For over three decades, brothers Gino and Henry Santos have been pioneers in the beverage industry, making it possible for establishments with only wine and beer licenses to legally serve delicious cocktails. Their company, Premium Blend, offers a diverse range of wine-based liquors and liqueurs, empowering venues to craft enticing wine-based cocktails that not only draw in customers but also bolster profits. As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, our marketing team had the privilege of sitting down with Gino Santos, one of the founders, who shared their distinctive journey as Hispanic immigrants and entrepreneurs in the United States. During this conversation, Gino recounted the unique experiences he and his brother encountered while establishing and guiding their company toward success.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of creating Premium Blend?
A: Basically, there was an existing product on the market called Wild Cocktails in the late 80s, which had the same concept as wine-based liquor substitutes. I came across it when I was working as a sales rep on the street. I thought it was a great concept, being conscious of the fact that getting a liquor license was very difficult. Growing up, my father had a restaurant nightclub, so I knew a bit about that world. I told my brother Henry about it, and he saw it as a great idea too. We contacted the company and started the business selling that same product. It was a bit limited since they only had five different kinds, the labels weren’t that nice, and the product was just okay. But it was the only thing out there, so it was a good starting point. Eventually, we took over all the inventory, rebranded it with our own labels and formulas, and upgraded the whole thing.
Over the years, we’ve been continuously improving and expanding the product line. Now, it’s comparable in taste to traditional spirits but with less alcohol. It was kind of just dumb luck! I was working in the market for my previous employer when I stumbled across this product and thought, “Wow, what a great concept! This should be everywhere. Why isn’t it?” They just weren’t doing the right job with it. So, we took it over and took off from there.
Q: Do you believe Hispanic culture plays a big role in the development of the brand? How does it influence the brand to this day?
A: Well, I think Hispanic culture is hugely important, given that our biggest selling product is the tequila substitute, primarily for the Margaritas. I believe it helped the business thrive because through the 90s and into the 2000s Margaritas became extremely popular. This was advantageous for us because initially, most of the people who bought our product used it to make frozen cocktails or other similar drinks. However, as Margaritas eventually became the number #1 selling cocktail in the country, it reached a point where more people were enjoying a Margarita over any other drink. This greatly benefited us.
The entire Mexican restaurant industry also experienced a boom, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, with Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants popping up everywhere! And we rode that wave with our tequila substitutes. Even today, our current Agave portfolio remains our best-selling portfolio with various flavor profiles. So, yes, the Hispanic world did play a significant role in our success.
Q: What was one of the biggest challenges you encountered when setting up the company? How did you overcome it?
A: One of the biggest challenges we encountered when setting up the company was how to overcome the fact that nobody understood the concept.
Restaurants and bars, well, everybody wants a liquor license. The simple reason is that you make a lot of money selling drinks. If you sell a drink for eight dollars and it costs you a dollar, you know, it’s just a huge profit margin. So people have historically always tried to make wine cocktails. They used to try to wine-base them using whatever wine they had, and of course, the result wasn’t great.
So when we first started telling people “Hey, this is a wine-based product that you can sell with your beer and wine license” they were like, “Oh that’s that wine-based crap” and believe it or not, that was the most common thing we would hear. So the biggest challenge we had was overcoming that mindset. For at least the first half of our existence, we were more like teachers than anything else, just educating people on the fact that you can make a good drink with just your beer and wine license. We’ve always improved the formulas, we’ve always improved the flavor profiles, but the biggest challenge is educating customers and having them first understand the concept.
How did we overcome it? Time and persistence. And also, we always like to say that the world finally caught up to us because the world of cocktails, as you know, kept evolving and changing. There came the craft cocktail movement, and a lot of people started making cocktails with alternative spirits. People expanded their minds on that matter, and that helped us out a lot.
Q: In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, is there anything unique or significant you’d like to tell us about your cultural background?
A: I think everybody knows that Cubans are one, if not the most successful migration the United States has ever seen. I came to this country in the 60s. You know, we came from a very prosperous and industrious country strongly tied to the United States, so the American dream was alive in Cuba as well. Therefore, to me, being raised Cuban was a big plus.
Since we were little, our parents ingrained in us that we were leaders, not followers. My father always said that we didn’t come to this country to mess around; we came to do something important. We came for a reason. Actually, my father, Orestes Santos, was a very famous songwriter in Cuba, and he gave up everything to come to this country so our family could have a better chance. My mother also left her small business in Cuba to start from scratch here. That kind of sacrifice is never forgotten. It taught us to be grateful, and resilient, and to never take anything for granted.
When I came here, I was five years old, so obviously, I received my entire education in the US. However, I was raised in the Cuban culture and that doesn’t go away. I mean, my favorite food is rice and black beans! And as my brother Henry always says: “We’re basically Americans who like to eat black beans and rice.” [laughs] So yeah, we immigrants straddle both cultures, and we do live in both worlds. I believe that helps us have a wider perspective of things, and fit in anywhere because we know what it’s like to be in two different worlds at the same time.
Q: Any advice you’d like to share with young Hispanic entrepreneurs?
A: Particularly to Hispanic entrepreneurs, I would say, first and foremost, don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget where you came from because the reason why the majority of us came to this country, is because it wasn’t so good where we were. So, don’t forget why you’re here. You’re here to be successful, you’re here to be positive, you’re here to do something good and to make a positive impact. Remember that what brought you here was seeking something better, and don’t lose sight of that. We, immigrants, know what it’s like not to have, and what it’s like not to be in the land of opportunity. We know what it’s like to be somewhere where you don’t have the chances that you have in this country.
So, never take for granted what you’re able to achieve here because, as we all know, things could always change.