Miami Herald: Catching Up With Mexico’s Top Tequilera

Bertha Gonzalez Nieves, the first woman to be certified as a master tequilera, akin to a master sommelier, has just told you not be “afraid” of her pour. So now you’re a little afraid. It’s broad daylight, after all, and she has filled your Riedel tequila tasting glass, long-stemmed and narrow, like a champagne flute but a tad shorter, with a scandalous amount of her Casa Dragones Joven, a small batch tequila that retails for $275 a bottle. You’re at BLT Prime at the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort for a little lunch and a tasting of Casa Dragones’ two tequilas: the complex-flavored, platinum-hued sipping variety, which after its introduction in 2009 quickly emerged as a darling of luxury spirits connoisseurs; and the just-released Casa Dragones Blanco, a 100 percent blue agave tequila that goes for $75 a bottle and plays to the craft-cocktail crowd.

“You don’t have to drink it all, but we’re going to do an aroma tasting, so there needs to be enough in the glass,” she says of the higher-end product. Pricey, yes, but the tequila is hand-finished and the bottle is crystal, etched by artisans, signed and numbered. You can even get it inscribed.

“The first thing is to look at the tequila in your glass. We’re obsessed with our clarity. See the beautiful shine? See the long and pronounced legs? They translate into a beautiful body that is silky and embraces your whole palate.” Now the Mexican-born Gonzalez Nieves, who co-founded Casa Dragones in 2008 with MTV creator Bob Pittman, asks you to smell the back of your hand. “It brings you back to neutral,” she says.

“Position your nose at the bottom part of your glass. You’ll first notice some sweetness. In the bottom of the glass you’re getting the notes of agave. Smell the back of your hand again. Now put your nose over the center of the

glass. You’re going to notice an orange peel perfume.” You smell the back of your hand a third time.

“Position your nose at the top of the glass now. Be patient because it’s not going to be as pronounced, but hopefully you will be able to find some wood notes, some spice notes. The age notes are always at the top of the glass. We’re using American white oak to age our tequila. We’re using new barrels so that we can produce a very full-bodied extra añejo to blend with our blanco tequila. At the end we filter the color out.”

Finally, she allows you to taste. The stuff sure goes down easy.

“The tasting notes are soft and smooth, with hints of vanilla, and spice undertones balanced with delicate notes of pear. Pear is very representative of the agave plant,” says Gonzalez Nieves, 44, who worked as a top executive for Jose Cuervo International (the portfolio includes Dobel, Gran Centenario and Don Julio) for more than a decade before launching Casa Dragones. But how tough was it to become a maestra tequilera when there had been only maestros?

“I was part of the industry for years first. I had a long history. I’d work with the master tequileros and wonder, how I get to sit among them? Before I put in my application with the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters I asked them if they would even take me seriously. Because tequila has a very long tradition, and part of the tradition was that only the men were the experts.” She had to study the tequila version of the aroma wheel, train her nose and her palate, study up about the history of tequila, the production process — and then she had to submit to tests. But she was unfazed by the toil.

“When I first went to work in the tequila category, my friends were laughing. That had to eventually happen, they said. I had always loved tequila.”

While studying business administration at Universidad Anahuac in Mexico City, she was invited to participate in a program in Japan that required her, as part of her training, to speak eloquently about Mexico’s economy, politics and industry. That meant she had to spend quality time in the town of Tequila, visiting distilleries, tasting, getting to know the business. Later, she got a master of science in integrated marketing from Northwestern University.

“Then one day I met Bob Pittman at a party and we started talking about tequila, and it turned out that his passion for Mexico and for tequila were very aligned with mine.

And we set out on a quest to establish a tequila company that could push the boundaries. First we wanted to create a sipping tequila for the luxury market, something that had a clean and warm finish and wasn’t arresting and didn’t push you to chase with anything.”

Whatever you do, don’t lick salt or suck lime after drinking Casa Dragones Joven, says Gonzalez Nieves, whom Forbes Mexico called one of the 50 most powerful women in the country.

“This particular product is about nuance, about the balance of the flavors. It should not be killed by any kind of chaser. Even its temperature should not be altered. Well, if you want to put one ice cube in it, fine. But you definitely don’t want to water it down.”

The more herbaceous Casa Dragones Blanco offers creative license. Still, there’s nothing to wince over, so skip the tired salt and lime business. James Beard Award-winning mixologist Jim Meehan, of New York’s P.D.T., was enlisted to create a flight of cocktails using the brand.

Among his concoctions: the White Dragon, with Cointreau, lemon juice and egg whites; and the Michelada Primaverde, with Dolin dry vermouth, lime juice, tomatillo juice, agave syrup and jalapeño.

But is there such a thing as tequila-crazy? The cheaper version of the stuff certainly carries with it a great deal of lore. Though, no, even if you’ve tangled with tequila and lost, you never did get drunk enough to eat the worm at the bottom of the bottle. Because tequila doesn’t come with a worm. Mezcal does.

“Scientifically, it’s difficult to explain,” Gonzalez Nieves says. “They say the claims cannot be proven, but tequila is completely tied to the magic of the plant that it comes from. It has three different ways of reproducing. The flower of the plant grows a stem 15 to 20 feet tall. It’s very beautiful. Agave is from the Latin and means lustrous, admirable, noble. I do think there is something about tequila that provides — maybe a happier experience than other spirits? Let’s say it definitely has more spirit.”