Outside is open again, and summertime Chi is just within reach. For those of drinking age, Rogers Park native Uduimoh Umolu, founder of tequila brand Jon Basil, may have just what’s needed to accompany those lakefront BBQs and small gatherings with friends — all while taking in all the city has to offer during the warmer months. 

What started as a running joke between Umolu and his friend and business partner Belall Taher while they were students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign morphed into a millennial- and minority-owned premium liquor company that is changing the game of a spirits industry that has consistently lacked diversity.

“We were barely old enough to drink, but it was all fun and games back then,” Umolu told The TRiiBE on March 31.  

After graduating from U of I, Umolu, a child of immigrant parents from Ghana, began to set his idea in motion to own and operate a spirits brand. Umolu and Taher launched Jon Basil tequila in 2018 after a trip to Jalisco, Mexico. Tequila, a town in Jalisco, Mexico, is the birthplace of tequila.  

Of all the other spirits, Umolu said the story behind tequila’s creation inspired him. He added that tequila is one of the healthiest spirits to drink and that it’s an upper and not a downer. The happy and carefree vibes that he seeks out aren’t always present for him with other spirits such as vodka or cognac.  

Jon Basil currently has two flavors of tequila — Blanco and Reposado — and there are more flavors in the works, Umolu said. He described Blanco as the smoother of the two tequilas. It has citrus notes, is easy to mix for cocktails and blends well with mixers. While Reposado is also smooth, it has oak, caramel and vanilla in its flavor profile.

Jon Basil tequila has two flavors of tequila Blanco and Reposado. Photo provided.

Jon Basil tequila is made from 100% blue Weber agave, a plant from which tequila is derived. For tequila to bear the name, it has to come from Tequila, Jalisco, Mexico, Umolu explained. 

The brand pays homage to Umola’s roots. Jon is the name of Umolu’s grandfather, and Basil is the name of his father’s godfather, who made it possible for him to attend college in the United States. 

“We now are at this point where people have sacrificed and put us at a place where we can be the first and that’s what we try to champion with the brand. It’s really just a toast to that,” he said, speaking of the sacrifices his parents made for their family. 

Around the time Umolu began developing the concept in 2015, he saw the craft beer and brew markets start to take off in Chicago and thought the craft spirits could do the same. 

Uduimoh Umolu is pictured here with his tequila brand Jon Basil. Photo provided.

Though Umolu has seen success with Jon Basil, there were challenges on the journey toward entrepreneurship. According to a 2022 Forbes news report, Black consumers account for 12% of alcohol sales, but represent only 7.8% of the workforce and two percent of executives in the sprits industry. Unfortunately, there isn’t much demographic data publicly available to show what the industry looks like here in Chicago. But the Black-owned website Will Drink for Travel keeps a running list of 160+ Black-owned spirits brands that is updated monthly.

Umolu said it took some convincing industry gatekeepers to take him and Taher seriously. 

“[Chicago] is one of the most competitive markets that you can face, and a lot of the relationships and folks that are in charge that can kind of open the door for you have all been around for a very long time,” Umolu said. “It’s kind of close-knit, so to be outside of that spectrum or outside of that group, and then attempting to open the door and get through is a harder sell in some cases because it hadn’t been seen or done before.” 

Today, Jon Basil is sold in more than 300 store and bar locations in Illinois, including Walmart,  Binny’s Beverage Depot and Jewel-Osco. Jon Basil can also be purchased in eastern Iowa and portions of northwest Indiana. In its first year, Jon Basil sold through its first shipment. Umolu and Taher were also named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for food and drink in 2021. 

The tide in the industry is changing. Umolu pointed to other Black-owned spirit brands with Chicago roots popping up. For example, there’s Michael Lavelle Wines, a Black-owned wine company founded by Chicago native Terrence “Lavelle” Low and Aaron Michael Coad, Brandon Crump and Devin Kennedy, Alexander James Whiskey, founded by Chicago native Jesse Steward Jr. and PlayPen Vodka, founded by brothers Joseph Moton and Ted Robinson. 

As for the best way to drink his tequila, he suggests drinking Blanco neat, but if you want something a bit softer, squeeze a bit of orange or lime. There are also a number of drink recipes on the website. 

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.