Graciela (Grace) González is a fourth-generation master distiller, sommelier of fine tequilas, and brand ambassador for Dos Primos, El Mayor, and Exotico Tequila. Having been surrounded by tequila her entire life, there is little González doesn’t know about the product her family has been handcrafting for more than 150 years. But more impressive than her knowledge is her enthusiasm for the spirit. Splashing a little of the El Mayor Blanco on our hands, she chats nonchalantly while we clap to help them dry, as if rinsing one’s hands with tequila is a normal activity. Finally, we waft them toward us, and an earthy scent drifts into the nostrils. “That is what walking in our fields smells like,” she says warmly.
González spent some time talking with VinePair about what it’s like working in a family business, what’s next for the tequila industry, and how consumers should really be tasting tequila.
1. Have you always been interested in distilling and working with tequila?
I was in kindergarten or a little older, and the teacher asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I looked at the teacher and said I wanted to make tequila. Sure enough, the teacher called my mom, because she was concerned about what was going on at home. So my mom had to explain that my father was a master distiller and this was the family business.
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I’ve always been very close to my father. I just wanted to be like my dad. I used to go to the fields with my father and he would explain patiently how long it took for the plants to grow, what happened when they were harvested, everything. So I guess I always knew who I wanted to be or what I wanted to do when I grew up.
2. Does it now feel more difficult or complex being in business with your family as you’ve gotten older?
I think that working in a family business always has a good side and a hard side. In the beginning, I feel like we all believe that we have to prove ourselves more than others, because you’re always going to be the daughter of the owner. Right? So that makes it a little bit harder. And in my case, I was also a woman, so they didn’t really take what I was doing seriously.
I have to thank my father because he was very strict with us growing up, and told us that we had to work somewhere else before we took a position in the company. He offered me a job in one of his businesses, and I had to work my way up. After two years working at a retail store, he offered me a position at the distillery but again, from the bottom, answering phones and the like. But it earned my peers’ respect.
Sometimes, we struggled with defining time to work and time to be a family, because even a family lunch could become a business meeting. Even today, if it’s only my brother, my father, and me, sometimes the conversation turns into a business discussion. But we’ve embraced it, and know we have our business time and we have our family time. The bottom line is that I feel very privileged to have been born in a family that does what my biggest passion is.
3. What’s the biggest thing that you learned from your father about the tequila business?
I think that first of all, the passion that I have for the industry I inherited. We just say that we have that in our blood, because it’s crazy how much we enjoy working in this industry. My father is a very hardworking person, which I learned from him; that was the most important thing that he has taught me. And also the patience you have to have when talking about making tequila; you spend so many years in the fields that patience is key. I think those are the two major things that I’ve learned from my father.
4. What type of tequila do you suggest for people who previously have not enjoyed it?
I guess that my first question would be, “What is it that you’re drinking at the moment?” Because as we move forward with aging, we can play a lot with what you’re drinking. If you tell me “Well, I like gin or vodka,” I would start with a cristalino because you will have those earthy notes. Or which kind of wine do you like, because if you’re a Chardonnay drinker, I would suggest a blanco or a very smooth reposado. Or if you’re a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker, then I would go with something that has a lot more body, like an extra añejo. And for sure, I would highly recommend that every time that we’re drinking, we have to prepare the palate. You want to have a very small sip, playing around with it in your palate, and that way, you’re getting your taste buds ready. It’s just like when you’re warming up at the gym; you just don’t arrive and start lifting weights. I would never give a person a full shot and say, “Go ahead.” Because the only thing you’re gonna get is that feeling of burning in your throat that we don’t need. The key is to ask people what else they enjoy drinking and then teaching them how to drink.
5. What’s your vision for how tequila is going to be appreciated by the next generation of consumers, who drink a wider variety of alcohol and also embrace non-alcoholic beverages?
Mixology has exploded, and I love it. I love Margaritas, but that’s my age group; if I talk to my nephews and say, “Let’s have a Margarita,” they’d say, “No, we’d rather have something more sophisticated.” So recently, I’ve been seeing mixologists that are using tequila as a spirit base and mixing it with a lot of different things to expand beyond Margaritas as consumers step away from drinks that are just mixed with soda or a lot of sugar. I also see a lot of people drinking it just neat. People are more concerned about what they’re drinking or the amount of alcohol they’re drinking. So that’s something that I really like, because they’re more concerned about really enjoying the experience, the aromas, looking at the colors, enjoying how food tastes with it, and how it behaves, rather than just getting drunk.
6. What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of tequila producers?
I think that most of the tequila makers right now are trying to be more conscious with our productions and more sustainable in our companies. Back in the day, I don’t think the industry was as conscious, but now, more and more distilleries are very concerned about it and focused on how to do better. It’s not only during the process of making tequila or growing the agave; even the bottles that we’re using or the caps that we use in the products are being examined.
7. Is there anything specifically that your company is doing to help with sustainability?
We were one of the companies that have been working on this for many years. We try to have the least waste and use the leftovers when we are harvesting in the fields to function as a kind of fertilizer. We moved away from almost every single chemical pesticide. In most of the fields that we have, we’ve incorporated a significant number of trees. My father taught me that it was equally as important to plant trees to give back into the community and the air as it is to plant agave.
8. If there was one thing that you could tell somebody that they should know about tequila, what would it be?
Every time that we drink tequila, just remember and respect all the hard work that’s behind it. We’ve worked to grow the agave for at least six years or longer and then at the distillery, it takes us around two weeks of production. And if you know your stuff and you’re drinking the right kind of tequila, the right brand of tequila, and you’re drinking the right away, you should never have a hangover. I kid you not: I’ve never had a hangover with tequila.