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Kahlo Family Is Counting on Frida's Image to Sell High-End Tequila

Using her name and likeness, heirs of the Mexican artist launch a line of premium spirits.

November 24, 2005|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

First, there was the art; now, there is the tequila.

The heirs of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo have launched a line of high-end spirits using the name and likeness of the style icon, hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of expensive liquor in fancy packaging.

"Tequila was her favorite drink and she drank a lot of it," said Mara Romeo Pinedo Kahlo, a grandniece who was an infant when Kahlo died in 1954.

Indeed, for much of her life, the surrealist artist was Mexico's original party girl, wearing flamboyant clothing, enjoying her nation's signature distilled spirit and engaging in numerous extramarital affairs, including a tryst with Russian Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Kahlo's distinctive look -- she often maintained a unibrow -- artistic vision and turbulent life have prompted many efforts to trade on her name, of which her heirs recently regained control after a five-year battle with unlicensed merchandisers.

"Everybody has made money off the name of Frida Kahlo except us," said Pinedo Kahlo, who lives in Queretaro, about 120 miles northwest of Mexico City.

The family picked tequila because it is uniquely "Mexican and is forceful like Frida," she said.

And expensive too.

Kahlo tequila starts at $50 for a 750-milliliter bottle of the standard blanco, a clear tequila that hasn't been aged.

The price increases to $90 for the anejo tequila, which has been aged in American oak casks -- previously used by Jack Daniels -- for three years before bottling.

Both varieties are made from 100% blue agave, the purest form of tequila, treasured by connoisseurs because the fermenting juices of the agave plant haven't been augmented with sugar.

This won't be a mass-produced spirit, said Jorge Gutierrez, president of Dorado Pizzorni & Sons, the Miami liquor company that is importing the tequila in partnership with the Kahlo family and the Orozco family of agave growers in Mexico.

The liquor is made in small batches in a copper still, he said. Gutierrez plans to keep production down to a few thousand cases and target upscale wine and liquor stores and restaurants.

The tequila is being introduced this month and next in Los Angeles, New York and Miami, though distribution may be expanded to Las Vegas.

"Little by little, people are starting to appreciate a good tequila like they would a good wine," Gutierrez said.

The family also is looking at licensing a line of Frida Kahlo dolls, but by first launching tequila, they are tapping into the burgeoning market for high-priced spirits, which the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States says is the fastest-growing segment of the liquor business.

The market for "super-premium tequila" -- which starts at about $35 a bottle -- has grown almost 22% annually from 1999 to 2004, according to Adams Beverage Group, a market research firm.

"I can't get my hands on enough of the really good super-premium tequilas," said Steve Wallace, owner of the Wally's wine and spirits store in Westwood.

Americans spend about $2 billion on tequila annually. But the overall market for tequila has grown less than 3% annually during the same five-year period, with sales of inexpensive brands sliding backward.

"People will pay a lot of money for something to make a fashion statement," said Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark, a Santa Ynez-based consulting firm. "This is not unlike a high-end watch or bottle of perfume."

Kahlo tequila comes in a retro-looking clear glass bottle, with a color portrait of the artist on the label and a wooden stopper that has her image burned in.

"When you can associate it with a cult figure like Kahlo, it only adds luster," Pirko said.

As luxury products go, an expensive spirit leans to the "affordable" side of purchases, the consultant said.

"You might spend $60 or $70 on a bottle that you can put out and impress your friends," Pirko said. For many buyers, it would be more of a showpiece that would "take two years to drink up," he said.

With the anejo retailing for $90, the Kahlo tequila has some room to go before breaking the ranks of more-expensive agave spirits.

"I have sold 200 cases of Don Julio 1942 anejo at $129.99 a bottle and I can't keep it in stock," Wallace said.

Wallace plans to stock the Kahlo alongside the Don Julio and another offering: the $336-a-bottle Herradura Suprema.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Rising spirits

Demand for expensive tequilas is growing the fastest . . .

Annual gain or loss in units sold by category, 1999 to 2004

Super-premium: +21.7%

Premium: +2.9

Inexpensive: --8.2%

All tequilas: +2.9%

. . . although they remain a relatively small segment of the market

Tequila market share by category in 2004

Premium: 65.6%

Super-premium: 19.7%

Inexpensive: 14.7%

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Source: Distilled Spirits Council

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