THE BUSINESS OF TEQUILA BY JUDE WEBBER
Featured in The Financial Times, October 21, 2016
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Interview of Bertha Gonzalez about the business of tequila.
"Despite machismo, a woman in tequila can triumph" by Jude Webber
"Bertha Gonzalez, the first woman to become a tequila master distiller, is a tough entrepreneur and co-founder of one of the chicest brands in a business rooted firmly in Mexican machismo. “I almost had to grow a moustache to be accepted,” she remembers joking when she got her title.
Our interview takes place over the telephone – Ms. Gonzalez divides her time between her native Mexico and New York, while I am in a humming restaurant in the town of Arandas, in the heart of tequila country. Mariachi musicians are serenading tables; Mexico’s national spirit is flowing; cowboy hats are everywhere.
Casa Dragones, Ms Gonzalez’s luxury. Small-batch tequila may belong to an altogether more rarefied world, but it traces its roots to the same traditions so proudly on display in the restaurant. “It’s a big love affair,” is how Ms. Gonzalez sees it. “Tequila is part of the national social fabric.”
Yet launching another tequila to add to the hundreds of brands already on offer was never her goal when she started Casa Dragones in 2008 with Bob Pittman, the creator of MTV and an entrepreneur.
As if tequila were not a singular enough spirit – by law it can only be made in a handful of parts of Mexico from only one of nearly 200 types of agave – Ms. Gonzalez eschewed producing any of the traditional trio of white, rested and aged categories. Instead, Casa Dragones launched a single brand – a joven, or young tequila.
It is what the Casa Dragones chief executive calls an “overlooked” style, which blends a white tequila’s citrus notes with the sweetness and spice of an extra-aged. “We thought the only way we could carve our own place was with a bold point of view – it’s a very risky strategy, you might have no followers,” she says. But “we’re not in the business of styles. We are really in the business of taste and experience.”
So instead of being poured at boisterous family lunches, Casa Dragones became the tequila paired with exquisite food at Michelin-starred restaurants – something she admits is “an unexpected place for the category”.
Five years after Casa Dragones Joven’s US debut in 2009, the house launched Casa Dragones Blanco, a silver tequila. The company declines to give figures, saying sales have quadrupled in four years. But as much as Ms. Gonzalez is seeking to expand the boundaries for the spirit, this is not the start of a rush to diversify into, say, tequila’s fashionable relative, mezcal: “I’m not saying never; right now we have our hands full.”
Casa Dragones employs just 25 people. About 45 pepr cent of sales come from Mexico and 51 per cent from the US, and it has recently opened distribution in Italy, France, and Spain. China is on hold for now because of regulatory hurdles (see page 4).
Ms. Gonzalez’s sharp eye for business – tequila in particular – was honed as a management consultant and a decade working as an executive for Jose Cuervo, Mexico’s oldest tequila house, including as global director for innovation and new business development.
But “that feels like five million years ago,” laughs the 46-year old. “I have seen many brands come and go. The consumer has changed the most.” Ms. Gonzalez wants luxury tequila to be drunk by cognac – or whisky – lovers and believes it can gain 15 per cent of the luxury spirits segment worldwide. “People are looking to have a repertoire of spirits, not just a repertoire of single malts,” Ms. Gonzalez says.
To help educate taste buds, Casa Dragones this month opened a six-seat tasting room in the picturesque town of San Miguel de Allende for craft cocktails made by international mixologists.
The tiny space is decked out in obsidian, a volcanic glass painstakingly sliced into 4,000 fragile tiles. “I wanted to bring the terroir into the tasting room,” Ms. Gonzalez says. “It’s a space to sit, sip, learn.”"