Industry Insiders: Bertha González Nieves, Maestra Tequilera

Bertha González Nieves, the co-founder and CEO of Casa Dragones, has Japan to thank for igniting her passion for tequila. As a Mexican ambassador to Japan in her early twenties, she underwent a rigorous program to ensure she was ready to represent her homeland’s art, culture, and national industries. Part of the training involved visiting Mexico’s top tequila distilleries, and that was all it took to capture her interest. “When I first went to an agave field, I was blown away,” she says. “I became enamored with the concept of tequila and how it’s produced.” González Nieves went on to earn a masters at Northwestern, then took a job at Grupo Cuervo, the oldest and largest tequila company in the world, where she “learned the business from the inside out,” both in the Mexican market and internationally.

Years later, a chance meeting with MTV founder Bob Pittman helped her realize a long-held dream. “ He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to produce tequila,’ and I said, I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, so we set out on a quest to produce a unique style of sipping tequila.” The result was Casa Dragones, a singular small-batch spirit that’s been leading discerning drinkers around the world to give tequila a second look. González Nieves, the first woman to be certified as a Maestra Tequilera by the Mexican Academy of Tequila Tasters, says, “There’s a romantic side to spirits, too, and the beauty and complexity of the handcrafted process really attracted me.”

Hold the Lime: The Best Tequilas on the Market

Don’t blame the tequila. It’s as innocent as the rolling hills of Jalisco, where neat rows of blue agave plants have been cultivated for more than 500 years. Tequila didn’t ask to be treated like some Tijuana donkey show by those with no appreciation for the effort required to coax the right balance of sweetness from the loamy earth. It didn’t ask to be prefaced with a lick of salt and chased with a wedge of lime—or mixed with cloying, neon-green margarita mixes—to mask its very existence. It didn’t ask to become the poster child for unrefined drinking. Still, that’s what happened.

Instead, blame Jimmy Buffett, Sammy Hagar, or the producers of every spring break movie since 1983 for sullying this fine liquor’s reputation. Then give North America’s first indigenous spirit—and the concept of moderation—another chance. Today’s premium sipping tequilas can stand up to the finest whiskeys, vodkas, and gins on the market, with artisanal craftsmanship and subtle, alluring flavors that bring nothing more to mind than the blue skies and warm breezes of its birthplace.

Commence your reintroduction to the Mexican spirit world with silver and platinum tequilas, which are as close as you can get to its essence. The agave used in Casa Dragones ($275; casadragones.com), for example, grows in the dark soil of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, which is scattered with black obsidian lava rock and onyx boulders 1,200 meters above sea level. After a minimum of eight years, workers cut out the piñas (which resemble their namesake pineapples) at the peak of maturity. The resulting agave juice is fermented, distilled multiple times, and filtered before adding just a touch of aged tequila to balance the taste. The end product is tequila with an aroma of sweet roasted agave, notes of vanilla, spice, and pear, and a warm, hazelnut finish. Forget about that lost shaker of salt; this tequila should be enjoyed completely unadorned, with nary an ice cube or a drop of water in your snifter. It’s a sublime treat for a special occasion. Gran Patrón Platinum ($200; patronspirits.com), meanwhile, is smooth like butterscotch, with subtle pepper notes that fade to reveal honey, cream, and pear nectar. One sip and all thoughts of shot glasses and Señor Frog’s go out the window.

For those with shallower pockets, Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Silver ($53; milagrotequila.com) is balanced with notes of agave, vanilla, and a touch of grapefruit. Jose Cuervo Platino ($60; cuervo.com), one of the more upscale offerings from the biggest name in tequila, is a delightfully smooth pour, with an almost Scotch-like feel and hints of, yes, vanilla, but also citrus and assorted botanicals that are fun to pick out as the taste lingers on the tongue. If you’re looking for something flashier, consider the three flavors of Avión, the new artisinal tequila sourced from Jalisco and made famous by its cameo in HBO’s Entourage.

Today’s top-shelf choices really are a cut above the standard versions; if you’re looking for truly sippable tequila, spend the extra pesos on the good stuff . Granted, the entry-level offerings are still flavorful, but with their burn factor, they’re best mellowed out with a proper measure of fresh lime juice and triple sec—a quality margarita, say, on the beach. Remember, there’s a time and place for (almost) everything.

BlackBook Fêtes Its 14th Birthday

It was a midsummer night’s dream of a soiree. BlackBook CEO Ari Horowitz hosted a swank party for the 14th anniversary of his company that coincided with the 24th birthday of his lovely fiancee, Laurel Cummings, at his ultra posh West Village penthouse. I meant to stay 5 minutes and was there for hours. It was a hot crowd with unbelievably delish food from Morimoto. I parked myself at the buffet until I realized the hottest crowd was cooling off on the large roof deck. I even sipped a tequila as the Casa Dragones rep insisted—I was, after all, among friends. I stumbled back to the buffet to get some ice cream cake and cupcakes a la Coldstone, and then back into the night air. I remember BlackBook back in the day. We tried to host as many of these shin digs at my clubs as possible, as the magazine always drew a sharp crowd and we always wanted the brand association. It’s 14 years later and nothing has changed.

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BlackBook has been great for giving me a chance to tell my story and show the world that I’m more than just a pretty face. The music by Alexander Dexter-Jones had me convinced that yet another superstar DJ has arisen from the Ronson clan. Rock and Soul provided the gear and showed how easy it is to make a joint hop. Good food, good music and sound, and booze (courtesy of Veev) transforms a cool apartment into the hottest place in town. I tried to leave 5 times but a familiar face always brought me back. Happy birthday Blackbook and Laurel Cummings.

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Photography by Gina Sachi Cody.