“Tequila’s more than just a drink,” Sonia Espínola de la Llave frequently enthuses. And whether it’s everything from hats to houses being made from agave waste, or the bustling liveliness the spirit has brought to the small town of Tequila, Jalisco, it’s clear she’s right.
As a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Tequila and one of the few female masters of tequila licensed to teach about the beverage in Mexico, Espínola is a powerful force in the industry. However, getting to this point as a woman hasn’t been easy. The Guadalajara native recalls how some industry folks sniggered she was only entering the business because she liked to get drunk, while others later frowned upon having a female turn up to educate them about tequila.
With a bachelor of communications and master’s in marketing, Espínola, 53, started in public relations at Jose Cuervo. However, she became so intrigued by tequila-making that at 26, she became operations manager for the brand’s parent company, Mundo Cuervo, as the brand planted the seeds for Tequila’s tourism by opening tasting rooms at La Rojeña Distillery (where Jose Cuervo’s produced) in 2003.
Immersing herself in tequila production and graduating as a master of tequila in 2009, Espínola also helped launch the Jose Cuervo Express, a fun-filled train ride departing from Guadalajara, where the contrast of rundown buildings backdropped by beautiful, blossoming trees soon gives way to scenic fields of agave stretching into the horizon. Bar staff keep the Palomas coming throughout the two-hour journey to Tequila.
Such projects have seen Tequila transforming into a tourist town, and as director of Mundo Cuervo’s Beckmann Foundation, Espínola’s working to ensure local communities thrive alongside tourism. The foundation also supports education and social innovation with projects like the “House That Tequila Made” — a home-building project using agave, soil, and other waste from tequila production. Part of Jose Cuervo’s sustainability initiative, the Agave Project, the first such home will be gifted to a jimador (farmer) employed by the company and become the prototype for further housing for low-income locals.
We talked to Espínola about finding success as a woman in the industry, watching Tequila grow into a tourist hub, and why tequila’s more than a drink.
1. How did you develop a professional interest in tequila?
When I started at Mundo Cuervo, I loved learning about tequila and the culture of tequila. I remember trying tequila for the first time at 26 and everyone saying, “You have to drink another shot!” I said, “I like this. It has a lot of aromas and flavors, and I think it’s more than a shot.” I decided to learn more about its production, the agave fields, and the culture of tequila.
I was one of the first ladies to become a master of tequila, I’m the first lady recognized by the National Chamber of the Tequila Industry, and I’m a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Tequila. It’s an honor to become one of the first ladies in the industry because it was full of men when I started.
2. What reaction did you get from people in the industry when you decided to pursue tequila-making?
Sometimes it was, “Maybe it’s because she likes to drink a lot.” But once you’re in the industry, people start respecting you and realize, “No, she’s a master and wants to learn and teach about tequila and its culture.”
3. How did you prove yourself to your peers?
I tried to learn from the best masters of tequila. I would go around with the master of the distillery, or the master of the barrels, learn the best from each of them and take it all in because there are no books about making tequila or getting into the industry. It would be good to have more information out there for new generations.
4. You could write the book! What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman while working your way up in the business?
In the beginning, it was difficult because all the directors were men. When some people saw a lady, they’d say, “I expected a man,” or, “I expected a master of tequila. Why is a lady going to teach me about tequila?” But tequila’s also for ladies!
According to legend, it was the goddess Mayahuel who discovered the agave plant, and Metztli is another goddess from our legends [relating to] mezcal, so ladies have been involved in these beautiful spirits before we even called them tequila.
Right now, the Beckmann Foundation has a female director, the marketing director is a woman, the public relations team is women, and the technology director’s a woman. More women are also interviewing for jobs in different areas of production. I’m very proud of that because it’s important for us to have that equality of gender.
5. What do you think women bring to the tequila industry?
We can teach more about the history, the legacy, the aroma, the feelings, the community, the employees — and that tequila’s more than a beverage!
6. That’s evident in the town of Tequila. What was it like when you first started working here?
When Mundo Cuervo started here 18 years ago, there was one hotel with 30 rooms, one restaurant, and one tour. Tourists would pass through on their way to Puerto Vallarta and only spend two or three hours here because it was an agro-industrial town with distilleries, but no tourism.
Juan Beckmann decided to transform Tequila into an area like Napa Valley or Cognac. He said, “We have everything here — we have history, we have legacy, and we know what to talk to the people about.” Now, there are 500 rooms, more than 50 restaurants, and more than 12 distillery tours, so people spend two or three days in Tequila.
7. What are the positive and negative aspects of growing tourism in Tequila?
Locals don’t need to go to the United States to work. They can stay here and get involved with receiving tourists, which I think is great. We’re part of the history of Tequila and the beginning of tourism in the area, and I think that’s one of the best things that can happen to the town.
In a lot of countries, when there’s growing tourism, they bring in big companies, hotel chains, or restaurants, but what we need to do is ensure the community integrates into the tourism and becomes part of the growth. We need to prepare locals, train them, give them the tools they need, and help them understand what’s happening so they can be prepared. This is what I’m helping to do.
We’re working with universities who help micro-producers and artisans innovate or improve their products or logos. We’re in schools, teaching teachers so they can teach their students, and we’re also opening a school. We’re working in social innovation — like with the agave house — and we work with traditional cooks in the highlands. The Beckmann family and Jose Cuervo are very involved in supporting the community as tourism grows.
8. You’re also one of the few female masters of tequila licensed to teach about the spirit in Mexico. What does that involve?
I teach how to taste tequila and about the culture of tequila. Mundo Cuervo or the Chamber of Tequila invite me to give workshops about tequila and about how we combine it with different things, like tequila and chocolate, tequila and tea, or tequila with other types of food.
I run workshops in Mexico, the United States, and Canada for many people, including women who want to follow in my path. I’ve also traveled to China to represent Mexico in Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, a spirits concours. I want to teach the new generation that it’s possible — that if they want it and they’re committed to working hard, they can have a great career in an important company.
9. For anyone visiting Tequila, what would you recommend they do besides drink tequila?
I think visiting the fields and seeing the agave, the jimadores, and how everything grows is the most important thing. You also have to visit Tequila’s volcano, which has beautiful landscaping. Our hotels are also beautiful. In the highlands of Tequila, there are small communities who produce cheese and delicious food made by traditional cooks. It’s truly about more than the beverage.
10. What do you love most about tequila?
I love the history, the aromas, the taste, and how it pairs with food. Few people know about food pairings because we’ve been taught through the times that tequila’s just a shot or a cocktail like a Margarita. If people come and learn about how to combine tequila with food, they will love and appreciate it even more!