Liquor industry veteran & Managing Director, International for Tito’s Handmade Vodka, John McDonnel has been leading the spectacular global expansion of the brand, taking it in just two years from only a few international locations to around 130 countries including India today. Considered as a man with a golden touch, he talks to Bishan Kumar and gives us a lowdown on how Tito’s has gained traction as America’s original craft vodka and its growth globally.
Tito’s Handmade Vodka is a truly inspiring American craft story that has assumed the status of a legend. With over three decades of experience in the alcobev sector, John McDonnel, Managing Director, International is scripting a phenomenal success story for Tito’s, the likes of which has not been seen in recent times. Explaining how it is possible to make such a large volume each year in small batches, he says: “People confuse craft with size, but being a craft spirit has to do with how it’s made. Tito owner tastes every batch of vodka. The vodka is made using old-fashioned copper pot stills, the first of which he built with his own two hands. Tito’s uses pot stills because they are a great heat conductor. With heat being evenly distributed throughout the metal, the distillation
process becomes more predictable, with less potential for scorching. This allows us to make great tasting vodka consistently.” When asked as to how much new technology has impacted the production process, he responds: “Tito’s Handmade is America’s original craft vodka. It is crated to this day to the same recipe and artisanal approach as it was when first created in Austin. Texas.”Contextualizing Tito’s stake in the Indian vodka growth story, he succinctly observes: “Flavours are no longer making the cut with consumers in the vodka category. Consumers are now looking for craft brands which have a story to tell and that are authentic. Tito’s, which was created at the dawn of the craft movement, is reassuringly
simple and honest and when consumers from anywhere in the world discover it, they connect and as a result it is fast turning into a global brand. We will look to carve out our share of the craft vodka market once Tito’s is firmly established.” Changing consumer preferences John, who has been in the industry for over three decades shares his unique insights about changing consumer preferences: “The industry is very different now compared to when I joined it but it is equally exciting. There is a plethora of brands out there, many more than when I first started. With that has come consolidation at the supplier and distributor level. The landscape is changing with the development of technology. It’s a lot easier to take a brand global today than it was 10 or 20 years ago and that’s due to the widespread use of social media.” He says the industry has changed so have consumers, fueling demand for the craft spirits movement. Sharing the brand’s USPs, John reveals, “Tito’s Handmade Vodka is fast becoming a worldwide brand. The vodka is naturally gluten free and made from corn with 40% alcohol and has no additives making it a pure expression of the spirit. Due to the ultimate quality and softness of the vodka, Tito’s is praised by the top
bartenders of the world. It is a perfect cocktail ingredient and, in addition, so sophisticated that the vodka is also delightful to drink on its own.” Reliance on wor
d of mouth He goes on to share that the brand’s modest label is a testament to the pride and confidence Tito has in his product. “The bottle is a simple design developed by Tito himself during the early stages of the brand’s development and he intends to keep it that way – in part to stay true to the brand, and in part not to pass any
unnecessary costs on to the people he made his vodka for.” Tito has relied on word of mouth to gain traction, asking friends who enjoy the product to tell 20 of their closest friends and as he says, “keep this thing rolling.” How does he view India’s vodka market? John says: “The signs are already favourable and indicate that Tito’s will be welcomed not only by visitors and tourists in India but also the local population. Indians who travel are discovering craft on their travels and bringing Tito’s home with them. Word will spread quickly and I am confident that Tito’s will be instrumental in driving growth in the white spirits category and also at the heart of the vodka cocktail trend in India.” No variants Explaining why Tito’s doesn’t have any variants, he says with a hint of pride: “There will only ever be one Tito’s Handmade Vodka. We try to do one thing and do it really well, so we put all our energy into making the very best vodka out there. But, if you like flavours in your vodka, we encourage you to make them yourself at home or in your bar. There’s nothing better than infusing fresh local ingredients to make your own custom blend, and it’s really easy. Tito’s mission was to create a very smooth vodka, a vodka that both connoisseurs and everyday drinkers alike would love to sip. The clarity and unmatched smoothness of Tito’s Handmade Vodka is the cleanest expression of the spirit, and one of very few that is suitable to be enjoyed neat,” says John. On his take on impact of high customs duties in India on imported liquor, he opines, “Seventy five per cent of the shelf price of Tito’s Handmade Vodka is Indian taxes. While all imported brands
pay these taxes, some companies have elected to locally produce to avoid the onerous taxes. Tito’s will not produce its product in India because this would compromise the authenticity and integrity of our story. We are 100 percent an American produced and owned brand. Our objective is to work with the respective governing bodies to lobby to reduce these imported taxes on spirits.” John is known for his penchant to create an enabling environment and look beyond his business to make people’s lives better. He is also known for his passion to promote responsible drinking. Talking about his role as Chairman of Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), he reminisces: “It was the honor of a lifetime to be elected by my peers to serve as chairman. The organization does fantastic work and we accomplished a lot under my term. The highlight being that we implemented the first campaign with the city of Boston to promote the We Don’t Serve Teens Alcohol Awareness Program. It was a collaboration between the City of Boston, Colleges and Universities of Greater Boston, Clear Channel Communications, Horizon Beverage Distributing Company and DISCUS. We installed billboards, magazine ads and point of sale to promote this worthy public service promotion.” Living out of suitcase, John is off to his next destination as there are many countries on his expansion radar for making them fall in love with Tito’s.