Hecho en México, Born in California
Elenita is innovating the ready-to-drink mezcal cocktail, bringing a taste of Mexico to California’s sunny beaches - and soon to your state too. By taking the sweet and smoky nectar of agave and combining it with the refreshing effervescence of seltzer, Elenita is unearthing the mysteries of mezcal through a playful and artisanal experience. An experience that is meant to be shared and enjoyed. I sat down with Founder Mikel Noriega (behind the comforts of our respective computer screens) to learn more about the origins of this carefully crafted sparkling mezcal that’s taking Cali and soon the rest of the country by storm.
Mining the Mysterious Mezcal Market
Today, Elenita’s mezcal cocktail comes in two low-carb, low-sugar flavors: Cucumber Lime Basil and Pineapple Jalapeno, and while the brand is currently in California, it expects to reach shelves across 6 new states in 2021.
But Elenita almost never came to be. Mikel Noriega, born and raised in Mexico, met a classmate, Jordan Dil, a Canadian, in the first few weeks of his first year at UCLA Anderson in August 2018. The two began talking about their mutual love for mezcal, which was a shock to Mikel, because he did not realize that mezcal had a meaningful following outside of Mexico. As they met other classmates, the conversation and interest surrounding mezcal increased. With this grassroots feedback in tow, the duo began thinking about how they best could enter the world of mezcal. Each had come to UCLA Anderson seeking an entrepreneurial experience and sought to complete UCLA Anderson’s capstone project entitled: Business Creation Option, wherein a team of five to six MBA students works to launch a business over six months. Having completed extensive preliminary research about the mezcal market, the team was not optimistic about starting a mezcal brand. Mezcal bottles are three times more expensive than other popular liquor options like vodka and rum. And when it came to the overall market landscape, there were more than three times the amount of mezcal brands than tequila brands – it is the more affordable and “less complex” cousin. On top of that, mezcal represented only 2% of the overall tequila market. But there was no clear mezcal market leader and over 90% of mezcal is consumed through cocktails in the US, so creating a new mezcal brand seemed like a daunting proposition.
The duo monitored the agave market all summer, and when they returned from their summer internships, they saw this curious trend start to gain momentum. Canned hard seltzers like White Claw and Truly began growing in popularity at parties and at home. With the global hard seltzer market expected to grow at an annual rate of 16.2% and reach USD 14.51 billion by 2027, the team saw a unique opportunity in front of them. What if they made a ready-to-drink mezcal cocktail at an affordable price point with unique flavors that would resonate with a youthful, outgoing, and adventurous consumer? They understood that there were many mezcal brands and that the canned seltzer market was becoming increasingly crowded, but they could be the first canned mezcal cocktail in the US.
“We wanted to do with Mezcal what Patron did with Tequila but rapidly realized we weren’t positioned to do that given our lack of industry experience and serious capital, so we found an accessible point of differentiation that Jordan and I knew we could execute on” – Mikel Noriega, Co-Founder, Elenita
Balancing Tradition with Transformation
Despite this new and emerging market opportunity, the Elenita team wanted to preserve and honor the artisanal craft of mezcal by understanding the culture that surrounds it. An important part of their research and development was traveling to Mexico City and Oaxaca, and meeting with the largest mezcal companies and industry experts across Mexico. Mikel recounts attending their first meeting at 8 am; greeted with multiple bottles of mezcal. Each meeting was accompanied by a tasting, so after a full day of meetings, the team of five was well-versed in the euphoric and energizing properties of mezcal.
“Travelling across Mexico, especially throughout Oaxaca, the team awakened by experiencing the world of mezcal and all of its mysteries. Elenita represents this awakening to something more and a change in perspective to see things differently; that’s what the muse faces and muse eyes in our digital footprint represent." – Mikel Noriega, Co-Founder, Elenita
By immersing themselves in the world of mezcal, the team developed and deepened genuine connections with each other. Their sunrise to sunset tastings and the live music and salsa dancing created a mystifying and authentic experience – the essence of mezcal. The name Elenita represents this curiosity, sense of adventure, and awakening the founders experienced while exploring the world of Mezcal. The brand is named after co-founder and classmate, Elena, who traveled with the team in the early trips to Mexico. One night after a long day of Mezcal tasting, the team went out to a club in Mexico City called Café Paraiso. As the night unfolded and the Mezcal flowed, they were all feeling the elevated buzz and euphoric rush of living in the moment and drinking Mezcal. Elena, who the team described as buttoned-down and sometimes taking herself quite seriously, was especially feeling it, and that night, a different side of her came out. Maybe it was the Mezcal, or maybe it was the experience of being in that moment – but something inspired her to discover a different side of herself. A side that was charismatic, authentic, full of life, and even a little provocative. That night, her True Spirit was Unearthed, and she became Elenita, the Mezcal Muse. The name Elenita stuck, and almost a year later the team decided it was what they were going to name the brand.
The company seeks to capture this adventurous spirit and curiosity through its different flavors of sparkling mezcal. They are excited to share their experience and help consumers build genuine and real connections through mezcal, much like they did. The brand is a playful and refreshing take on mezcal, reflected in its light-and-easy to sip beverage, and reflects the warm, inviting, and vibrant vibe they feel mezcal creates.
It is no surprise that with a story like Elenita’s that the team was able to secure funding quickly. Winning the Knapp Venture Competition at UCLA Anderson led to a $50k grand, followed by a $1.2M friends and family round that closed in July of 2019. Having gained initial positive feedback, the real battle was navigating the development of a robust supply chain in Mexico. Mezcal is an artisanal spirit, produced in low quantities and under strict protocols. Mexico is also not entirely made for startup success, co-packers, canning, and packaging suppliers work with the likes of Coca-Cola and Modelo, so order minimums are astronomical. Nevertheless, Mikel and Jordan were able to find willing partners and through months of tireless work, scheduled their product launch later that year.
Elenita officially launched in December 2019 in Los Angeles, CA. The duo initially sought to establish 12 new Los Angeles accounts each month, but very quickly they realized they had aimed too low. Even with “Dry January” (which Mikel mentioned is “a very real thing”), the team far exceeded their initial sales goals. As we all know, COVID hit in March, and while this hampered Elenita’s ability to physically walk into bars and restaurants to pitch their brand, the team had several big breaks with premium accounts in LA like The Bungalow, Pink Dot, BevMo, and Total Wine & More, they will end 2020 with over 250 accounts and will soon be in six states.
A simple desire to build genuine and real connections with people curious about the artisanal craft of mezcal has brought the Elenita brand a long way. Mikel, Jordan, and the Elenita team hope to share the mezcal cocktail with more people seeking genuine personal connection and adventure.