How Americans ruined tequila — and the true believers saving it

Featured in Financial Times, November 17th, 2022

Below you will find a excerpt, to download the full article click here.


Tequila’s third wave doesn’t just include the purists. It also includes marketers positioning tequila as truly top shelf. What would it look like if we took a spirit we used to degrade, respected its culture and made it luxury? This leads me to the headquarters of Casa Dragones in a trendy warehouse on Manhattan’s west side. I’m sitting at a table with its CEO, Bertha González Nieves. She’s from Mexico City and is the world’s first female certified maestra tequilera, or master distiller. I’ve been shadowing her busy schedule, and today I’m with her team, including creative director Mishele Wells, who is also her wife. My table mates are aesthetically impeccable: layered gold jewellery, turtlenecks, oversized blazers, tortoise-shell glasses, linen suits.


González Nieves founded Casa Dragones in 2009 with Robert Pittman, the creator of MTV. It launched with one very high-end tequila called Joven, a rare style that’s a blanco and extra aged blend. When I first tried it, I liked it immediately. It’s floral, citrusy, smooth and bright. The price is an eye-watering $265, and it comes in a signed, hand-engraved crystal bottle with a tagline that does half the work: “Tequila you can sip.”

Wells tells me they sell “far, far less” than Casamigos and Patrón, and that because they’re luxury, they’re not vying for fast growth. In 12 years, they’ve come out with just four expressions. They don’t lead with their sustainable farming practices, but they describe them in detail when I ask.

The team discusses a tasting room they’re building for next month’s Art Basel Miami Beach, based on the Mexican tradition of sobremesa, or relaxing around a table after a big meal. They plan a menu for an exclusive Day of the Dead dinner they’re hosting in their luxury hacienda in San Miguel. They then take me through a slideshow of every room of said hacienda and the names of every Mexican artisan that made every piece of furniture in that house.
I ask González Nieves how she’s able to fight old caricatures, but still let tequila be fun.

She thinks. “Just because people think mariachis are a caricature doesn’t mean for my birthday I’m not going to have mariachis,” she says. “I love mariachis! Same with Day of the Dead. We believe in it. It’s a real ritual. So it’s the pleasure of celebrating tradition and also elevating it. That’s how you lose the caricature. People understand the depth of the tradition, not just the facade.”

Bartenders’ opinions matter, and Mix seems to approve of Casa Dragones. “It’s a brand,” she tells me with some cynicism, “but they’re not celebrity endorsed. She cares about Mexico, which I respect. And the tequila, it’s actually good.”
The night before, I joined González Nieves at an event where she was promoting their new reposado, aged in Japanese Mizunara casks. I ask if she’s criticised for exploring Japanese barrels. Some could see it as gimmicky or inauthentic. She pointed to the producers who make tequila using historic methods and said there’s space for both. “It’s great, because they’re protecting those processes,” she said. “But we’re on the other end of the spectrum. For some, we’re too rebellious,” she added, “but we believe that to really expand the tequila repertoire, we need adventure.” Then, she handed me a glass.

In the weeks after doing this research, I ordered and sipped a lot of tequila neat. I brought a few bottles home and poured myself small tips as I wrote, tasting them slowly to compare. And like my aficionado friend, I started giving small pourings to anyone who dropped by. One shrugged at the taste of Casa Dragones’ Joven and I pulled his glass, enraged that I’d wasted such a precious commodity on his clueless taste buds.

When another friend ordered Casamigos at a bar, I told her it had glycerine in it, and sure, she might like it, but it’s my responsibility to inform her that it’s technically bad. I decided it’s cool to like Casa Dragones, because it honours Mexico, tastes good and makes me feel like I could own a linen pantsuit. And the Siembra Valles, for the flavour and for Suro-Piñera’s work, I cherish.

I still don’t know what makes a palate sophisticated, or what makes a tequila good, but it must be everything combined: personal taste, objective quality, an informed mind, an appealing brand. Mix thinks we should like tequila for all its parts, the way we do with wine: its flavour, its history, its styles, the people who make it, the way they drink it. She, Suro-Piñera and González Nieves all told me that if the industry worked more like wine, if it came together to build stronger protections, things could really improve. The spirit would taste better, Mexican producers would do better, consumers would know better. Tequila would get more expensive. But maybe it should have been all along