Jalisco, Mexico is a long way from the small village outside Anchorage, Alaska where Jenna Fagnan was born. Yet roaming the agave fields of Mexico with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, she found a common thread: “The entire community gets together to socialize,” she says, recalling her childhood. “It’s very community-based, and one of the reasons I love Mexico is that people socialize at that community level in such a wonderful, hospitable way.”
Fagnan never imagined she’d be exploring Mexico with one of the world’s biggest stars. Growing up with a mother whose motto was “girls can do anything,” she spent her time playing Tee-ball and pursuing gymnastics, and started working in restaurants at 14. She later headed to San Antonio, Texas to study business, chemistry, and Japanese, and she supported herself by working in Mexican restaurants, which ignited her passion for tequila.
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“Back then, there was very little on the back bar,” Fagnan says. “You had one whiskey, two vodkas, one tequila. Everyone was drinking mixto tequila and not feeling great the next day. I remember someone coming in to talk about tequila and learning how there was real tequila out there that was made in a respectful way and didn’t have stuff added to it. I found that fascinating, so I loved tequila from then on — but never did I think I’d work in the business.”
That all changed for Fagnan following stints working for the Japanese government, Nike, and, after getting her master’s at Harvard Business School, LVMH, where her first task was rescuing then-floundering Champagne brand Dom Perignon. Next, the luxury conglomerate moved her to TAG Heuer, but Fagnan felt the pull of the wine and spirits business, so when Austin suggested she quit her job to launch Tequila Avión with him, she resigned.
“I called France and said, ‘I’m going to start a tequila company,’” says the 40-something, now New York based mom of two. “They said, ‘What? No one drinks tequila.’ It was true at the time; there was only Patrón [in] the high-end sector, but we believed there was space to do it differently, so I started Avión with Ken and we’ve been business partners since.”
After building and selling Avión tequila, the tequila entrepreneurs teamed up with Johnson, launching Teremana Tequila right as the pandemic hit. The name salutes Johnson’s background – “tere” derived from the Latin word for earth, and “mana” the Polynesian word for “spirit” — translating roughly to “spirit of the earth.” Starting with a blanco and reposado, crafted at Destilería Teremana de Agave, the company is currently bottling an añejo set to launch in November.
VinePair spoke with Fagnan about working with Johnson (a.k.a. “DJ”), navigating the tequila business as a female, and how Teremana Tequila sets itself apart from other celebrity brands.
1. What were your impressions of [Dwayne] Johnson before you started working together?
I always thought, “What a persona.” And that he’s someone who works really hard. DJ always talks about the hardest worker in the room and he always says others are, but I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as he does. He’s thoughtful, positive, leads by example and is someone who will do the work first. He’s a unicorn amongst celebrities.
2. How did you start working together?
Ken and I had been talking about what the world needed in terms of the next tequila. Then Ken’s phone rang, and it was DJ’s manager. We sat down with DJ and hit it off, then spent a lot of time talking and meeting. He has a great value system. We were like, “Wow, here’s someone who asks all the right questions, thinks about doing things in the right way and values people.” What a gift that someone with the platform he has is such a positive human being.
He spends time getting to know people and talking through things, so it was a long journey before we ended up saying, “OK, let’s join forces and start a tequila.”
3. What was the process from that point?
Once DJ said, “All right, let’s go,” the real work started because then there’s all these questions like, “Do you like highlands or lowlands?” As soon as you ask DJ a question, he goes deeper. He was like, “I like the flavor profile of the highlands, but I want to do it in a certain community.” He wanted to make sure we found the right Mexican partners and he had lots of questions about sustainability and community, so it took time and was a great process, but not an easy process. It took us 113 distillations before DJ said, “This is the one!”
4. How was it visiting Mexico together?
The first time he went, he was so blown away by the people and how thoughtful they were. He loved walking through the agave fields. We’ve partnered with the Lopez family and he enjoyed just chatting with them and learning.
He was also surprised because a lot of our team in Mexico is female, because we do things by hand. In the fields, the jimadores [farmers] are men, but in our distillery, there’s a lot of women — and he has three daughters, so he thinks about, notices, and appreciates that.
5. The market’s becoming flooded with celebrity tequila brands and there’s talk about the potentially detrimental impact on Mexican brands and workers. How much did you all discuss this and what action did you subsequently take?
We talked about it a lot because the end goal was not for the brand to be a celebrity tequila, but to be a phenomenal- quality tequila that the consumer could purchase at an accessible price point. We don’t take large margins because that’s DJ’s M.O., but we wanted to make sure we were doing it the right way. You can’t come out with a product that’s $14 if you’re doing tequila the right way. We wanted to pay people fairly. We gave the family a state-of-the-art water filtration system to make sure water we use is going back into the earth cleanly, and we’re using leftover agave to make compost.
The neat thing about the Lopez family is that they started their distillery because there weren’t enough jobs in the local community, and they [wanted] to employ more people. That resonated with DJ immensely, so we’re proud that we do a lot by hand and employ many people.
We don’t look at ourselves as in competition with other celebrity tequila. We’re just trying to deliver the best tequila possible and that’s why we only use brick ovens, mature highland agave, and small copper pots [stills] — which are insane things to do, quite frankly! — but we want to deliver a phenomenal product at a price point that’s affordable.
6. Although it’s not marketed as a celebrity brand, Johnson’s intricately part of it. I’m from New Zealand where he spent some of his youth with his Samoan family and I love how he’s honored different pieces of his background and heritage in the product. How important was that to him?
It’s funny, he mentioned New Zealand in one of our meetings. Honoring his background was really important because he wanted this product to reflect his values and DNA. So, with the name, Teremana, and then the tattoo on the bottle comes from the spirit tattoo on his arm. And, if you look at the bottom of the bottle, we made up a name with the first initials of his three daughters [Simone, Jasmine, and Tiana]. This was personal for him. He always says, “When I’m walking in the clouds, it’ll be neat to see my daughters take over for me.”
7. How did Covid-19 impact your launch?
We launched in March  right when things were shutting down. We had conversations about delaying the launch, but DJ said, “The team in Mexico’s making great stuff. Let’s put it out there slowly and I’ll talk about it.”
I think he also related to people being stuck at home. He went, “Let’s look at the silver linings — we get more time with our family and time to reflect, breathe, and think about what we want in life.” He talked a lot about that and started making cocktails on his Instagram, and then we couldn’t keep it in stock! It was fascinating to watch and a much more organic start because we didn’t do any marketing, and still don’t, really.
8. There are more women entering the spirits industry, but as someone who’s been in the business a while now, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced and continue to today?
It feels so great to see more women in the spirits and tequila business. We’re finally seeing female CEOs of large spirits companies, which is encouraging because when I used to speak to large distributor groups or supplier teams, I’d see few women’s faces.
Our big challenge now is how do we keep those women in the business? They need to see how they can [progress] to higher levels, because in the past they never saw themselves reflected at higher levels. To this day, I unfortunately have very few meetings with women when it comes to executive meetings or large meetings with suppliers and distributors, but it’s changing. For women in the business who are at higher levels, it’s our responsibility to encourage that because it’s a great industry and we need senior women leaders.
9. What can you tell us about your new añejo?
We’re so excited! People say, “You didn’t already have an añejo?” But when DJ wants to do something, he does it the right way and añejo needs to be aged a long time. So, it’s been in the barrels and finally he and the master distiller [and] team said, “It’s ready.” We’re hand-dipping every bottle in black wax, which is beautiful, and [the tequila] tastes absolutely delicious.
10. What’s been your most memorable tequila session with Johnson?
Since Covid, we’ve not gotten together as much as we wanted to, but the most memorable was when we were tasting different batches with DJ. He’s a gigantic guy — his body mass compared to Ken and I! As we were drinking through different batches, he definitely drank us under the table. We tried to hold up, but finally gave up!