities have deteriorated so drastically in recent years that businesses have shut down including El Salto’s largest employer, a textile factory.

“Our long-term objective with our charity, Un Salto con Destino, is to restore the Rio Santiago, one of Mexico’s largest rivers that runs through our distillery’s hometown of Jaunacatlan, Jalisco, Mexico,” Grosscup says. “The river was badly polluted over the last 50 years, with large amounts of metals in the water that we suspect are caused by poor waste management practices by neighboring heavy industry.”

Tanteo Distillery
Tanteo Distillery | Courtesy

“The river’s demise started with the loss of freshwater fish, eventually leading to a loss of visitors, a loss of the local textile industry and a collapse of the community fabric,” he says.

Grosscup says the pollution has caused the river to give off an unpleasant smell where it widens into a waterfall.

“Restoring the river to its former glory is no easy fix, it will require political and legal intervention beyond what we can do as a private company and a charity.”

The distillery draws its water from a well that is unaffected by the river’s pollution. But Grosscup says that “when the community suffers, the distillery suffers.” Tanteo has employees with family members who have experienced kidney problems in their 20s and 30s “that we suspect are from drinking the polluted river water,” he explains.

That’s just one of the reasons Tanteo aims to play a big role in restoring the river and the community. (The company also supports clean river efforts in the U.S., donating to a number of river clean up groups across the country.)

“Our strategy is threefold: improve the local community’s health, provide educational opportunities and foster entrepreneurship,” Grosscup says.

Tanteo is already supporting the health of local residents with free primary medical care, counseling, a food bank, a pharmacy bank of donated medicine and provide transportation for specialty care in the city of Guadalajara.

Neil Grosscup Tanteo CEO
Neil Grosscup | Courtesy Tanteo

“We believe the high amounts of metal in the water contribute to a high concentration of kidney disease in those that drink it. Many of the town’s residents need dialysis at relatively young ages,” Grosscup says. Tanteo opened a clinic earlier this year that it hopes will soon be able to offer dialysis treatments.

The tequila maker is also supporting local education efforts including music lessons for children, vocational training, and a community center. Grosscup says educating the community is critical to its survival as it helps makes residents more aware of the issues.

It’s also bringing business back to the region and empowering the next generation of local entrepreneurs. One entrepreneur, Juan Carlos Hernandez, is developing a hot sauce out of the brand’s leftover jalapeño peppers from its tequila production. Tanteo is also providing mentorship to local artisans and worked with the community to develop solutions to support the community and projects like the river cleanup.

Tequila is big business for Mexico; there are more than 150 active distilleries in Jalisco, with more than 26,000 producers of agave for tequila production. But Grosscup says this often leads to a disproportionate power balance between grower and distiller.

Tanteo agave field
Tanteo agave field | Courtesy

“When the distiller has most of the power, some take advantage of this to limit the ability of farmers and distillery workers to negotiate. This can include wild fluctuations in agave pricing, long hours, irregular work schedules and infrequent pay.”

It’s why the company also supports a co-op of local agave growers, a move Grosscup says “fosters more empathy” between labor and ownership; in the case of a cooperative, laborers and owners are the same people, so this helps to align the interests of all stakeholders to maintain better working conditions.  

“We like to think that this empathy flows into our approach to all company stakeholders,” Grosscup says.

“It allows us to run our business focusing on improving the lives of our employees, customers, community and owners. We think this helps us make better products and focus more on charitable initiatives.”

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