A View from the Top: Cleo Rocos, the former TV star turned tequila maker
Ex-actor and producer tells Andy Martin how she turned her vision into a success, in spite of other people’s misgivings
Health warning: any nuns reading this, members of the Salvation Army or graduates of AA – avert your gaze now.
Sometimes you just have to get yourself expelled from school. Cleo Rocos, chief executive of tequila company AquaRiva, went (briefly) to a convent school. She didn’t take to the nuns because they had a habit of smacking her over the knuckles with a ruler.
One sister had a pronounced moustache. So naturally the young Cleo, aged 11, bought her a pack of razors for Christmas. An inspired and kindly thought which probably had the desired effect of getting her booted out of the convent. She has never looked back.
Ever since she sailed to our shores from Rio, aged 6, and discovered to her shock and horror that the sea was grey (she had never seen grey water before) – chilly too – she has taken it as her life’s mission to inject more colour and warmth into the world. “Tequila,” she tells me, “makes everything seem more wonderful.”
Sitting in Cafe Pacifico in Covent Garden on a Friday afternoon sipping margaritas with her, I’m inclined to agree. Note the sipping. “You should only sip tequila,” she says, “unless you’re having something removed without an anaesthetic.” The tradition of throwing it down your throat – possibly with some ancient worm lurking at the bottom of the bottle (which is unfair to worms too) – is “strictly for cowboys”. Cleo Rocos doesn’t just make a very pure and clean-tasting tequila, she is a flame-haired evangelist, a passionate believer. She has even written a book on the subject, one that I doubt her old convent teachers will be putting in the school library: The Power of Positive Drinking.
She was recently stuck on a Tube train in a tunnel on the Central Line, somewhere between Tottenham Court Road and Bank. An announcement came over the PA: “Please stay calm. We should be moving in about 20 minutes.” Cue general gloom and consternation. Then Rocos stood up and made her own personal announcement: “I have two bottles of tequila with me and 20 glasses – anyone care to join me?” The train was magically transformed into a party venue. “Everyone was jolly by the end,” she says. Rocos must like Tube trains: she discovered the young art student who designed her label (a couple dancing on the wing of a plane) on the Metropolitan Line.
Tequila is now the fastest-growing category among spirits in the world. I think I have just become a convert too. To AquaRiva anyway.
What is surprising is that Rocos ever became so keen on tequila herself. She started off with a bad experience during school, post-convent. “It’s like you’re on a bobsleigh to hell. For years I hated tequila,” she says. Tequila in those days was often only 51 per cent agave with a load of raw alcohol and additive on top. “That’s the reason why people try to swallow it without tasting. It was the only way.”
She started to swing around to liking tequila in the late 1980s. Back then Rocos appeared in the Kenny Everett Video Show. After filming, she and Kenny would frequently slope off and have a predominantly liquid lunch, then take a taxi to Heathrow and jump on the first plane to wherever, without a suitcase or even a toothbrush, just for the craic. She came to the conclusion that “wonderful things happen after you’ve had a few drinks”.
In her acting career she has inhabited roles ranging from “exotic dancer” to producer, but she defines herself as a comedian. “The last thing I’d want is to get run over without having had a good laugh, or without my lipstick or earrings – I expect to get run over in a moment of mindless glee.” Some years ago she hosted her own TV show for Channel 5, Cleo Worldwide, in which she took “lovely people to lovely locations and we had cocktails together”.
But the real turning point occurred some 16 years ago when she came across a woman in Mexico who “looked like the editor of Mexican Vogue. An older woman but sensational”. She was drinking tequila from a long fluted glass. “That was when I fell in love. To think I’d spent all those years at the BBC drinking warm white wine, which might just as well have been used to suck the stains out of carpet tiles. And it gave you a headache.”
She made her mind up to go into the tequila business. Wise men tried to put her off. Don’t even think about it, they said. It takes eight years for the agave plant to become viable, you need huge investment, etc. But she ploughed on regardless. “If you listened to other people, you’d never do anything. I knew nothing but I learned everything I could about tequila.” She also wants to give a shout-out to HSBC. “I know banks come in for a lot of flak, but they were with me every step of the way and I couldn’t have done it without them. I didn’t have a lot of money behind me to begin with.”
The name “tequila” is owned by the Mexican government. It can only be produced in select areas of Mexico. Rocos spent 11 months up in the highlands experimenting and concocting and fine-tuning, communing with a blender guru, and finally creating her own brand. The key is to use only 100 per cent pure organic agave syrup and volcanic spring water, and allow the brew to “rest” – hence “reposado” – in old bourbon barrels for a few months. She still likes to go to Arandas, east of Guadalajara, and get up early in the morning to go up to the agave fields, walk across the deep red earth and join in the harvesting.
AquaRiva recently won the “Best of the Best” blind-tasting competition in America. It’s won so many gold medals over the last few years that Rocos says she can’t pin them all on the bottle, otherwise “it would look like some mad dictator”. Her brand is now the “house pour” at TGI Fridays and can be found in many restaurants. The AquaRiva brand of agave syrup is sold in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. India is likewise opening up to AquaRiva. Bollywood has embraced tequila. The next frontier is the United States.
AquaRiva is sugar free, low on calories and “good for dieting”, Rocos assures me. She is her own living, breathing advertisement for the power of tequila. When she stands up to go and find another bottle, she doesn’t walk, she dances. “Tequila makes us into our favourite versions of ourselves – like edited highlights.” She is critical of a lot of bad wine, full of additives. “You wake up feeling like you’ve been floating in a chlorinated swimming pool, face down, all night.”
Rocos hates to see people bingeing and getting paralytic. On the other hand, she is very much in favour of dancing on tables, or, for that matter, on plane wings. Her slogan is: “Drink wisely, drink AquaRiva.”
Of course, the president of the Tequila Society would say that. But there is a funny line of hers that sticks with me and which echoes my own brief, slightly inebriated, totally unreliable experience in Cafe Pacifico. “It should taste like you’re drinking the first day of your holidays – you open the door and you want to run into the sea.” As I walk down Langley Street and on to Long Acre, I can swear the blue sky looks somehow bluer than before, and the sun just a little bit sunnier.