Sizzle. And a lot of va-va-voom. Lisa Barlow’s got it goin’ on in spades, and we mean that in the best possible way. Go ahead, Google her fine ass, and you'll find her, right next to the definition of “glam.” But don’t be fooled by the pretty packaging, folks. Behind that perfectly be-MAC’ed smile she’s got some serious business chops, experience in brand development beyond her years, and a big huge brain filled with all-that’s-hot about the beverage industry. Specifically, über-premium booze and VIDA Tequila, the brand conceived in 2003 and launched by Lisa and husband, John Barlow, in 2007. She's made preaching the premium tequila gospel her coast-to-coast mission since then. Oh, along with raising a couple of adorable kiddos, managing her company LUXE Marketing, and being part-owner of Park City’s posh Silver restaurant, all from her home base in Draper [yes, Draper].
We have a goddam tequila goddess in our midst, right here in Happy Valley.
Let’s backtrack a little. Long before interlopers to New England’s shores brought European distilling practices to what’s now the United States, Spanish invaders started distilling alcohol from the roasted hearts of agave plants as early as the 1500s, making it the first distilled bev in North America. Mexico’s indigenous people had been fermenting a drink called pulque from the maguey plant for centuries, and the Spanish took that mash down to its essential delicious parts through distilling, upping the alcohol content in the process. But what makes tequila specifically “tequila”? With a few exceptions, it’s all made within a 100 mile radius of the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, and must contain at least 51% agave from only the Weber blue agave plant,Agave tequilana. Check the bottle on your shelf. Premium tequilas declare “100% Agave Azul” [e.g. “Blue Agave”] right on the label, with good reason. Your typical tequila bottle can have up to 49% of other ambiguously nasty shit, which can be made up of all kinds of fillers and additives that give middle-shelf tequilas a reputation for particularly hellacious hangovers and a whole ‘nother rep for eminently regrettable behavior.
Currently, there are just over 150 distilleries—ranging from small family-run fabricas to huge industrial facilities—cranking out almost 1400 different tequila brands distributed by brand owners worldwide. As you can imagine, there’s a hella huge range in both cost and quality on this still-exploding booze spectrum. In recent decades, several American celebrity brand partners have dipped into the tequila distribution pool. FYI: VIDA premiered after Sammy Hagar’s tequila, but well before Justin Timberlake and George Clooney arrived on the scene, if you’re curious about the booze-celeb timeline. VIDA comes in three iterations. A blanco, or un-aged silver tequila, that works beautifully in a classic margarita or in place of gin or vodka in cocktails. The honey-hued reposado is aged six months in American white oak barrels, and has just enough time resting to still taste the sweet and spicy jalapeño-ish essence of the agave. It’s killer on the rocks or in toddies [ahem: Ratings junkies should check out 2013 Wine Enthusiast’s review of VIDA reposado--they gave it a 94, and ranked it in the Top 50 Spirits of the year]. The añejo, aged two years in lightly-charred French oak, makes it a great sipping tequila for bourbon or cognac lovers. Go ahead, get out a narrow tequila glass [it’s like a tiny champagne flute] or Glencairn whisky glass and enjoy a short pour, neat. Ridiculous douchebags abusing this delightful beverage via shot glass precluded by salt off of someone’s fist and ending with a lime wedge should be verbally horsewhipped. For the price point, it’s one of the nicest goddam añejos on the market. Forget wine [whoa, whoa…what are we saying?], bring VIDA añejo to Thanksgiving dinner and people will be falling all over your generous ass in praise for the perfect booze pairing with all of those heavy appetizers. You’re mighty welcome. We’ve been COLLECTIVELY thrilled to see VIDA at many of our favorite SLC bars and restaurants, and they were a huge hit at SLMagazine’s Farm-to-Glass cocktail competition highlighting local booze makers earlier this year. VIDA Blanco is on the shelves of most Utah liquor stores, with both the Reposado and Añejo available in smaller distribution [author’s tip: check out the DABC product search by item and store locator before you go, it saves a shit-load of time].
We recently met up with Lisa Barlow and talked about all things tequila with her and our good friend, Joey Cannella, at his latest venture Taco Taco [next door to his family’s eponymous Italian SLC institution]. Joey loved VIDA so much it has it’s own category of top-shelf margarita, “The VIDA” at Taco Taco, and Cannella’s features a juicy Ricky Martin tribute cocktail “La VIDA Loca.” Check it:
So, how does a nice girl from Utah end up pimping tequila? Hah! I’m originally from upstate New York, but came to Utah for college. John and I both have backgrounds in business and real estate. VIDA’s been ten years in the making. With another investor we’d looked at tequila distribution in 2003, but [for many reasons] it didn’t work out right away. John likes cognac and whiskey, and I’m a gin girl, so we weren’t thinking about tequila at first. But then I really started doing my homework, and talking to people in the industry, and the more I learned about tequila, the more I liked it.
What was the launch like in 2007? I totally did the American Gangster thing, with the fur coat. I can’t do that anymore! We made ourselves a bit of a target, and it looked like we were coming out of nowhere, even though I’d been working my ass off for years getting VIDA ready. I was like, ‘no no no, bitch, I deserve this!’ I’m very hands-on with the brand.
Where does VIDA fit in the growing premium tequila market? I’m a true Sagittarius. I’m never jealous, and I don’t look at the competition. I think everyone can be amazing. When we started with premium tequila, people were saying ‘how can you compete with Patrón?’ And I said, ‘we’re not competing with Patrón. We’re VIDA. It’s a different thing altogether.’ We were lucky that Patrón had been doing great education with people already about what good and bad tequila is all about, so we could build on that. It used to be you’d walk into a place to promote your product and people would say [dismissively], “oh, Ta-Kill-Ya.” Now people are excited about tequila. They ask, ‘what have you got?!’
Tell us a little more about where VIDA tequila comes from. It’s all 100% Weber blue agave, and the plants are about 12 years old when they’re harvested. VIDA’s agave comes from the highlands of the region, just under 7,000 feet above sea level, which has very sandy red soil, like beach sand. It gets a lot of rain, and a lot of sun. The highlands are known for a sweet profile on the palate, you get more herbaceous qualities in lowland-grown agave.
So how does it work, living in Utah, with a distillery in Mexico? It was tough at first [with UT DABC distribution], but in the past few years Utah’s been great. We have a wonderful master distiller in Mexico [it’s the fifth-largest distiller in the industry] and then all of the distilling and bottling is done in Mexico, and the custom bottles are made in Mexico. The gorgeous packaging and boxes are made in Utah, and all of our marketing and materials are sourced here. Jeff Jessup helps with bottle design and branding, and he totally gets me. He’s a genius.
Y’all are a big draw at Sundance, we’ve heard tell. When I started this I was in my 20’s and I wanted to control everything. Even the space we held parties, which I usually thought wasn’t pretty enough. So we built these really gorgeous portable lounges, which can hold about 35 people. It’s a self-contained pop-up lounge, all white, with lots of glass; it takes a semi to move it. During Sundance we do a lot of tasting dinners with celebrities.
P.S. The lipstick? Divine. It’s a MAC color called Candy Yum Yum. It’s one of my faves!