If you’re a boozehound, D.C. is paradise. At this point, we have enough breweries and distilleries to fill a bar, let alone a liquor cabinet, but sometimes you need a break from your go to whiskey, gin or vodka. Sometimes it’s nice to mix it up. To go for something a little on the strange side. At least, that’s what Dan Ziegler is hoping. He’s the creator behind D.C.’s newest liquor, Chacho. A riff off of the sweet aguardiente that can be found in Colombia, Chacho is infused with jalapeños, giving it a spicy kick.
We sat down with Ziegler to chat about how he started the business, his go to cocktails and riding llamas. Grab your favorite bottle, shake something good up and join us.
How did you discover aguardiente?
A couple years out of college, I just went down to Columbia with a couple of my buddies from school. There was certainly no intention of finding a new career path, or inspiration, or anything like that, I was simply on vacation having a good time with my friends. We get down there and everyone could tell we were down there to party and have a good time and everything, so everyone is like, oh you have to try aguardiente, it’s our national drink. So the first thing we did is buy a couple bottles and we fell in love with the spirit the couple weeks that I was down there. Down there they actually do it with anise, so it’s the black licorice flavor, which I don’t traditionally like at all, but I was drinking it like crazy. I couldn’t believe how good it was, so I was like, man if they could make this so good with something I don’t even like, how can I do my own thing, my own twist? I love spicy, love jalapeños, so I decided, just as a hobby at first, to do my own infusions. Eventually, I figured out the whole business side of it and over three and a half years it went from pipe dream to launch.
I heard there’s a llama story.
There is a llama story. So, like I said, when we got down there everybody knew we were ready to part. A couple of Americans in Columbia. So we check into our hostel and the first thing we do is buy a couple of bottles, and we don’t know the laws, so we actually poured it into water bottles and we were just taking shots as we sightsee around town the first day. After a couple of hours we come across this local woman who has a llama on the sidewalk. Parents put their little children on it, she’ll take a picture for a couple pesos. So, I’m several hours deep at this point, so I’m like, “Hola! May I get on your llama?” and I start riding this llama down the streets of Bogota, drunk on aguardiente for the first time, and the llamas name was Chacho.
Before you started Chacho, what were your drinking habits? What was your favorite cocktail?
I was, and still am today, a big fan of tequilas and a big fan of whiskey. Those are my preferences out at the bar, you know, a shot and a beer kind of thing. With cocktails, I’ve always leaned toward tequila cocktails… Technically aguardiente would fall into the rum category because it’s distilled from cane sugar, but most people when they see my packaging and when they taste Chacho there’s no real alcohol forward taste, but everyone wants to put it in a tequila category. And in a lot of the cocktails were Chacho replaces the base spirit or compliments it, those fall into the tequila category, along with rum, vodka… In D.C. I see spicy margaritas a lot and I think that’s the most natural comparison. I like spicy stuff, but I thought there was a real void for something with a real kick. And it has a natural taste to it too, not that chemical-y taste.
That’s interesting because whiskey and tequila are obviously booze forward drinks and Chacho is not at all.
I wanted the spice to be the focal point. When you taste Chacho neat it’s a little sweet off the front from the sugar cane. When normally a kind of alcohol burn would kick in, that’s when the spice takes over and overpowers that alcohol burn and that’s what I wanted. I really like the spiciness of it. I like that kick. It stays on the tongue and keeps you wanting more. That was the idea there, a little bit of sweet and then that spicy pop.
When did it become real for you? When did it stop being a hobby and start being a legitimate business?
At first it was just me and one of the buddies I went down there with. We were like, Oh this is so cool… I can’t believe Americans haven’t heard of aguardiente. It was this pipe dream for a while and he and I were actually working together in the start, but that kind of fell through and went by the wayside. How it started versus how it launched, I was initially talking to local Colombian government officials and trying to have it produced down there and imported up and there were all kinds of different things. When it first really clicked was probably about two years before the launch and it was just a culmination of… I had no background in this whatsoever, so I had to learn every single thing. There was no ahah moment, it was just a slow progression and once I figured out that I could do it without having my own distillery, per se… I don’t have my own brick and mortar like all the other guys here in D.C., I’ve taken a different approach. And once I realized I could take a slow and methodical approach from it and learn as I go, that’s when I got really excited about it. I wasn’t going to need to deal with these local Colombian government people and I wasn’t going to need to raise millions of dollars to have a distillery. That’s when I really started cooking.
Since you mentioned it, your distillery isn’t here. It’s bottled in Iowa and shipped to D.C., right?
I actually go up there and do everything with his equipment and everything like that, but yes. I developed the whole formula and recipe myself, once I developed that and everything and I realized I didn’t need my own brick and mortar, I met this guy from Iowa who specializes in small batch third party contracts, so I import the cane sugar from South America and then I ship my glass, my labels, my corks out there. We go out there, it’s a really small mom and pop place. It’s allowed me to completely bootstrap it and maintain ownership and oversight of everything, but not have any of the huge upfront costs. While I would absolutely love to one day own a distillery and have something that people can touch and feel, right now I’m just a one man show. I don’t even have investors or anything. It’s the only way I could do it.
I heard that you were expanding to Chicago?
Yes, I have the product in Chicago and I recently rolled out in Nevada.
How did you choose those two cities?
Chicago… I’m from the Midwest and I have a lot of friends there, so I connected with a distributor who was really enthusiastic about my product, so for a couple of different reasons it made sense. Las Vegas, I used to work in the casino/gaming industry and so I lived out there for a summer… it’s a crazy place. So I lived out there and had some connections out there and everything. Geographically, I know it doesn’t quite align. Also, just at the beginning of this year, I got into essentially all of the Alexandria and Arlington ABC stores and then some down in Richmond as well. Next month I’ll likely be rolling out in Maryland. It’s been a very busy year, but it’s all been built around the core market in D.C. And it all started with me getting home from work, changing my clothes and going from bar to bar with a bottle. And now that I’m full time I’ll get calls saying, “I’ve had your product, can I get it at my bar…” To see the slow progression of all the hard work has been one of the most rewarding things.
What will success look like in this industry for you? Is it a household name?
I’d definitely want it to become a household name, but it’s so unique and so different, I don’t know if it will ever be as prevalent as your biggest vodka or your biggest whiskey or your biggest tequila. Intentionally, to some degree Chacho is absolutely polarizing. There’s no question. If you don’t like spicy, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to like Chacho. I didn’t want to do it so it’s just a hint of spice so that it’s globally accepted. I wanted it to be, if you like spice, you’re going to like Chacho. I’m definitely targeting a defined smaller group of people who do enjoy spicy cocktails, spicy shots and things like that. I’m just trying to hit my niche market and do it really well and like no one else has done it before.
What is your favorite Chacho cocktail?
When I do events, my go to cocktail as far as the fan favorite and pure simplicity is what I call the Medellín Mule or the Colombian Llama. It’s just a Moscow Mule with Chacho instead of vodka and some ginger beer and lime juice. Even though ginger beer is spicy, they’re different kinds of spices so they compliment each other, the lime juice kind of cuts it down and brings it together really well. There’s kind of two approaches to cocktails I take, there’s the classic cocktails where Chacho replaces a rum, a tequila, a vodka. So you’re looking at margaritas, bloody marys, mules, mojitos and of those mules and margaritas are definitely my favorite. On the specialty side, especially with it being summer, I love anything with passion fruit and Chacho. It’s something that a lot of people don’t think of but it’s absolutely delicious and a little more unique and specialty.
What was the hardest part of getting this off the ground?
The hardest part was probably… it’s just such a regulated industry. I didn’t know… I have mentors and stuff as far as business goes, but I didn’t have anyone who had done this before. I would literally spend months trying to figure something out and then the second that you talk to the right person, they’re just like, oh here’s the answer. And I’m like, I just wasted three months trying to figure this out! For me, the hardest part was completely going at it on my own. There was no guidebook, especially with something as unique as Chacho. It’s not like I could take something off the shelf and say, I want to do this. With vodka, it’s been done before. There is a path already blazed. I hadn’t talked to anyone who had done anything remotely similar. There was no one I could just call up and they’d help out.
Where is your favorite place to drink in the city?
I don’t know if I want to single any particular places out… I don’t want to alienate any of my customers… but I spend most of my time on U Street. I just moved over to Bloomingdale. I will say, one of my favorite places, and it has a little bit of a soft spot because it was the first bar in all of D.C. to pick me up, is Pub and the People. So they were literally there since day one. The first day I was able to sell product and got my order from Iowa… I shipped myself two palettes and they got here three days after I got back and I immediately hit the streets. As soon as I walked in there I happened to catch the two owners, they loved it and said they would take it. That was my first bar. One of my favorite things about Chacho is that I had some ideas for cocktails it would work with, but the coolest thing for me is seeing what different bartenders around the city come up with. It’s just crazy. Some people want suggestions or recommendations, but most bartenders taste it and you see a light go on in their head and they know exactly what to do with it. Sometimes it’s wacky and totally out there and it works. I don’t have a beverage background. I’ve bartended, but it was shots and rum and cokes in college bars. So to see what people come up with and how creative they are, it’s really cool. There is an awesome scene in D.C. New York and LA and Miami and Vegas get all this media hype, but there’s an awesome scene in D.C.