One of the first things you’ll notice about Casa Dragones Tequila is its sleek packaging: A bright turquoise box reveals a crystal bottle that is individually signed, numbered, and hand-engraved by Mexican artisans. This careful attention to detail is a direct reflection of CEO and co-founder, Bertha González Nieves. The tequila industry innovator was the first woman accredited as Maestra Tequilera by the Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila — think sommelier, but for tequila — a title traditionally reserved for men that took her 12 years to earn.
Whereas most tequila producers start with a silver or blanco tequila, Casa Dragones launched in 2009 with Joven, a master blend of silver and extra-aged tequila rested in new American oak barrels that is meant for sipping and pairing with food. In 2014, the collection expanded with Tequila Casa Dragones Blanco, a 100 percent silver tequila made for enjoying in cocktails or on the rocks. In 2020, Casa Dragones released its first 100 percent Blue Agave añejo, distinguished by its barrel aging and process.
This atypical approach has garnered global attention. In 2018, González Nieves was awarded the “Pride in Mexico” for her work creating a global Mexican luxury brand, and that same year, Forbes México named her one of 50 most powerful women in Mexico. (As for the brand’s reputation in the U.S.? Apparently Oprah named Casa Dragones her favorite tequila in 2014.)
Prior to Casa Dragones, González Nieves spent 10 years as a top executive for Jose Cuervo International, the largest tequila company in the world, after an earlier career as an ambassador to the Japanese government. It was during this role that she first visited the agave fields of Jalisco. Since then, she has been committed to presenting tequila to the world beyond its typical slam-it-back-in-a-shot-glass-with-a-lime imagery. She believes that tequila, like wine, is meant to be sipped, savored, and paired with inventive food — part of the reason why Casa Dragones has collaborated with award-winning chefs such as Eric Ripert of three-Michelin star Le Bernardin in New York, and renowned Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, whose Mexico City restaurant Pujol is consistently named among the best in the world.
Getting back in the fields where she first fell in love with tequila remains a top priority for González Nieves, who returns to visit the farms that grow the agave that makes her tequila possible each year. Also a priority is Mexico, the country that is the source of so much of González Nieves’ pride and inspiration.
VinePair chatted with González Nieves about her dedication to creating unique sipping tequilas for the world to enjoy.
1. When did you first realize you loved tequila?
I fell in love with the tequila industry when I was 22 years old and was selected by the Japanese government to represent Mexico in a global program in Japan. As part of my training, I traveled extensively throughout Mexico learning about the country’s economy and various industries in order to represent Mexico as a young ambassador to Japan. My travels included a three-day visit to Tequila, Jalisco, and after the second day, I called my parents and told them that I had found what I wanted to do. I wanted to work in the tequila industry.
2. How did Casa Dragones come to be?
I worked for the Grupo Cuervo for 10 years in several roles, including leading roles in the global brand team, innovation, and as commercial director North America. I fell in love with everything about the tequila business and its connection to the culture of Mexico. I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
I met Bob Pittman [chairman and CEO of iHeartMedia, Inc.] at a party in Brooklyn in 2007, and we discovered that we both shared a love for tequila, and for entrepreneurship. We decided to set on a quest to develop something truly different in the tequila industry: a sipping tequila that could compete with other sipping spirits, and that paired well with international cuisine. At the time, it was a radical idea, and it all depended on developing a tequila with a uniquely smooth and complex taste profile. In fact, we made a pact that if we could not create something truly different, we would abandon the project. Luckily, Casa Dragones Joven was born in 2009, and it launched our mission of expanding the tequila repertoire through innovation and modern production.
3. What’s the coolest thing you’ve done in your role at Casa Dragones?
As a small-batch producer, and as entrepreneurs, we’ve truly had incredible opportunities to work with some of the most talented people I’ve ever known to create meaningful, authentic partnerships that are based on our mutual love of Mexico and tequila. One of the first impactful moments I remember was serving Casa Dragones Joven at Enrique Olvera’s 10-year anniversary of Pujol, where he hosted some of the greatest chefs from around the world.
Since then, we’ve worked with many of the world’s top chefs, like Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert, to create original food pairings with Casa Dragones Joven. We’ve also created Casa Dragones Joven Artist Editions with world-renowned artists such as Gabriel Orozco, Danh Vo, and Pedro Reyes. While our partnerships have been exceptional, as an entrepreneur, our ability to innovate and bring styles of tequila to market that showcase the sophistication and craftsmanship of Mexico through exceptional-tasting sipping tequilas has been, above everything, the “coolest thing” I’ve done.
4. The pandemic has caused a lot of brands to adjust and pivot. What significant shift has your business faced this year that you had never considered before?
We felt the impact of Covid-19 immediately. Like every spirits company, much of our sales are dependent on bars, clubs, hotels, and restaurants, and that disappeared overnight in March. Like most companies, we closed our offices and began working from home. We began an online program at the onset of Covid for out-of-work bartenders, giving small grants in exchange for digital cocktail content. Now the program has evolved into a Bartender Exchange Program, including tequila and agave education, bartender residencies in San Miguel de Allende, and an online competition called Jamming Sessions, where bartenders craft cocktails and win by receiving the most online engagement. On Monday, Dec. 7, 15 semi-finalists for the new Jamming Session competition [were] live on our Instagram feed. Fifty online finalists are all on Facebook.
As online sales began to grow, we began to pivot even more, focusing more of our efforts on online marketplace partners such as Drizly and Reservebar. Perhaps the most significant shift was the online launch of our newest expression, Casa Dragones Añejo Barrel Blend in June. This was the first time we ever launched a new tequila strictly online. The market reaction was truly amazing.
5. In your opinion, what is the best and worst thing that has come out of the pandemic for your business and for the industry as a whole?
The impact of the pandemic for our industry is still immeasurable. It has been devastating for so many of our partners and friends in the restaurant, hotel, bar, and nightlife business. These are the partners that, with their creativity and dedication, bring the spirits industry to life. We stand together to rebuild our community.
6. Are there any new initiatives you are working on with Casa Dragones or within the industry?
Innovation is the foundation of our company. It’s what we like to do best, to explore the possibilities within the tequila category and work on innovating to deliver something truly different and special. As mentioned, we just released our newest expression, Casa Dragones Barrel Blend, in June this year. This is only our third style of tequila to be released in over 10 years.
We worked for two years with one of France’s most respected cooperages to explore the possibilities with wood. Casa Dragones Barrel Blend achieves its distinctive character from being matured in two different wood barrels, new French oak and new American oak, each selected for their individual flavor and characteristics, then toasted to impart roundness, light spice notes, and aromatic intensity. At the end of the aging process, we blend both styles together to create a very agave-forward, uniquely smooth taste profile that we believe will enamor the aged-spirits lover.
7. You are the first woman to be named a Maestra Tequilera. What does that title mean to you, and how do you empower other women and address any racial disparities in the industry?
The title of Maestra Tequilera is one that I take great pride in. I feel a sense of responsibility in doing the best job I can do. Hopefully having this title will open doors for the next generation of women.
8. What advice do you have for up-and-coming talent in the tequila industry?
Being an entrepreneur is a mixture of passion, perseverance, curiosity, and naiveté. Find your passion and follow it through.