By: Quinn Gawronski
If you’ve been to Cancun, you’ve probably stepped foot into the legendary Coco Bongo, the most visited nightclub in Mexico. Open 354 days of the year, Coco Bongo fills with 1,500 party-revelers every single night. The scene is unlike any other nightclub in the world, it has been described as Cirque de Soleil meets Studio 54 where costumed acrobats swing over hoards of awe-struck tourists, Elvis impersonators lead bar-top conga lines, foam bubbles lap on the dance floor, and the drinks flows freely
From the extravagantly choreographed show to the sharp taste of tequila on your tongue, Billy O’Rourke’s mark on Cancun is irrefutable. Billy, otherwise known as “Cancun Billy”, might look like the other patrons who flood this notorious tourist destination, but his ties to Cancun go much deeper than a one-week stay in an all-inclusive resort.
Billy’s Mexican-borne business ventures go back decades, but his latest concoction is primed to be the greatest. Tequila has had it’s time, but the future lies in the smoky and sophisticated flavor of mezcal. If the past 25 years have been any indication of Billy’s influence on the international party scene, Nayaase Mezcal Artesanal is set to take the world by storm.
When Billy first arrived in 1996, he was ready to celebrate a sun-drenched spring vacation on the picturesque beaches and non-stop nightlife strips of Cancun. If you’ve ever been a spring breaker in Cancun you know the routine—copious amounts of booze, late-night clubbing, and a devastating hangover that will require a few days recovery.
But once Billy’s week was up, the last thing he wanted to was to leave the vivacious spring break lifestyle behind for his comparatively bleak home of St. Paul, Minnesota.
As he continued his studies at the University of Minnesota, it was with the addendum that spring break would not be a hazy memory to share with grandkids. Where others saw a vacation hotspot, Billy wanted to build a life.
So he sold resort vacations to his college cohort and returned to Cancun time and time again, meeting friendly locals, business owners, and nightlife connoisseurs along the way. Each time he went back his circle grew, until eventually he had the status of an innocuous ‘gringo’ celebrity. “Cancun Billy” became an official spring break aficionado—master of events, bachelor party host, and tour guide to celebrities like Snoop Dog and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards.
Billy’s nightlife notoriety didn’t end at the border either. His unforgettable events traversed to the sparkling boulevards of Las Vegas, where he could be found alongside American celebrities, models and executives. When it came to hosting his star-studded parties, Billy spared no expense—he even bought Elvis Presley’s house to accommodate the flocks of people who came to experience the best of Sin City.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, stints at CNN and the U.S. Tennis Association, Billy moved south of the border in 1999. His local esteem only grew when he was brought on as an advisor on tourism and imports to then-president Vicente Fox Quesada. Billy also used his marketing experience to consult with prominent U.S. companies like MTV and Budweiser, who sought to enter the Mexican consumer market.
Billy might have come to Cancun with only a few high-school level Spanish classes under his belt, but between an ultimatum from his Spanish-speaking girlfriend of the time and subtitled seasons of Friends, he eventually became fluent.
But just as Billy worked hard, he obviously played even harder. The once-fleeting spring break lifestyle became part of his routine, with ventures to favored Cancun destinations like, you guessed it, Coco Bongo.
On any given night, the club could be packed with up to 1,800 people—with no shortage of spilled drinks or raucous tourists in sight. This particular evening in 2006, Billy spots a man making his way to a table, flanked by four statuesque women on both sides. It’s Don Julio Gonzalez Jr., the son and protegee of Don Julio, spirits tycoon and tequila mogul. Evidently no stranger to befriending local businessmen and changemakers, Billy strikes up a conversation.
It’s a mere two years later in the heat of a Mexican mid-summer when Billy arrives at the Don Julio home in Jalisco, Mexico. The 4,500-foot highlands of Jalisco are the birthplace of tequila, where miles of blue agave fields are harvested to distill some of the world’s finest mezcal.
Despite Don Julio being one of the best-selling tequilas internationally, their home is a quaint adobe building situated among agave fields, neat rows of blue spires stretching into the distance.
In these fields, Billy learns from Don Julio Gonzalez himself every part of the spirits business— from farming the agave fields to distilling. They hacked away at the plants to reach the long bulb for harvesting and heaved hundreds of pounds of agave leaves into Don’s pickup truck.
When Billy leaves the farm it’s with a new business venture in mind—tequila. Though it originates as far back as Aztec civilizations, the popularity of tequila has become unequivocal among party-goers. From inglorious bachelor parties thrown in Las Vegas to throngs of drunk tourists that stumble through Cancun, tequila is the striking commonality, and Billy was ready to tap into the ever-flowing market.
In 2009, Billy launched Ambhar Tequila, which climbed through the ranks to become the third best-selling premium tequila brand behind Don Julio and Patron. Unlike the swarm of American celebrities who hock tequila to their loyal fanbases, Billy used his first-hand experience living in Mexico to create a more authentic spirit.
The success of Ambhar was in large part due to it’s five-step distillation process, which produces a smoother and easier to drink tequila. Though liquor laws require that tequila be distilled at least two times, when it comes to Billy, the standard is clearly just a starting point. So why would he stop at tequila?
Billy’s moved on to the newer, and more sophisticated sister of tequila: mezcal. While tequila has a relatively limited range of flavors, mezcal has an abundance of undertones that make each brand unlike the last. Mezcal is gaining traction among millennials and Gen Z alike, with Future Market Insights estimating an 18 percent increase in sales by the end of 2022. And for party-goers who dread the dull ache of a tequila-induced hangover, mezcal also has a reputation for being a more manageable morning-after.
So it’s no surprise that Billy spotted the trend and is ready to leave his mark on the mezcal movement.
Billy’s Nayaase Mezcal Artesanal is created in the southern state of Oaxaca, where each agave seed is hand planted, harvested, baked in an underground fire pit, before it is finally fermented and distilled three times. The name and design is inspired by Aztec history, the colors of Oaxaca definitely shine through. There will be four expressions or varieties of the mezcal, each categorized by their aging process: a pair of jovens, a reposado, and an anejo; a subdued difference in taste fit for every consumer. For those who have been turned away by the overwhelming smoky flavor of mezcal, Nayaase will be a welcomed addition to their collection. Smooth, ultra smooth, or clean, it’s distilled to retain some of that fiery flavor, but subdued just enough to make it easy to drink straight. Nayaase launches in Q1 2022 in Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles.
Between his latest business venture of launching Nayaase and his position as President at Global A Brands, the parent company of Nayaase and other luxury lifestyle brands, Billy still finds the time to be Las Vegas’ greatest socialite. He may be spotted dining at Bavette’s Steak House or sipping smoky mezcal cocktails at one of Vegas’ hidden speakeasys with one of his many celebrity friends, the legend that is “Cancun Billy” continues to grow.