Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Wilmington-based Chactun tequila hits market mid-January, despite holiday cargo heist

Chactun Hacienda blanco tequila from Wilmington-based Dayton Distillers will be released on Jan. 15 with release parties planned for it this month. (Courtesy photo)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — It was three weeks away from its official launch: the first runs of Hacienda Chactun reposado and blanco tequilas were slated to hit the ABC store shelves in New Hanover County by Jan. 15.

READ MORE: WB’s Blue Shark distillers bringing new brand of tequila to market in May

But on Dec. 21 at 3 a.m., Chactun CEO Mark Milliken received a disturbing phone call from his business partner Mark Bloomquist, CEO of Blue Shark — both products are part of their company Daytoon Distributors. Roughly 19,000 bottles of the reposado were missing.

“We were cyber hijacked and sent false information,” Milliken said on a phone call Tuesday. “It was a very sophisticated operation.”

Daytoon was using Landstar System transportation, with a logistics team tracking the shipment across the states. Hacienda Chactun tequilas are made in Jalisco, Mexico, before moving to Daytoon’s facility in California, where the bottles are then shipped to the Carolina coast. 

Milliken said the Chactun team was receiving photos and updates on the delivery — which was experiencing delays mid-December. One photograph they received showed a driver with a flat tire and another picture indicated traffic congestion.

Then Bloomquist received a phone call Dec. 21 that the shipment arrived along Market Street. But when he sent his son to meet the truck, the address was an empty Jiffy Lube parking lot, with no delivery truck in sight. 

“Our antennas went up and the hair on the back of our head went crazy,” Milliken said. “We realized this wasn’t a fly-by-night operation. The cyber criminals were really savvy in how they intercepted the product.”

Photos previously sent by the “driver” on the way to North Carolina and excuses for his delays were fake. It was a ruse so perpetrators could make off with the tequila, according to Daytoon entrepreneurs.

“We don’t know why, except for somebody wanted the tequila — or they didn’t know what they took and now don’t know what to do with it,” Milliken said. 

More than $300,000 wholesale in reposado was stolen, though the entrepreneurs suspect they’ve lost close to half-a-million dollars when assessing upstart and production. 

California authorities and the feds have stepped in to investigate since the freight crossed state lines. They suspect the shipment’s last known whereabouts to be in Rancho Cucamonga, California, according to Milliken. While he and Bloomquist have been working with authorities, they remain focused on getting their new brand to market against all odds.

“We’ve got to move forward,” Milliken said. “For three days in December, we hated life. But we can’t do anything about the past. If we get the tequila back, we get it back. If the insurance pays for it, great. Otherwise, we take the hit in the pocketbook, but no matter what, we’re going to keep on going and make this happen.”

Whether the insurance claim is covered or not, Milliken assured the stolen goods won’t affect product costs. The blanco will retail for $25.99 and the reposado for $29.99. 

The Jan. 15 launch is still full speed ahead — at least with the blanco. Roughly 20,000 bottles of the unaged silver tequila will be available in North Carolina ABC stores, as it wasn’t affected by the hijack.

There are multiple events planned to celebrate its arrival as well. This weekend King Neptune is offering specials to complement the tequila, such as a sheep’s head tostada and cumin-dusted scallop appetizer with mango, plus cocktails such as The Lone Ranger, made with Chactun, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and sparkling rose. 

The weekend of Jan. 19 and 20, Tequila Comida and Cantina — which will have its new second location open in downtown Wilmington — and all Los Portales locations are hosting release parties for Chactun blanco. It will take place 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. with a mariachi band and special cocktails, like the Alebrije Caliente Martini Margarita, with blanco, ginger, pineapple juice, fresh squeezed lime juice and an infusion of Serrano green peppers.

The goal originally was to launch the tequila last May, but there were delays with the North Carolina ABC Commission — particularly, limited space in Raleigh to shelf the product before distribution.

“We were told our Chactun tequila could not come in from Mexico until June, due to warehouse constraints they had,” Milliken said. 

Excitement was building throughout the holiday season for the Daytoon crew, knowing they were finally going to get the tequila into the hands of customers by the new year. Milliken told Port City Daily at the end of November, once the reposado and blanco were rolled out, he would turn his attention to a third tequila — one aged in oak barrels for four years. 

Anejo was planned for release by summer 2024. Milliken is unsure now if that timeline will be met, though he’s still shooting for its release to take place sometime this year.

“We had to shift back to doing more respo since the heist,” he said.

Anejo is aged for four years and will come to market in 2024 as well. (Courtesy photo)

The anejo will be a more expensive tequila — retailing around $65 — with a new batch launched every year. Daytoon is expecting to produce a limited run of 1,000 to 1,500 bottles annually.

“It has a nice honey, vanilla flavor profile,” Milliken said of the anejo. “And when it drops to the back of your palate, it sometimes gives you, I think, a more flowery feel.”

Friends for four decades after meeting at the Naval Academy, Milliken and Bloomquist have been working on the tequila brands for a decade now. The agave plants on a 100-acre farm in Mexico take seven years to mature before they can harvest them for the juice.

“It’s during this growing period that our blue agave develops all of its natural aromas and flavors,” Milliken said.

The plants are processed into tequila, made from Daytoon’s own aquifer to control the water, almost 1,000 feet below sea level, which keeps natural minerals intact. Chactun also has 25% natural sugars — organic tequila requires 22% sugar.

“It’s a premium artisanal product similar to craft beer or an aged fine wine,” Milliken said.

The reposado — aged in oak barrels for 10 months — hopefully will be in production and on ABC shelves as soon as possible. Milliken was hesitant to say exactly when, though the product itself is already made. 

“It’s just getting the labels printed because they’re on holographic paper, and the bottles filled, and get the truck packed up and back here again, which of course we’re a little bit antsy about now,” he said. 

Once the tequila is produced and shipped cross-border, it makes stops in California, Nevada and North Carolina, where Daytoon has warehouses and production facilities. All the tequilas will launch first in North Carolina — like its award-winning sister brand Blue Shark Vodka did — and if all goes well, distribution will spread to other states. At first, however, it’s going to be “home courted,” according to Milliken. 

Also, the team is making a switch to a local transportation company. Daytoon has moved to work with locally headquartered MegaCorp as of this week, Milliken confirmed. The freight brokerage firm was founded in Wilmington in 2009 and has expanded with operations to Jacksonville, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. 

MegaCorp has ranked among the top 40 brokerage firms nationwide and it received a $500,000 incentive from the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County in 2022. It plans to grow operations in Wilmington over the next five years, adding 300 more jobs.

“We’re happy to be local,” Milliken said. “MegaCorp has reached out to us over the last few years and we know they have a tremendous reputation.”

While Landstar is well-known in the trucking industry, it’s not the first time the company has had cargo intercepted. Just last April its subsidiary Landstar Ranger was found non-negligent by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the 2020 theft of expensive freight from Tessco Technologies Inc. A thief acted like a Landstar carrier and got away with the motor carrier of cargo.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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