Bertha González Nieves is often described as the "First Lady of Tequila." While it's doubtless meant as a complement, it can be misleading because it implies there's a first man. González Nieves, co-founder and CEO of Casa Dragones and a Master Tequilera in her own right, is definitely a lady - and she's also the boss.
Though she began her career and worked for a decade as an executive at Jose Cuervo International, the world's largest tequila company, her company takes tequila in a different direction. Casa Dragones is deeply committed to handcrafted, small-batch production that González Nieves believes affords them the luxury of applying meticulous attention and detail into their product.
"We are a small batch producer that's trying to push the conversation of the industry into the future, using the most sustainable, modern processes available," explained González Nieves. "We're in the business of taste, not in the business of volume."
Determined to develop a balanced and complex tequila that could compete with other sipping spirits, González Nieves and her colleagues arrived at their singular formula by blending a white tequila with a 5-year-old tequila that had been aged in in new American white oak barrels.
"You're getting the floral and citrus notes of the blanco tequila, balanced with the sweetness and spice of the extra aged tequila," she explained. "That master blend is what we believe makes this product so special."
Forget the worms once associated with mass market tequila in the United States - Casa Dragones Joven tequila is all butterfly. It has hints of vanilla and notes of pear, a soft finish of hazelnuts and a lingering length on the palate.
We recently spoke to González Nieves in Miami where she was taking part in a dinner hosted by chef Scott Conant at the award-winning restaurant Scarpetta, as well as Miami chef Michael Pirolo and Top Chef's Nina Compton. It was one of the events at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival and part of their New York Times Cooking Dinner Series.
Chef Conant is pairing your Casa Dragones Joven with a rustic Italian menu. What was the key to developing a sipping tequila that could be paired with food?
One of things we're very proud of is that we've been able to collaborate with Italian, French, American, and of course Mexican chefs. We're trying to take tequila to a different place and showcase it in a different light. No one would ever imagine Italian food paired with a tequila. I think that's the exciting part. When a chef deciphers or interprets our product in their own way by doing a pairing, it's shedding some light on the complexity that our product was able to deliver.
Soon after launching Casa Dragones, you became the first woman to receive the title of Master Tequilera from the Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila. What made you decide to pursue an official title and what did it involve?
For the first two years of operations, we were focused on figuring out the route to delivering a true sipping tequila. We didn't see anything else than how we were going to innovate and deliver a tequila with such complexity that it could compete with cognacs and single malts and had the balance to seduce the most coveted palates in the culinary industry.
When we got to our formula, Benjamin Garcia [Master Tequilero of Casa Dragones] suggested I get my title. Because I'm an entrepeneur, I asked the [Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila] if they were really going to consider me - they said yes they would.
It took me 12 years to get my title from the time I started in the industry, since they considered all my tenure in the tequila category. By the time I knocked on their door, I had already developed my first tequila.
It's easy to imagine the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated field. Are there any advantages?
I don't think I've approached this industry from a woman's point of view. I've approached it from a passion point of view and not really being focused on thinking that because I'm a woman I'm going to be treated X,Y, or Z. Knowing that there weren't many women in the industry, I was more focused on making sure that when I came to the table I came with a very strong, specific, and professional point of view. Then it didn't really matter if I was a woman or not.
Where do you find the largest market for tequila and how is it marketed differently?
Numerically, the U.S. market is larger with a very strong purchasing power but in Mexico we drink more tequila per capita than in the US. But we don't market it differently. We don't really see a border between Mexico and the U.S.
For food and wine, people are more focused on the quality and craft of the product. The consumer we have in Mexico City is here at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival and vice versa. It's more about really being in the right places in both markets than trying to differentiate them.
What should we look for in tequila?
If you're passionate about the tequila industry then there's so much to be passionate about. Let the category entertain you. Be curious.
When you're in a bar, ask the bartender what they know about it. If they say it's areposado tequila that's been aged in certain barrels or it's been through a certain process, take your time to decipher what you're tasting, what the notes are, and what you're finding, even if you don't have the vocabulary.
It's more about taking your time to savor and sip and enjoy it. Next time you order that tequila you will never see it the same way again.
By ANA SOFÍA PELÁEZ