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An Interview with Dangerous Don's Thea Cumming

We recently caught up with our good friend, Dangerous Don Mezcal owner, bar owner, and London Mezcal Week co-founder, Thea Cumming, to talk 2020, brighter futures, and - as always - all things agave.

By
TT Liquor

So, first off, for maybe those that don’t know you, could you please introduce yourself for us.

Hi, I’m Thea, I’m the brand owner of Dangerous Don Mezcal and I also own a mezcal bar in Stoke Newington called Dona. And I’m also one of the co-founders of London Mezcal Week with my friend Melanie.

So remind us briefly about your story, and how you got into the drinks industry initially. Was it a traditional affair, or a case of the road less travelled?

So I grew up in Devon and used to work in this little fishing village called Lyme Regis over the summers like everyone else just working in all the bars and restaurants. So I started working in hospitality from pretty young, like 11 or 12, and it was initially just part-time jobs and then eventually I worked my up to running the floor on a restaurant. Not long after this, I went to uni in London and started working for a friend of mine who opened a barbecue restaurant called Pitt Cue in my spare time. So Pitt Cue was pretty much barbecue and bourbon, and that was my first real instruction into the London hospitality and drinks industry if you like. I hadn’t really made a cocktail before then. Anyway, I got really into bourbon as a result of working there and then did a few other jobs in London before deciding to drive around the States with a friend of mine.

So we spent arund three months driving through the States, and ended up in Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana, and just went to all the bourbon distilleries. And then from there we travelled through Central America and ended up Mexico. We were only supposed to be there for like a couple of weeks and ended up staying for a couple of months, and that’s where I got introduced to Mezcal at this place called Puerto Escondido which is on the Oaxacan coast. Yeah, this amazing guy introduced me to Mezcal, and I was sort of like, “This is a dream.” [laughs] Especially because I obviously enjoy drinking, and having grown up in hospitality, finding this exciting new spirit was amazing. Although, they say that it’s Mezcal that finds you. It’s a bit of an old cliche, but that’s how it found me! So at that point, I was like, “I’m going to start a Mezcal brand, and I’m going to call it Dangerous Don,” which was my dad’s nickname at uni. Now, I had absolutely no idea what that entailed at all at the time! So I basically spent the next year between Devon and London and Mexico just working out how to set this business up. Yeah. And then one year after that, I shipped in the first pallet. And three and a bit years later, here we are.

All of a sudden, we were talking to the people that actually cared about the story and had invested their time and money into the brand and the product, and they have the choice.

So obviously this isn’t the first time we’ve talked with you. We around a year and a half ago for with yourself and Melanie [Symonds], for London Mezcal Week, and obviously back then it was a very different industry. So, could you fill us in on some of the developments to your brand?

I mean, obviously the biggest development is the fact that for the majority of that time, all bars and restaurants have been closed. But it’s actually been really beneficial for us because the traditional route to the on-trade and getting Dangerous Don into bars and restaurants has always been quite difficult for us, but we’ve also not really been set up to sell directly to consumers. So, we took it as an opportunity to set up an online shop and a fulfilment company which could sell our product directly. And so, all of a sudden, I was able to speak to consumers and get my product into their hands. So, like everyone else during the lockdown, we did the traditional cocktail making series of what to make at home and where Dangerous Don works in drinks. As well as this, for the first time, I reached out to friends and family, and we’re like, “We’re sort of in the shit. You can now buy direct and help us out,” and everyone did!

So yeah, we have worked really closely with a few retailers, but basically, the learning is, is that we started talking to the consumer rather than talking to trade. And I was never doing that before, and actually, the consumers as a category are really the ones that going to build up your brand because – especially for emerging categories like mezcal – you need to go grassroots, raise awareness and education, and get consumers into the category in the first place. Look, don’t get me wrong, bartenders are amazing, but they’ve got 500 different products. Why are they going to necessarily listen to you and yours and your story? And so all of a sudden, we were talking to the people that actually cared about the story and had invested their time and money into the brand and the product, and they have the choice. They can make the choice whether they were going to spend X on this or X on that, and the difference of £2.50 per bottle to them just isn’t as significant as the difference of £2.50 to a bar or restaurant’s bottom line. They have to more rigorous with their pricing. So actually, as soon as we started talking to the consumer, we started to do a lot better. So I guess, one, the biggest changes in the brand is that we’ve developed our strategy to be a lot more consumer-facing. Also, we’ve got some exciting things happening next year with distribution in different countries, but it’s a little bit too early to get worried about that because, frankly, who knows what’s going to happen next?

I ended up travelling quite a bit off the beaten track to find the producer that I work with, and I’m very happy with the results.

We’ve recently been concealing sort of measures of your mezcal in our boxes for our virtual classes over the next few weeks. So, as the brand owner, do you want to tell our readers a little bit about the liquid that they’ll be playing with on these classes, some of the processes? 

Yeah. So our newest product is an espadin, the name of which comes from the name of the specific agave used and is the most common type of mezcal. It’s 100% agave from this place called Santa Maria Quiegolani, which is in the state of Oaxaca in Mexico. It’s made using traditional processes like all of the best mezcal should, and it’s classed as an artisanal mezcal. When I was developing the espadin, it was really important to me that I found a product that wasn’t necessarily as peaty and – I don’t always like the use of it – but as smoky as other mezcals. And I wanted this one to be a lot more approachable and soft and floral than some other varieties I’d tried out there. And so I ended up travelling quite a bit off the beaten track to find the producer that I work with, and I’m very happy with the results. What I would like to think people will find from this is it’s a lot more subtle with the smoke, and it’s easier to incorporate into a cocktail. Although, having said that, a simple mezcal and tonic really is one of my favourite drinks. We’ve got so many great tonics now. There’s this brand called Sekforde, and they do a fig and prickly pear botanical mixer which works so well with Dangerous Don over ice. I think Dangerous Don is best just simply served, though, basically. Let the liquid do the talking!

Direct access to those people is just so essential for small brands because it’s getting to the people who have a choice that is the most important thing. But I also see it as hugely beneficial for consumers in the future, as well.

How do you think things like our virtual cocktail classes and interactions with sort of the various liquids by consumers can help sort of brands like yours especially, as you said, considering all the bars are closed?

It’s incredibly useful for a number of reasons. Firstly, because these samples are going out to consumers who are already engaged and invested in trying something new. And direct access to those people is just so essential for small brands because it’s getting to the people who have a choice that is the most important thing. But I also see it as hugely beneficial for consumers in the future, as well. Because I think one thing that this year has taught everyone is that we’re more capable of building, making, and achieving things than everyone thought they were. I mean, your guests are going to learn how to make a drink and they’re going to understand that they have the capacity to make these delicious drinks at home, which is just awesome. But it also means that when they go out, and you’re probably going to be a lot more adventurous with what you drink and braver in your choices. So it’s going to diversify the industry from a consumer perspective when they go into bars and restaurants. And then, hopefully, smaller spirits and spirits that aren’t necessarily your classic serve will start to get more recognized. Ultimately, it’s great to support small brands and support liquids that might have spent a little bit more time and consideration on where they come from and what they’re all about so honestly really admire what you guys are doing here.

Now, we’ve known you for a number of years and you’re a familiar face around these parts. Tell our readers what has led to your long, sustained relationship with the company? What drew you to TT?

Well first off you’ve got a great team, and that makes the biggest difference because you guys are people that care. It’s having a team of people that care and they don’t just work in the industry that’s just so attractive. I also think that our values are very similar – I remember talking to Steven when the whole TT Liquor dream started – and there’s always been a behind-the-scenes hustle of trying to reach this goal and make this big project happen. I’ve always respected the hustle, and you guys have always been really supportive of any project that we’re doing, particularly with London Mezcal Week. We’ve done it here for the past two years, and the space has been amazing for that. And we’re always stocked down in the bar, and there’s a great team down there too. Then there’s just the building itself – a hidden gem. I remember when I first came here, I was just like, “What? And there’s another room. And another room.” It was just like it keeps going! But yeah. It’s just a really beautiful space as well.

So the 500 ml bottle will get the price point down below £40, which will just make it that little bit less restrictive. You’ll feel a little bit less guilty when you order it.

So this leads us, chronologically, to the future. Do you have any exciting plans for Dangerous Don you want to reveal on the horizon? As much as you can plan anything in this day and age!

Well, the first thing to talk about here is that we’ve got this collaboration with TT Liquor coming up. So you guys have extended your reach quite drastically to new consumers with these cocktail boxes, which is awesome, and fortunately, we’re being included as one of the mystery spirits in some of the cocktail boxes. So that means that samples of Dangerous Don goes out in these cocktail boxes, and consumers are encouraged to try and make a drink with it and just taste it and get to know the spirit. So that is really exciting because we’re basically getting in front of a shit-ton of people that we probably wouldn’t have had a connection with before.

I would have usually said a mezcal margarita, but I think I’m getting to the point where I’ve drunk so many that it might not be my favourite drink anymore!

Then we’re also launching a new mezcal variation early next year. We’ve done a straight espadin, and then we’ve done a destilado with cafe, with coffee. We’re going to do a destilado with mandarin, which is coming out in probably February or March 2021-time, which is really exciting because it’s a limited edition, and there’s only one small batch of it, which my producer has made. That’s the most exciting thing, I guess. Then, although not exactly the most exciting news, but it is exciting, I guess, for me, is that we’re bringing out 500ml bottles for retail. Because mezcal is expensive, right? And it’s also really strong, so having a 700 ml bottle and shelling out 50-100-odd quid is quite a lot of cash. So the 500 ml bottle will get the price point down below £40, which will just make it that little bit less restrictive. You’ll feel a little bit less guilty when you order it. And it will probably stay for the same amount of time. Yeah. So we’ve got some new distribution into new markets from early next year, but until it actually happens, it’s just one of those ones where this year has just put everyone so nervy about saying anything’s going to go right. [laughs] So new flavours are the most exciting concrete thing we can talk about at the moment.

Favourite cocktail?

That’s a tricky one! So my favourite cocktail, I would say, at the moment is one we have at my bar in Dalston, Dona, called a Fiorello. Essentially, it’s a mezcal martini which is made with Papadiablo Espadin, which is this amazing mezcal. So I would say that is probably my favourite drink at this moment in time. But I mean, I would have usually said a mezcal margarita, but I think I’m getting to the point where I’ve drunk so many that it might not be my favourite drink anymore! [laughs] So yeah, I’m going to say Fiorello at Dona.

What bottle are you drinking at the moment?

I actually had a little look around yesterday to prepare! I’m going to, obviously, be biased and have to choose a mezcal and going to have to support a fellow small, independent producer. So I’m going to say Quiquiriqui, which is a great brand run by my good friend Melanie (Symonds). There’s also Pensador, which is another fellow small, independent brand which is doing great things in the category. So I’d say one of those two.