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Bertha González Nieves on Art, Mexican Heritage and How Casa Dragones Became a Museum Worthy Tequila

With a new artist edition bottle by Pedro Reyes, the Casa Dragones cofounder shares her company’s story and its firm association with artists

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BY Matthew McLean AND Bertha González Nieves in Collaborations | 08 DEC 20

Matthew McLean: How did tequila become your passion?

Bertha González Nieves: Since I was young, I felt drawn to being an entrepreneur. At the start of my twenties, I applied for a place to represent Mexico on a cultural programme run by the Japanese government. Part of this a six month scholarship to travel the country and learn our economy and industries, so I could talk about them with authority. One of the stops was three days in Tequila, in Jalisco, where the drink was born. Well, on the first day there I called my parents, and said ‘I know what I want to do now’: and it was tequila. From then on, I spent a decade working for the eldest producer in the category  a family owned business, going back 11 generations. The history of tequila is, in some way, the history of that family. So it was an incredible way into the heritage.

MM: And when did you break off to start your own company?

BGN: A decade in, I started again to feel the pull to be an entrepreneur  that anxiety about never getting to be the person calling the shots. I was at a party one night in Williamsburg, the anniversary of some English friends of mine, and I met this man Bob Pittman, who was one of the founders of  MTV. He asked me what I did and when I told him tequila he revealed he had always wanted to start something in the tequila industry. So the very next day, I wrote him an email, and not long after I was putting on my best outfit to go meet him for an interview. We didn’t know, then, exactly what our approach was going to be. You need to have the right mix of passion and naivety, of determination and risk  that lets you think ‘there’s something to do here, and we can do it’. In the end, Bob and I co-founded Casa Dragones together.

MM: It feels very fitting that a drinks brand should start with a conversation at a party: do you remember what you were drinking when you had that first conversation with Bob?

BGN: Oh I can guarantee you it was tequila. Let me tell you it’s been many, many years since I arrived at a party without a bottle of tequila in hand.

Bertha Gonzalez Nieves CEO of tequila company Casa Dragones with Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco at a party
Bertha González Nieves with Gabriel Orozco

MM: I love that. If I ever have a party, I will make sure you’re invited. So how has the business developed since that first conversation?

BGN: The thing that has always driven us most is we can find something new to bring to the table. Our first bottle was a Joven, which is a rare style combining a white tequila with a five-year-old aged one. This was really conceived for sipping and pairing with food. It was five years before we did a Blanco, and the idea was to expose the purity of the agave though an ultra-modern process, and is ideal for cocktails or drinking on the rocks. This year we launched Casa Dragones Barrel Blend, which is a blend of two Añejo or aged tequilas. One is aged for 12 months in casks custom crafted for Casa Dragones made from sustainable Quercus Sessile Oak sourced from France, the other in our own new casks from American oaks from Missouri and Pennsylvania. The idea is to let the tequila push through the wood, rather than the other way around: the flavour is caressed by the oak which offers nutty and spice notes, with herbaceous green and floral notes coming from the agave. This ambition started because we met an amazing cooperage out of Bordeaux, where the casks for fine Bordeaux wine are made. Genuine relationships with producers, or with suppliers, bars, restaurants, etc. have been essential to us: we launched in 2009 which was a very difficult time following the global financial crisis, and it wasn’t easy. It took us two years to sell our first 1,000 cases. But making connections with good people who were passionate about what we could do together was really what helped us weather the storm.

MM: This year, there was a record high of Fortune 500 companies run by women, but it’s still under 10% of them. What’s your experience of being a female CEO in your field?

BGN: The second day of my first job in the industry I was introduced to the salesforce. Obsessed as I was with tequila, I hadn’t thought about gender in the industry, but I looked around and I thought, there’s not a lot of women here. My strategy was I didn’t want to be pigeonholed: to let my opportunity become defined by my gender. I wanted to be more valued for my thinking, than as part of a gender conversation. Of course I am proud to be a woman, but I am more proud of my point of view.

MM: Since Donald Trump’s rise in 2015, there has been a ramping up of aggressive ‘anti-Latino’ rhetoric, and even acts of violence in the USA. Do you ever feel like you are an advocate for Mexico?

BGN: Tequila has an application of origin, like Champagne. And it belongs to Mexico. When we started I did feel that when you walked into any store, you would find the top shelf reserved for certain highly regarded spirits – like whiskies or cognacs, which are widely accepted to have a certain sophistication – and I do want to show that tequila deserves its place on that shelf. It’s the same with the respect and attention afforded to Mexican architecture, cinema, cuisine – the amount of deep craftsmanship, professionalism, curiosity embedded in tequila means it deserves to compete on the highest level. We have so many areas of opportunity in our country, and this real magic. So yes, I tell people I sell Mexico every day. Mexico is in my heart.

Artist Edition Bottle of Casa Dragones Tequila designed by Mexican Artist Pedro Reyes
Artist Edition bottle of Casa Dragones Joven by Pedro Reyes

MM: Is this why you started to partner with artists from and connected with Mexico? Or did you feel drawn to the art world for another reason?

BGN: To me, the art world is made up of entrepreneurs, so often we are connecting with like-minded people. The art world provides an endless source of inspiration, we want to follow the examples of collaborations and friendships across different parts of the world, people experimenting and being as creative as possible.

In late 2009 Gabriel Orozco had his mid-career survey open at MoMA – I think he was one of the youngest artists ever to have the honour. He had tried Casa Dragones through the gallery kurimanzutto where we had started serving and pouring at different events, and he asked if we could bring Casa Dragones to serve at the openings of his show – after MoMA it travelled to Basel, Paris and London. We were very new then, so we would just put the tequila in our bags and fly to where Gabriel told us to go – we were like his groupies! And at each opening and party we’d have a little bar in the corner. It was such an adventure for us: at the end of the exhibition tour we had this feeling of ‘we made it!’ And we wanted to celebrate that. Gabriel was excited to do a special edition for us, and he chose to depict his sculpture Black Kites (2007) which is hand engraved on an edition of 400 bottles. It was very appropriate because the piece is about memory and Mexican traditions of remembering – and mourning.

Since then, we’ve done collaborative projects with artists including Gloria Cortina, José Davila and José Noé Suro. We did an Artist bottle also with Danh Vo – his edition ended up in his pavilion at the Venice Biennale – but that’s another story. We’ve been able to work with galleries like Chantal Crousel, Gagosian, Casey Kaplan, Lisson, Lehmann Maupin, Salon94, as well as institutions like Chinati, the Hammer Museum, Museo Jumex. Recently the Museo Franz Mayer acquired one of our bottles for their display of the history of glass in Mexico. That made me very proud.

Danish Artist Danh Vo Holding Casa Dragones Collaboration Edition Bottle at Venice Biennale 2014
Danh Vo with his Casa Dragones Artist Edition bottle at the 2014 Venice Biennale

MM: Do you live with art day to day?

BGN: Yes, some. I say my collection starts with Gabriel, Danh and Pedro  for me, my bottles are the start. I also have work by Mexican artists like Carlos Amorales, Pablo Vargas Lugo and Melanie Smith, an English artist who is based in Mexico City. I have some work by Dr Lakra: I don’t have a tattoo, but I’ve always said if I do, it will be done by him. I have a special edition from the Serpentine Gallery by Ed Atkins, which is fun because it features a bottle that looks a lot like our Casa Dragones Joven. And a piece by Rainer Judd, from the Judd Foundation. She is a dear friend who lives this incredible life. I am on the board of the Judd Foundation through her.

MM: Can you tell me about the new edition by Pedro Reyes, and how this came about?

BGN: All of Casa Dragones Joven bottles are hand engraved – on the sides, neck and at the base you’ll see  a star motif, which is inspired by an agave plant seen from above. Pedro was enamoured by this ‘pepita’ technique, which is done by some of the remaining artisans in Mexico who know the skill, and became enthralled by the craft and its heritage. Pedro really was experimenting, it took years of communicating with the artisans in Xochimilco, and they said that the final design, from a mano perspective, was the most ambitious they had ever done. It’s based on a sculpture of the philosopher Epicurus, who for Pedro represents the meaning of friendship and the pursuit of happiness  living life to the fullest.

I’ve been a huge fan of Pedro’s for years. His work has so much humour and intellect, and diversity. But the desire to collaborate came from our friendship more than anything. We’ve served tequila in his house many times. What glues all our collaborations together is really the simple fact of enjoying drinking tequila together. It all starts from there. And from there, you can go anywhere.

MM: So what is the best way to enjoy tequila - with friends?

BGN: In Mexican culture, you drink tequila to celebrate, to cry, to rethink, to re-establish…. It’s not for one thing, but about togetherness in the moment. I mean, when you ask a friend to come and drink tequila it has a special significance – they know that you’re going to really sit down and connect. It’s more than a drink; it’s a moment, it’s almost a ritual.

MM: Speaking of joining with friends, how are you planning to spend the holidays this year?

BGN: I just got back from Jalisco, so we’ll be here in the US. We have a little cottage in Springs East Hampton and will go there. But first there’s art to see here in the city – I went already to Theaster Gates at Gagosian, the Judd exhibit at MoMA and David Zwirner, which is truly incredible. And seeing the ‘TITAN’ exhibition by kurimanzutto which is installed in phone booths, and about creating change. It’s funny - my last art event before the pandemic really hit was a sit down dinner for 40 people at Gagosian. My first afterwards was seeing Patti Smith sing a song on the street alongside her phone booth. I wonder if that says something about how things will be in the art world as it adapts to the pandemic. Though I am very optimistic about the vaccine and hope it will be distributed equally.

MM: What do you think is the ideal holiday gift this year?

BGN: Of course, I hope people will give Casa Dragones! To people interested in exploration, in art, in trying new tastes and experiences. For what I want to receive, I’m asking everybody to donate to Amigos al Cien, a community organization that raises critical  funds for families in San Miguel de Allende and to Open for Good to help save restaurants in Mexico and the US which have been so badly affected by the pandemic.

 

Casa Dragones sipping tequila, including the Pedro Reyes Artist Edition, is available online.

 

Matthew McLean is Senior Editor, Frieze Studios, based in London, UK.

Bertha González Nieves is the co-founder and CEO of Casa Dragones. She is based in New York City, USA and Mexico City, Mexico.

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