Interview: How tequila entrepreneur Joe Cruz Jr. remains true to his Harlem roots

Posted On Fri, May 3, 2019 By

Posted On Fri, May 3, 2019 By In Features, Harlem, Interviews

Joe Cruz Jr. (right) at the Jalisco distillery

With Cinco de Mayo on Sunday, New Yorkers most certainly have margaritas on the brain. And while we may typically associate tequila with Mexico, a new label here in NYC is bridging the divide between our southern neighbor and local entrepreneurship. Joe Cruz Jr. grew up in Harlem, spending much of his younger years hanging out in the Bronx. After working in the beverage industry for many years, he decided to take a mere $25,000 and create his own “ultra-smooth” tequila right from Harlem. And so in late 2017, YaVe Tequila was born. Not only has the company garnered culinary headlines (it produces the first-ever mango-flavored tequila), but it’s caught the attention of local stakeholders thanks to Joe’s commitment to working with his neighborhood.

You grew up in Harlem but hung out a lot in the Bronx during your younger years. Tell us a bit about how both of these neighborhoods influenced you.

Spending time in both the Bronx and Harlem prepared me for the highs and lows in life. I had to grow thicker skin, since the neighborhoods were so different then, and I learned to stand up for what I believe in. My early years gave me perspective and a strong value system. When I visit the area where I grew up, I see a new sense of community through a different lens. There are so many people in Harlem and the Bronx who follow their dreams while staying true to where they came from. I find ways to honor this through collaborations with the arts and local charities. I’m also proud to mentor many around me, including my amazing son.

How have you seen both Harlem and the Bronx change over the years? Is there anything you miss about either area?

These neighborhoods have enormously evolved, and witnessing gentrification has been an eye-opening experience. As much as I love the new diversity of creatives and businesses that have spread through Harlem and the South Bronx, I miss old aspects of the neighborhood. When I was growing up the community felt more close-knit and you had daily interaction with neighbors and friends who felt like family. I feel like people don’t really know their neighbors like they used to. On the flip side, the neighborhood has become more social and lively, which is great for businesses. You feel this kinetic buzz at local bars and restaurants.

There’s been a lot of new development in the South Bronx, especially Mott Haven. Where do you see this neighborhood in the next 5-10 years?

Mott Haven is no doubt the next Harlem. Just as Harlem experienced a culinary, retail, and musical renaissance, I see the South Bronx following suit with more mixed-use projects. Developers are enticed by the waterfront, land prices, and proximity to Manhattan. There are no signs of “SoBro” development slowing down. The vibe is similar to Williamsburg; there is this a newfound energy. I hope to see more community centers, public gathering spots, and local art projects happening in the near future. We need to maintain the character of the community and ensure people have space to connect.

What made you decide to get into the tequila business? How did you get started?

I’ve been in the liquor business for over 25 years, even before I could drink. My father and extended family all worked in the industry so it seemed like an obvious path for me to be in business. I loved learning from them and noticed a void, especially as it related to All Natural Tequila Sabores (Flavors), so I decided to take a leap and create my own brand. A few years ago, people had flashbacks to the terrible burning sensation from college. We set out to change that perception and create quality tequila from Jalisco with a proprietary blend that was super smooth, so people would give YaVe a chance. Tequila is now one of the most popular alcoholic choices with the advent of healthy, gluten-free, low-sugar lifestyles.

Tell us what YaVe means.

YaVe means Key in Spanish. The actual spelling is with two Ls (LLAVE) but if you don’t speak Spanish it’s hard to pronounce, so I spelled it phonetically. We chose the key logo because keys represent access and we wanted to create an all-access experience for our audience and send a message to young entrepreneurs that they can build something for themselves. Keys open doors and unlock new potential; we are all about breaking boundaries. A key is also something that you touch every day, and we want people to remember that they have the potential to build something game-changing that people interact with on a daily basis.

Why was basing YaVe in Harlem important to you?

Harlem is my home. It is a part of me and continues to motivate me, so it seemed like an obvious decision to base the company here. I wanted to establish ties with businesses nearby and promote the creative energy coming out of this area.

What other local businesses are you fond of?

Within the past year, I’ve become a huge fan, and member, of Union Settlement’s “Buy Local East Harlem” initiative. They pride themselves on bringing local business owners together and raising awareness of said businesses to all the local consumers. Harlem Chocolate Factory is an awesome artisanal chocolate business. We’ve partnered with them to make delicious desserts for the upcoming Harlem EatUp! festival on May 13-19. Xclusive Arrivals is another cool company. They have the first minority-owned sneaker shop in East Harlem.

Do you work with the local community when it comes to your own business?

I work with the community on a personal level by mentoring and attending monthly workshops in East Harlem. It’s very important to me that young entrepreneurs have access to information that I didn’t have access to. Kids don’t learn about building credit or raising capital and I strive to help by sharing my experience. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce will be honoring me on June 4th to kick off the Puerto Rican Festival. Sometimes just being there for someone can help propel them to another level.  We also, of course, work with many local establishments who keep YaVe in stock such as IC Liquors, Uptown Wine Pantry, El San Juan Restaurant, and Corner Social.

For those readers who aren’t so familiar with tequila, tell us a bit about your process and what makes YaVe stand out.

I sought to create a tequila that would evoke the opposite of “that night in college” feeling and eliminate the fear of a bad hangover. When made well, Tequila is quite smooth and can be sipped on its own. We found a distillery in Jalisco that blends Highland and Lowland agave and double distills our tequila for a well-rounded smooth taste. YaVe is made with pure volcanic water that flows through the distillery and a proprietary yeast, making it impossible to replicate.

Where do you hope YaVe will be in 10 years?

We hope that YaVe will be a household name in the same conversation as Don Julio, Patron and Casamigos. Our quality and price point (starting at $39.99) will continue to attract new customers and we believe that we’ll have lifelong brand advocates. We love educating new companies about YaVe Tequila, and recently had events at Peloton and Twitter.

Cinco de Mayo is Sunday… what’s your favorite margarita recipe?

YaVe Sabores were created to act as a canvas for incredible drinks made by anyone regardless of their mixology expertise. Here are three options:

La Briesa – YaVe Jalapeño Margarita

  • 2 ounces YaVe Jalapeño Tequila
  • Muddled Red Peppers
  • 1 ounce Pineapple Juice
  • Lemon Juice
  • Lime Juice
  • Ice
  • Pro tip: Try adding Shichimi or Jalapeño Salt for decoration and an extra kick

Skinny Mangorita

  • 2 ounces YaVe Mango Tequila (or Blanco if you want it stronger)
  • 1 ounce Mango Nectar
  • 1 ounce Lime Juice
  • Ice
  • Soda water (add it after shaking other ingredients)
  • Pro tip: Mix all ingredients EXCEPT Soda Water. Float that at the end for a very refreshing drink!

Tequila Colada

  • 2 ounces YaVe Coconut Tequila
  • 2 ounces Pineapple Juice
  • Ice
  • Pro tip: Stand in the sun and close your eyes. It’ll feel like you’re on vacation.

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All Photos courtesy of YaVe Tequila

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Neighborhoods : Harlem

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