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González Nieves

Maestra Tequilera is distilling the spirit of modern Mexico

Portraits by Yvonne Venegas
Text by Emily King
Issue n° 9, Spring & Summer 2014

Bertha González Nieves rarely has more than two tequilas in an evening, though the drink is her whole life. The 43-year-old behind Casa Dragones – a variant known for its platinum colour and luxuriant feel – is the world’s first Maestra Tequilera. She’s an ambassador for both her own and others’ brands who advocates sipping as opposed to shots, demonstrating the technique exquisitely on The Martha Stewart Show. As Mexico becomes an increasingly modern and aspirational place, its national drink, helped by Bertha’s vision, seems to be undergoing the same journey.

I first drank Casa Dragones tequila towards the end of what had felt like a long night: a museum benefit in New York that featured the bland food and dreary auction – lots included a shopping trip with Sarah Jessica Parker and a trip on a yacht named Guilty – that these things sometimes involve. Released from the table by the arrival of pudding (New York socialites don’t hang around long in the presence of sugar), I made my way to what seemed a foolishly optimistic dance floor and noticed a small tequila bar nearby. I took a shot in spite of unpleasant memories of the drink. It was a revelation. The clear liquid coated my mouth, and the taste was aromatic and complex. There was a flood of warm spiciness, a pleasant ping of alcohol and a lasting taste I couldn’t quite describe, except to say it was a world away from the student-style tequila consumed solely for the purpose of falling over drunk.

Pretty soon a crowd of aficionados had gathered around the bar, among them the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco and the dashing couple José Kuri and Mónica Manzutto, who run Mexico City’s most influential contemporary art gallery, Kurimanzutto. When I told them of my surprise and delight, they bundled me towards the force behind the bottle, the world’s only Maestra Tequilera (female master distiller of tequila), Bertha González Nieves.

If I’d had time to form a preconception of a tequila maker, it wouldn’t have resembled Bertha. It would have been someone older, more male and much less attractive – more Cheech of Cheech & Chong, less Salma Hayek. Bertha is a feisty woman, a glossy beauty with wide-set dark eyes, a broad smile and a swish of chestnut-brown hair. Her well-toned body is the result of some serious marathon running; that night she deployed a little black dress to great effect.

While I asked all the wrong questions about the lack of salt or lime in the room, Bertha was very clear that there was only one way to appreciate Casa Dragones, and that was to sip it neat. The price of the drink – $275 a bottle in the US – would certainly suggest that you shouldn’t muck it about. It’s a luxury product; Oprah Winfrey is among its fans. According to Bertha, when Oprah hosts at home, she welcomes everyone with a glass. It’s also rumoured to have been the choice of President Enrique Peña Nieto for a public toast he and Barack Obama shared when Obama visited Mexico in 2013.

The 437-year-old town of San Miguel de Allende is home to one of the largest North American expat communities in Mexico. Bertha, herself a resident of New York, is photographed on Calle Recreo, a street noted for its art galleries and fine jewellers.

Tequila is made from an agave called Tequilana Weber, variety azul, named in the early 20th century after the botanist Franz Weber. It looks like a cactus but belongs to the same family as the lily. It’s harvested by hand, and the sugar extracted from its core, or piña, forms the basis of the spirit. There is no seasonal harvest of the agave plant, which takes eight to 10 years to mature. It’s simply ready when it’s ready. “This makes it so very different from cognac, say, or drinks made from sugar cane,” said Agostino Perrone, head barman at the Connaught Hotel in London’s Mayfair and something of a tequila aficionado. “Grapes and cane only take a year to grow. Tequila contains a decade of sunshine and energy.” By law, the agave must be grown in Jalisco, a state in northwestern Mexico that’s home to the eponymous city of Tequila. The Tequila Regulatory Council, which supervises the appellation of tequila, didn’t form until 1994 – as opposed to champagne’s in 1891 and cognac’s in 1909 – but is extremely strict. Anything carrying the name must have a stamp indicating the plant where it was made.

The long spines of the Casa Dragones plants are cut especially close to the piñas and their sugar is extracted using water and steam rather than by cooking the cores whole and then drawing it from the pulp. “We have a deal with an agave farming family,” explained Bertha when I visited her in the company’s hometown, San Miguel de Allende. “We have an area of land assigned to us, and there’s a process we follow in taking care of the fields and harvesting.”

Most tequila companies offer three types: a blanco (unaged), a reposado (“rested”, i.e., slightly aged) and an añejo (aged) or extra añejo (extra aged). As the name “blanco” suggests, young tequila is clear, while older tequila tends to acquire some colour from its exposure to the wooden barrels used for ageing. Casa Dragones sells only one product: a joven, made by blending a blanco with an extra añejo and filtering out the colour to create an almost imperceptibly tinged liquid whose hue is officially described as platinum. As befits its status, Casa Dragones is made in limited quantities. (In 2013, only 2,000 nine-litre cases were produced. In 2012, the competing upmarket brand Patrón produced about 2 million cases and 24 million bottles across all its categories.)

“If you live outside of Mexico,” said Bertha, “You might think the country is all desert and sombreros. But Mexico City is one of the most sophisticated places in the world.” Her drink, then, is part of her country’s other identity, the one that’s not about beaches nor folkloric costume nor the rather more problematic situation with drugs. Mexico has a burgeoning middle class, and parts of the country bristle with industry. It makes cars for Volkswagen and tyres for Pirelli and is the world’s largest manufacturer of flat-screen TVs and a leading aircraft supplier. Last year, its higher earners spent the equivalent of $20 million on non-essentials, and expenditure on luxury apparel has doubled to $4 billion in the past 12 months. Hardly surprising, then, that Casa Dragones’ domestic sales are healthy, though it’s also doing very well abroad.

Casa Dragones cultivates its Agave harvest from an estate located in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt that’s 1200 metres above sea level in Tequila, Jalisco.

“We’ve stocked it since 2012,” said Toby Cutler, the spirits buyer at London’s upmarket wine and liquor retailer Hedonism, where the top-price tequila is an AsomBroso El Carbonzado at a staggering £2,253.50 and Casa Dragones is £317 a bottle. “It’s a particularly stylish brand: our customers like the fact that it comes in a beautiful hand-engraved bottle. But it has a good pure flavour, too.” Cutler confirmed that tequila’s reputation is changing. “It’s like sake. Remember when you were a student and drank it hot? People understand now that you drink sake cold, and that tequila is a sipping drink.”

Agostino Perrone agreed. “It’s partly a result of tourism. Mexico attracts sophisticated travellers these days, and there’s been a boom in higher-end Mexican restaurants here in London as well as the United States as people get to understand the finer points of Mexican culture. The same goes for tequila. But there are still the more traditional associations. Tequila makes you think of Mexico, sunshine and parties.” Perrone, who stocks 30 tequilas, though not Casa Dragones, has a regular customer – a celebrity restaurateur from San Francisco – who always places the same order. “A glass of Dom Perignon and a tequila chaser.”

Bertha has lived in New York since 2000, but she was born and brought up in Mexico City. She developed her love of tequila thanks to her maternal grandmother, who would throw a family lunch every Monday – a long and lavish affair – that would start with Herradura Blanco tequila, “an incredible product with a very traditional taste,” said Bertha. From the age of 13, she was given her own glass. “Growing up in Mexico, it’s just what we drink.”

Her family are entrepreneurs: her father and uncle co-owned a cosmetics company inherited from their father, and the talk around the dinner table was of fragrances and creams. “My father would bring home various products, and we would all discuss them,” said Bertha. “Being part of that conversation was being part of our family.” She went on to study business at Universidad Anáhuac and after graduation joined the global management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton to work on “world strategies for the snack division”. Her ambassadorial zeal for tequila was sealed when, aged 22, she signed up to represent Mexico on a programme run by the Japanese government. Tequila, she realised, represented the best of her country – its history, its nature, and, with the development of more sophisticated blends, its modern aspirations. After completing a graduate business degree at Northwestern University in Chicago, she took a job with the Mexican family company Grupo Cuervo, producers of Jose Cuervo tequilas.

Bob Pittman is a media mogul with a reported net worth of $100 million, the founder of MTV and, since 2011, the president of the vast global media company Clear Channel. By the time Bertha met him at the party of a mutual friend in Brooklyn in 2007, she was heading the global marketing division of Grupo Cuervo. Though they were drinking champagne, their conversation quickly turned to tequila and Mexico. Pittman, a long-time lover of the country, owns a house in San Miguel de Allende and spends summers there with his wife, the graphic designer Veronique Choa, and their two children.

“You would see people carrying this tequila around town in jugs,” Pittman told me. “It was a very smooth moonshine – it had no bite to it, so you could sip it like a scotch. It made me think, ‘Wow, there’s a need for a sipping tequila!’” While Bertha knew there was no way to commercialise an illicitly distilled liquor, she agreed he was onto something, and the pair began plotting their tequila venture on the spot.

“We’re rebels in our own industry, trying to push the boundaries of what’s been done before.”

Pittman isn’t the first North American to develop an interest in tequila. The drink is increasingly popular in the US; imports there have gone up 72 per cent in the last decade, and in certain quarters it invites the same snobbery as wine or cigars. In early 2014, it was announced that the drinks giant Diageo had entered into a joint venture with P. Diddy to acquire DeLeón Tequila, a little-known premium brand that sells in Hollywood bars for $90 a shot. (The same parties bought Cîroc vodka in 2007 and increased sales to nearly $2 million from $50,000 recently.) Justin Timberlake partnered with Sauza Liquors in 2009 to create Sauza 901 (named for JT’s hometown area code in Memphis). In 2012 it won a gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. “It’s not a hobby,” said Bertha.

Pittman, who also sits on the board of Sean Parker’s live video platform Airtime (Parker says Pittman is the only real entrepreneur he knows in media), wanted more than Bertha’s marketing skills. He wanted her expertise to help him conceive the drink from scratch. So in 2007, she set off with her girlfriend Mishele Wells to spend three weeks in Pittman’s San Miguel house, formerly known as the Caballeriza Dragones (stable of the dragoons) but now renovated as the domestic Casa Dragones, to brainstorm ideas.

Wells, an equally head-turning brunette from Canada, owns the communications agency Mouth, which numbers Fendi, MAC and W Hotels among its clients. When they met at a friend’s dinner just over 12 years ago, Bertha fell for her straight away. Mishele, it turned out, was no newcomer to tequila. Having taken to the drink and the culture on a trip to Mexico, she’d even considered opening a tequila bar in New York and got as far as finding a location and investors, but she hadn’t closed the deal.

The launch party for Casa Dragones tequila took place on 27 July 2009. “We finished the product just before the party, literally – we were bottling the night before,” said Bertha, who had worked on it painstakingly for two years with Maestro Tequilero Benjamin Garcia. Having known him since working at Grupo Cuervo, she’d persuaded him to come out of retirement to join her at Casa Dragones. Garcia comes from a chemical engineering background, and it would seem that the tequila-making process is more industrial than picturesque. “It is a very formal environment,” said Bertha. “You have to cover up to go in. We have a state-of-the-art facility with a blue epoxy floor, and the best engineering plant. We’re a modern company.”

One guest at the party was Mexico’s most feted chef and a regular bon vivant: Enrique Olvera of the restaurant Pujol (rated the best in Mexico City and pretty high worldwide). When Bertha met him at his hotel for lunch the following day, he threw his arms around her, crying, “I love you!” He had overindulged in the spirit the previous night but was barely suffering at all the next day (some say 100 per cent agave tequila does not cause hangovers, though others disagree). Now Olvera serves the drink in his restaurants with dishes to complement it. These include jicama ravioli (jicama is a fibrous white root vegetable a bit like a turnip or radish) and huilacoche tamales (huilacoche, a fungus that grows on corn, is manna for lovers of earthy-tasting mushrooms). When I visited Bertha in San Miguel, we drank Casa Dragones accompanied by roughly chopped, lime-laced guacamole.

It was after the launch that Bertha, encouraged by Benjamin Garcia, took the exams to become a master herself. Tasks included demonstrating the ability to distinguish between 600 different aromas. Bertha passed easily – she’d been in the trade for 10 years – though she said acceptance from her Maestro peers had been more difficult to acquire.

Bertha runs Casa Dragones from Pittman’s New York offices and lives on the High Line with Mishele, and Mishele’s 17-year-old niece from Toronto, who’s doing her last year of high school in New York. But San Miguel de Allende is the brand’s spiritual home. In the centre of the country, the town is two and a half hours’ drive from Mexico City if you make the trip during a decisive televised football game (in my case, the Mexico v New Zealand World Cup qualifier) and about four at any other time. Once an important trading post, it was rediscovered in the 1930s and ’40s by artists, including the muralist David Siquieros, who were lured by its idyllic hilltop location and beautiful colonial architecture. It has since gone on to attract a certain kind of well-heeled, sun-seeking middle-aged American. It has a prosperous-looking local population, a lively food market and several busy taquerias.

It was also the birthplace of Ignacio Allende, a key figure in Mexico’s fight for independence from the Spanish. He was executed in 1811, and the town took his name 15 years later. Apart from the fact that Casa Dragones was most probably the stable where Allende’s men kept their horses, Bertha sees a kinship with the independence fighters. “We’re rebels in our own industry, trying to push the boundaries of what’s been done before,” she said.

Tequila tasting with Bertha takes time, as I discovered in San Miguel. First she explained the making, then she guided me through the drinking. It’s all in the smell. With the help of a Riedel tequila flute, designed by a committee of Maestros Tequileros, you can distinguish between the scents at the bottom of the glass, characterised by the aroma of agave; the middle, by orange blossom and vanilla; and the top, by the peppery notes that come from ageing. I learnt to sniff my hand between inhalations to help reset my nose. I swished the liquid around and looked at what Bertha called its “long and pronounced legs” – the way it visibly adheres to the surface of the glass and, once you’ve drunk it, to the inside of your mouth. When I finally sipped it, it was every bit as good as I remembered. The scent of the ageing tickles your nose, and the flavour lingers under your tongue with just a touch of pear and hazelnut at the end (Bertha helped me identify the mystery taste).

In 2011 the artist Gabriel Orozco designed a special-edition Casa Dragones bottle that sold for $1,850. The art world seems to have taken the drink to its heart. “They have an appreciation of life that I find really inspiring,” said Bertha. Last November, I was in Mexico for the opening of the Museo Jumex, a new museum in Mexico City designed by British architect David Chipperfield to hold the art collection of Eugenio López Alonso, a 40-something whose family made its fortune in fruit juice. The event attracted a big international art crowd, and when I told people about my tequila adventures, many of them recounted first-taste-of-Casa-Dragones moments similar to my own. The LA gallerist Jeff Blum begged to be introduced to Bertha, who he knew by repute as an “incredible nose”. I took him across the room and watched yet another convert fall under the spell of the world’s only Maestra Tequilera.