The spirit of learning is at the heart of this business success

- September 28, 2023 5 MIN READ
head shot of Justin Kocmina. Justin is one of the cofounders of Agave Lux an agave spirit specialty brand

From London to Jalisco to Australia, Agave Lux is a business with truly global roots. The company, which imports and distributes premium agave spirits, was born of a desire to educate consumers about the exciting world of traditional Mexican spirit. Marshall Thurlow, founder of Orion Marketing, sat down with Justin Kosmina to learn more.

But in the process, owners Justin Kosmina and Howard Baynie actually learned several of their own lessons.

The pair set themselves a challenge when they decided to bring lesser-known agave spirits, such as Raicilla, Sotol and Bacanora, to the completely untapped Australian market, but it’s been a labour of love – and so far, a successful one.

 Adelaide-born Justin’s background is in hospitality, and he was living in London and working for a wine company in 2015 when he saw an opportunity to educate consumers in the fairly unknown space of agave spirits. 

“I fell in love with the agricultural elements of wine and spirits,” he says. “And I saw an opportunity to actually educate consumers about high-quality, artisanal spirits that truly encapsulate the essence of craftsmanship. 

“We actually didn’t want to be a distributor or importer, we wanted to be a brand owner. I bought into a distillery in Mexico in 2015 called Estancia Raicilla. The intention was to be a brand owner and use that platform to educate consumers around the world of how to, one, drink better tequila, and two, that there’s more to the space than just tequila.”

Think bigger

Justin and Howard quickly realised that a single raicilla brand, no matter how premium, wasn’t going to be a big enough platform to launch their dream of taking agave spirits to the world. They set up a company to import and sell to London distributors, and partnered with a distributor to get their products to consumers and begin to educate them.

 When Justin moved back to Australia in 2016, the business took on its third iteration as Agave Lux, to bring the drinks they loved directly to Australian consumers.

“The market dynamics of how you get to a consumer are different,” he says. “To get directly to a consumer it was better to be an importer distributor than it was to align yourself to a distributor at that stage.”

That, he thinks, was probably the first lesson they learned at Estancia Raicilla. Despite setting out to definitively not be a distributor or importer, changing tack actually gave them more power to achieve their primary goal of greater education in the space.

“We’ve always truly led with education,” he says. “If you look at the category of agave spirits, 999 out of 1000 bottles is tequila. The general consumer thinks tequila is the category, they don’t understand that a sauvignon blanc to wine is what tequila is to agave. 

“The category that we bought into with Estancia Raicilla was about a quarter of a bottle of those thousand bottles sold around the world. It’s a really small part of agave spirits, but it has a really beautiful rich history behind it. We’ve always been in the market of educating on the category of agave; we’re category led. And then based on the quality of product that we have, we’ll get our share of opportunity within that.”

The unknown can be hard

That, of course, has raised its own challenges. While consumers here are accustomed to Tequila, other agave spirits are fairly unknown, and therefore a harder sell. 

“Not having a tequila has been our biggest challenge; if you have a big tequila brand that gets you in more doors because people are ready to have a conversation straight away. We’re always looking to grow the category of agave and our portfolio up until recently has been Mezcal, Raicilla, Sotol, Bacanora, Rum, all these different bits and pieces from Mexico that we’re educating on – everything but tequila.

“When you taste a Raicilla with a consumer, they love the product but they don’t know what to do with it, and that’s been the structure of our portfolio for the last seven years. If we’d flipped that and got a tequila brand early, obviously we’d have had a bigger brand, a bigger space to work with. You can reinvest that into more brands, you could grow at a faster pace.”

That was lesson three for the pair: “The long-term play of truly growing a category and being storytellers of the rich history and craftsmanship behind the products, can also slow down your business.”

Celebrate the wins

Since first buying into Estancia Raicilla eight years ago, Justin and Howard’s passion project has grown to become Howard’s full-time job within Agave Lux, with two full-time salespeople employed and a back of house team to support us across multiple business functions – something Justin cites as one of the most exciting milestones for the business so far.

But it’s not just the major moments that they celebrate. Justin says that he and Howard decided early on in the beginning of Estancia Raicilla that they would celebrate all the little wins along their journey.

“You don’t always do that because you get caught up in the day to day and the growth pains that you have as a small business. But there was a moment recently that we just took a step back and said, Wow, look at what we’ve built.’”

Put people first

The last lesson Justin touches on is all about people and the importance of being part of a community. Justin’s first foray into Raicilla came through a long-term friendship that gave him that initial opportunity to buy into Estancia Raicilla in 2015 and that human connection has remained an important part of their journey. Agave Lux’s selection of agave spirit brands are primarily smaller, independent producers that they meet through their existing connections.

“It’s a beautiful community of people in Mexico and we’re lucky because – although we don’t live there – we are an owner of a brand there, which supports us to become part of the community. So we became part of this great community of raicilla producers. That has slowly got us into more independent producers within those regions because we’re not just an Australian company that’s reaching out from the other side of the world. We have a little bit of trust and reputation within the community over there.

“If you look at our brands, you can see most have a connection to one another along the way. When we need another mezcal, a partner of ours will go, ‘Oh look, you have to speak to this guy in Oaxaca, he’s doing amazing things.’ It’s really nice to continue to support true local independent producers around Mexico and be part of that community.”

And while both Justin and Howard brought a range of professional skills and experience to the table, they’ve discovered it’s their personal skills that give them great balance. 

Justin says he brings “the ability to build rapport with people, to make them feel engaged, like they’re part of something bigger, to get them aligned to a common purpose.” He says that’s the perfect foil for Howard’s being “extremely structured and business minded – very straight down the line when it comes to business.”

And, of course, they both have “a relentless focus for where [we] want to go and we strive towards that through the good and bad that comes along with life and having a small business.”

As with any small business venture, theirs has been a journey of lessons, but Justin says their education still isn’t done.

“Like with agave spirits themselves, you’re always learning. There’s always more to learn.”

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