By DELANIA TRIGG, Register Staff Writer
AUSTIN — Austin resident and Gainesville High School graduate Scott Willis is making his way in a tough business.
The former Gainesville Daily Register carrier — Willis distributed papers along his route via bicycle — founded the small-batch blanco tequila company Tequila 512.
It’s been a long journey from Willis’ original idea to seeing his product on store shelves.
He was born in Plano but “spent my whole life in Gainesville,” he said. His work experience included time at Dustin Office Machines.
Willis attended Texas Tech University and later moved to Dallas where he admitted he wasn’t content.
“I didn’t really like the going-out scene,” he said. “I wanted (to work) in the music industry, and I just wasn’t loving life at all.”
He emailed Texas county musician Pat Green’s manager hoping to get a lead on a music industry job.
“I was surprised when he emailed me back and said, ‘I have something for you,’” Willis said.
On little more than that promise, Willis left Dallas and moved into a friend’s one-bedroom apartment in Austin.
The job turned out to be helping maintain Green’s website. The assignment didn’t pay very well. Willis supplemented his income working as a door man at Austin clubs and bars.
Willis forged music contacts but was strapped for cash and decided to get a “real job” at Dell.
“Back then, if you were a person in your twenties like me in Austin you worked for Dell,” he said.
He married Lauren Pfeifle, advanced with the Dell corporation, moved on to work at Apple and had three kids. Still, Willis continued to nurture his dream of finding a niche in the entertainment industry.
“The whole time I’m still trying to find a way to get back into that life in Austin that’s about entertaining and making people happy,” he said, “That’s the original reason I came to Austin.”
He came across a story about Tito’s vodka founder Tito Beveridge.
“I read the article and‘I thought ‘I can do that,’” he said. “I’m interested in distillation and it seemed fun to me and again, it goes back to making people happy.”
But there were drawbacks.
“I’m not passionate about vodka,” he said. “And I knew after Tito hit it big there were probably going to be tons of people trying to do the same thing he did.”
Willis weighed his options and settled on tequila — a product he believed he could infuse with “the soul of Austin.”
“I was passionate about Austin, tequila and Mexico,” he said.
His next step was traveling to Mexico.
“I had to find a distiller that would make my recipe for me,” he said. “It was really just a matter of researching, trying to find a distiller in Mexico.”
Willis said he found a business partner and went through various versions of the recipe he called Tequila 512 after Austin’s area code.
“I knew what I wanted in the flavor profile,” Willis said. “ I knew what I wanted it to taste like. You don’t have to be from Mexico to know what good tequila tastes like.”
He eventually found a distiller in Jalisco.
“When I found the distiller they were willing to make my recipe for me,” he said. “The place was already making good tequila and would allow me to make my own flavor profile.”
The location of the distillery was key, Willis said.
“Where the agave (a flowering plant used in tequila production) is grown has a lot to do with the flavor,” he said. “I prefer tequilas from the central lowland areas of Mexico.”
He and his partner “went through a lot of time and a lot of tastings,” he said, adding, “Tasting tequila is the fun part.”
He also had to design his bottle and label and comply with state and federal liquor regulations.
“The business side is the not-so-fun stuff,” he said. “I spent about the next five years working on that.”
Willis said he knew he’d arrived when he walked in to the distillery and saw his tequila in bottles.
“ To see the bottle I created and the tequila I made inside the bottle was a moment of accomplishment,” he said.
Tequila 512 hit Austin liquor store shelves in November 2012.
Ten days later, Willis entered his tequila in an Austin Tequila Fest contest.
“I entered the festival to see what the other guys were doing,” he said. “There were 23 other brands in the contest and that included national and Texas-based brands, and I won best blanco tequila. It was exciting and humbling.”
Tequila 512 is sold in “close to 60 Texas locations,” Willis said,
Gainesville retailers who sell his brand include both Still on the Corner stores and Grand Central.
Willis said he’s working to get Tequila 512 in Gainesville bars and restaurants and recently struck a deal with the Texas Rangers baseball organization.
“We just had a meeting with Texas Rangers, and they’ve confirmed they’re going to put us in their dining club bars which is exciting,” Willis said.
Willis said the road to Tequila 512 wasn’t easy.
“I’m passionate about my product,” he said. “I raised money to do this through friends and family that still live in Gainesville,” he said. “I’m a local guy. I was raised in Gainesville and a lot of my friends are there. This is really a grass roots, boot-strapping thing. It’s been pretty crazy. Just to get a bottle on a shelf is an accomplishment. Once I got (Tequila 512) in my first store, I said, ‘Hey, I made it.’”