It was an absolute pleasure to catch up with the Managing Director International for Tito’s Handmade Vodka recently. John McDonnell is also the man behind the growth of Patrón tequila and has spent his entire distinguished career to date within the beverage alcohol industry.
I have seen John a number of times at different industry events, and he has always come across as a very professional, passionate and driven individual. Most recently, I watched his presentation at the DFNI Conference in Tallinn, Estonia as he entertained all of us in the audience whilst sharing all that there is to know about Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
Since then he has been kind enough to spare some time and answer a few of our questions…
Inside the Cask: John, how did you first start in the drinks industry?
It happened by chance really. I was working in politics and someone hooked me up with a job at Joseph E. Seagram & Sons doing market research. That was in 1983. I spent 18 years working for the company in domestic and global sales and marketing. I held different positions within that time period, one being the European V.P. of Sales where I led Seagram’s $1.1 billion business in that region.
Inside the Cask: What is your background?
Before entering the drinks industry, my professional background was in politics. I worked in the Massachusetts State House for a state senator while I was attending university. There, I met a man named Tom Menino, who wanted to run for Boston City Council, so I ended up running his campaign. Tom Menino eventually became the longest serving Mayor of Boston.
Inside the Cask: How different do you find the drinks industry today compared to when you first started out?
The industry is very different. There are 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. As the industry has changed so have its consumers. Millennials have tremendous buying power and the emergence of the global craft movement is being fuelled by this age group.
What attracted you initially to Tito’s Handmade Vodka?
I met Tito at a trade show in 2002. At the time, I had recently launched my own sales and marketing consulting company and Tito hired me to help him gain distribution in the United States. We were able to secure distribution in 19 states for Tito’s Handmade Vodka. After that, I took a job with a tequila company, but Tito and I kept in touch. He told me that when I was ready to move on to let him know because he wanted me to take his brand international. That journey started three plus years ago.
Inside the Cask: Can you tell us more about the brand?
Tito’s checks all the boxes. It has simple packaging. It’s high quality. It’s gluten free. It’s affordable.
Tito likes to say that he makes fillet mignon, but sells it at the meatloaf price.
Inside the Cask: How different is Tito’s compared to other, more established vodka brands? What makes it special?
Tito’s is different because it’s high-quality vodka available at an affordable price. There is a real person behind the brand. There aren’t many brands out there that you can shake the hand of the person behind it. Another point of difference is that Tito’s Handmade Vodka is made from 100 per cent corn, which gives it a sweeter, rounder finish.
Inside the Cask: What does the future hold for Tito’s Handmade Vodka and what is the ambition for the brand?
We’d like to be in every country in the world and in every airport in the world. That is our end game.
Tito’s is known as handmade vodka and spearheads the craft spirit movement in the US. However it also has now shipped a considerable number of cases. What is it that makes it a ‘craft’ brand?
People confuse craft with size, but being a craft spirit has to do with how it’s made. Tito tastes every batch of vodka. The vodka is made in old-fashioned copper pot stills, the first of which he built with his own two hands.
Inside the Cask: You are credited with helping to propel the Patron tequila brand from 340,000 cases a year to over 2 million cases. What was the secret of the success in growing Patron? Any highlights you would like to share?
It’s about appointing the right people to do the right job and I brought in a team of people that knew how to build a brand. It was not about selling tequila; it was about selling the brand and we sold Patrón as a brand that happened to be tequila. We were able to find success when the U.S. economy tanked in 2008 and many of the major spirits suppliers began pulling their advertising. When that happened, our team actively bought up all of those slots, growing our share of voice significantly. Simultaneously, there was no ultra-premium tequila being sold in the duty-free channel so we identified that opportunity and were able to fill that void beating out big players like Diageo and Pernod Ricard.
Inside the Cask: How do you find the reception from the Global Travel Retail (GTR) channel and customers to craft brands and smaller brand owners/producers? What would you change if you could?
Duty-free retailers have been extremely receptive to Tito’s Handmade Vodka and slowly we are starting to see them expand their craft brand offerings.
I believe retailers should have dedicated sections for craft brands because millennials are demanding craft products. Duty Free retailers who do not stock craft brands will ultimately lose out on worthwhile sales opportunities.
To help drive sales, I’d like to see the travel retail channel rally around one digital platform. Apps like Drizly, an online liquor store available in America, target the millennial shopper making it easy to purchase beer, wine and spirits and have them delivered to their door. This is a significant opportunity for the travel retail channel as millennials are shopping on their phones and looking to purchase items.
Inside the Cask: Finally, please tell us something which most people may not know about you…
I’m Chairman of the Board of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which is a position appointed by the governor of the state. I’m also on the Board of Trustees at Suffolk University in Boston. In everything that I do, I look for ways to improve the world around me and hold a special place in my heart for civic and educational causes related to my hometown of Boston. My wife and I are supporters of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, for example. Oh, and if you haven’t already guessed…I’m a political junkie.