On a rainy night last week, the Kola House, a trendy cocktail lounge in New York’s Meatpacking District, was full of two things: hipsters and bottles of Cuervo.
The hipsters are usually there anyway. As for the well known tequila brand, the bottles weren’t just sitting behind the bar, they were all over the place—to be precise, they were inside of glass-box pedestals strategically placed around the floor, each dramatically lit from beneath as though the bottles on display were artwork.
Which was, actually, the point of the evening. To celebrate its 222nd year of distilling, Cuervo was unveiling a limited-edition collection of tequila bottles (exactly 222 of them) designed by Spanish-born artist Ricardo Cavolo. Looming in the back of the club was another limited-edition collection, this one of clothing designed by Honduran fashion phenom Carlos Campos, which takes its design cues from Cavolo’s bottle designs.
The practice of brands teaming up with artists is in vogue these days. Last year, luxe brand Bally issued a capsule collection with Swedish graffiti artist André Saraiva (also known simply as Mr. A ). Prestige watch brand Audemars Piguet hired Chinese artist Sun Xun to build an installation piece called “Reconstruction of the Universe” for Art|Basel in Miami last December. In fact, depending on a brand’s needs, “artist” doesn’t even have to mean a bohemian with a paintbrush. In 2016, New York street-wear brand Supreme put out a line of hoodies and waffle thermals in collaboration with 1980s thrash-metal band Slayer.
The difference in Cuervo’s case is that it’s not a coveted luxury brand, a prestige wristwatch or a funky urban clothing company—it’s a brand of booze that’s been around since America had only 15 states. And while none of today’s tequila drinkers have been around that long, those with fond memories of drinking Cuervo are more likely to be boomers than millennials. After all, Jose Cuervo’s big moment in popular culture was a mention in the Steely Dan song “Hey Nineteen” (“The Cuervo Gold / The fine Colombian / Make tonight a wonderful thing”)—and that was 1980.
While spirits watchers will tell you that tequila is in its ascendancy again, it’s newcomer bottles like KAH and Patrón that are getting much of the buzz. Older brands such as Cuervo, said veteran brand consultant Allen Adamson, “are under enormous pressure as consumers gravitate toward craft brands they discover on their own. The challenge if you’re a big brand is how do you connect and become relevant again with younger consumers.”
One way, clearly, is hooking up with two undeniably cool artists—in this case, ones who also have a Latin pedigree. “People connect with the Mexican spirit [in my work],” said the 34-year-old Cavolo, who’s known for his uproarious and colorful murals on the walls of Madrid, Barcelona and other cities around the world. Cuervo, he said, believed his gritty, tattoo-inspired style would be a good fit for the themes it wished to convey. So, when it called, he said, “of course I said yes.”
Cavolo’s brief was to riff on the four pillars of Cuervo’s brand heritage: the heart (which symbolizes Cuervo’s 1795 warrant from the King of Spain to produce tequila); the lady (Ana González-Rubio de la Torre, who ran the company in the years following the Mexican Revolution); music (which drinking Cuervo has inspired plenty of); and the devil (a reference to “devil’s water,” which was the name Americans coined for tequila after it crossed the border in 1873). Cavolo expanded on each theme (one per bottle) with a profusion of colors, symbols and mystical figures. He’s especially fond of eyes—sometimes placed on inanimate objects—rendered with eerie, penetrating stares. “When I want to speak about a country,” he said (Mexico, in this case), “I don’t paint a landscape. I paint a person speaking for the country. I know how to take the abstract idea and blend it with the character.”
For the clothing collection, Cuervo gave Cavolo’s artwork to Campos, whose sleek, minimal suits have been spotted on the backs of Enrique Iglesias and Justin Timberlake, among others. Campos said that given Cavolo’s jubilant, character-centered drawings to work with, “half of my work [was] done. Ricardo Cavolo was perfect for me [because] he’s sharing history and art—history from Jose Cuervo back in the day and the art that is happening right now—and it’s so South America, so Williamsburg, so New York. It was easy for me to take those designs and transform them into clothes.”
If drinkers begin associating Cuervo with a den of cool cats like Williamsburg, Cuervo will have gotten its money’s worth. This latest marketing execution won’t provide much of a cash flow. The clothing isn’t for sale. (It’s being given to influencers—bartenders, one suspects—who’ll let their hipness rub off.) The bottles are a mere $26 each, and there are only 222 of them.
As a concept, however, Cuervo’s 222 project has much to recommend it, in the view of spirits consultant Arthur Shapiro. “It’s a beautifully executed package, and it’s aimed at the right people,” said Shapiro, who points out that Cuervo is actually an old hand at limited-edition bottles, having first issued its Reserve de la Familia line in 1995. “It’s an interesting idea that they brought back,” he said. “It’s beautifully done and well executed.”
What remains to be seen, of course, is whether the beautiful bottles (and, for those who can get them, the clothing items) will be enough to nudge Cuervo out of its reputation as tequila your father drank in college. On this score, Adamson is somewhat skeptical.
“This is a pretty common tactic to use art or artists as bridges to try to connect the brand to [a younger] audience,” he said. “It’s a hit-and-miss thing because often people like artists but don’t believe [the marketing] is authentic.” In Cuervo’s case, “it’s the right game plan,” but the risk is that “you end up with an older man in kids’ clothing.”
If that happens in this case, at least the clothing is a cool hoodie designed by Carlos Campos.