Selling tequila was a career move Ernesto Flores never had in mind. The Sun Valley, CA resident had spent the past few years as a graffiti artist, graphic designer, and bartender at Club Nokia. Yet, there he was one Saturday evening sitting at a Mexican restaurant in North Hollywood hustling two dudes sitting at the bar to his left. Five minutes after their initial greeting, Flores secured two sales at $250 a bottle each.
“That’s the Sun Valley hustle,” he tells me before jumping back into his story. Flores, who was born in San Jose de las Moras, La Barca in Jalisco, Mexico, was pushed into the tequila game by his godfather while on a trip back home in 2010 for his aunt’s funeral. His godfather, who taught him everything he knows about tequila, introduced him to one of his associates who was also a distiller. Flores drove three hours out of town in the middle of nowhere and met the man at his factory. There, his godfather’s associate told him, “Tu tienes lo que to no tengo y yo tengo lo que to no tienes. Yo tengo la tequila. Tu tienes los diseños y las conectas alla. I’m dumb if I let you walk out of this door and I don’t give you a deal.” Flores, naturally, was immediately hesitant. He knew he didn’t have the funds or the know-how but the man pressed on. Minutes later, Tequila Flores was born.
I wanted something that represented what I lived and what I went through. I know there’s a million other people that can co-sign and relate to it, not only here but, in Mexico and probably all over the world.
The Sun Valley hustle kicked in as soon as Flores returned to the States. He designed a logo that harkened back to his days in Sun Valley and Boyle Heights as a graffiti artist while respecting his Mexican heritage, something his mom taught him how to appreciate. “I wanted something that represented what I lived,” he says, “and what I went through. I know there’s a million other people that can co-sign and relate to it, not only here but, in Mexico and probably all over the world.”
That’s not to say that his life hasn’t been unique in any way. Flores’ family left Jalisco for Ventura County before he was even a year old. He lost his father in a car accident when he was five years old and he and his mother bounced from there to South Gate, where they lived in a garage for a year, to Boyle Heights where he developed a love for graffiti and hip-hop culture before he was 13. He would’ve stayed in Boyle Heights had he not been hit in the chest in a drive-by shooting. “That was the first time my mom let me go and play at my friend’s house,” he says, “and just like a movie, the drive-by came, the car came in slow-mo, bang-bang- bang-bang! I got the ricochet.” The bullet meant for his friend’s older brother hit him instead and lodged itself between his ribs above his heart. Unsurprisingly, his mother moved them both to Sun Valley. Unfortunately, the area wasn’t much different from Boyle Heights at the time with the exception of a non-existent graffiti culture. Flores and friends quickly filled that void. “I became a tagger,” he remembers, “but I was always a smart kid. I liked school but I just didn‘t like showing it.”
Flores hustled his way into California State University Northridge where the rise of the hip-hop and latin music scene on campus gave him an opportunity to flex his creative and academic muscles in graphic design and sociology. He saw money in t-shirts and was soon making a living selling shirts on campus. One of his first designs is still sold today in various incarnations. The next few years saw Flores spending time in Las Vegas, where he worked for Roc-A- Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash, and LA where he launched Ill Skillz Clothing, named after his tagger/b-boy crew from his younger days, until that other fateful day in Mexico in 2010. Flores now devotes his time to Tequila Flores, which he sells in limited production runs (hence the $250 price tag).
He’s not looking to break into the spring-break-white-girl- wasted-at-cinco-de-mayo market. Rather, he wants to sell to people who know how to enjoy tequila and have a respect for the process of distillation. It’s his way of paying tribute to his heritage the way his mother taught him to. “My mom was very Mexicana,” he says, “if it wasn’t Mexican, it was not worth it.” And if there’s one thing Flores wants to do with Tequila Flores is make it worth it as a tribute to his mother who passed away last year. “The moment that she passed away [of pulmonary fibrosis],” he remembers, “the first bottle that I made…I put it in my mom’s grave and I told her, ‘mom, this one’s for you.’”