Wine and Spirits

How to Sip Tequila

Mexico’s first maestra tequilera shares how to fully appreciate this storied spirit — from craft to scent, taste to terroir.

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IN THE COLONIAL city of San Miguel de Allende, located in the highlands of Mexico’s Guanajuato region, it was Día de los Muertos — a sacred holiday on which it is believed the dead return to the land of the living. I was attending a party at La Casa Dragones, the headquarters of small-batch tequila producer Casa Dragones, housed in a renovated seventeenth-century stable where the first conspiratorial meeting of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain took place. I followed a shadowy passageway filled with lush huele de noche (night-blooming jasmine) to a baroque candle-lit courtyard banquet. In the center of it all: the queen of the night. She was wearing a wide-brimmed black fedora and cowboy boots. “Welcome,” said Bertha González Nieves, Mexico’s first maestra tequilera (female master tequila distiller). Through slow, meticulous craft, storytelling, and partnering with the best chefs and tastemakers across the globe, González Nieves has played an integral role in reclaiming tequila’s ancestral image as a noble beverage for sipping and savoring.

“We loved the rebellious spirit,” says González Nieves, remarking on the La Casa Dragones’ history, now sitting in her sun-soaked New York City living room where she has invited me for a tasting. “We wanted to be known in the industry as modern and rebellious producers.”

In her early 20s, González Nieves was selected by the Japanese government to represent Mexican culture in Japan. As part of her training, she traveled around her country learning about different Mexican industries. This was when her love for tequila truly crystallized, and she ended up working for the oldest tequila producer, Jose Cuervo. After 10 years, she wanted to produce on her own, with the sole vision of proving that tequila can compete with other sipping spirits, such as cognacs and whiskeys — and that it can pair well with a range of cuisines. From “... Italian cuisine, to American cuisine, to Japanese cuisine … I wanted to prove that there’s a place for tequila,” says González Nieves.

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She holds a glass of joven up to the light, a blend of a white tequila and one that’s been aged for three years in new American white oak casks. “If you look at the walls of your glass, you’re going to notice how the tequila has long and pronounced legs [the viscose streaks of liquid down the glass’s interior walls]. That translates into a silky body — a very important experience when you’re sipping a spirit straight. How the liquid embraces your palate is part of being able to appreciate a spirit.”

González Nieves instructs me to smell the back of my hand. “This is a tip for when you’re tasting wine or you’re tasting other spirits. It really brings your nose to a neutral place to be able to focus on what you’re about to appreciate.” She segments the top of her glass into three sections: lower, middle, and upper. We inhale at the bottom of the glass, the area where you sip. The notes are sweet. “Agave azul tequilana is a very sweet plant by nature,” she explains.

Much like wine, knowing the terroir is an important first step in understanding tequila. Based in the heart of the town of Tequila, Casa Dragones’ agave plants are rooted in nutrient-dense volcanic soil. “We have a very rich, semi-arid and semi-humid soil that is filled with obsidian. That adds a certain minerality and profile that is very evident in tequila.” The blue-green agave plant, which needs to grow between five to seven years before it’s ready to harvest, is a remarkably resilient crop. And the name “agave” is derived from Latin: “It means illustrious, admirable, and noble,” González Nieves says.


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“We will eventually drink tequila, I promise you,” she says and tells me to position my nose right at the center of the glass. Only an inch up, and the aroma is totally different. “It’s almost like an orange peel perfume, right?” she says, softly inhaling. These layers are why González Nieves always knew tequila would reclaim its status. “The spirit commands it,” she says with a conspiratorial gaze. “The spirit has that — I know this doesn’t translate — but the medula, that core spine.”

We move to the uppermost part of the top of the glass. “Incline the glass as much as you can and close your eyes,” she says. While the first aroma was sweeter, and the second was zestier, this one reveals spice. “Traditionally, the wooden notes go to the top of the glass, whether it’s in spirits or in wine,” she explains. In terms of taking in the aroma, there are two ways. The first: mouth closed. The second: mouth opened. With my mouth open, I notice a wider range of aromas — like smaller melodies weaving through a harmony.

In a professional tasting, one typically starts with a neutral grain spirit, which prepares your palate to taste beyond that first alcoholic hit. Without a neutral grain spirit for priming, González Nieves notes the second and third sip will always be more representative of the tequila’s actual flavor. While gorgeous on first sip, I see what she means, finding a rounder gentleness in the second sip. With the subtlest spiced undertones, the tequila is soft, with delicate notes of vanilla and pear. “I think pear is one of the most elegant fruits,” she says. “It has this sweet and sour combination.”

González Nieves likes to pair the tequila with caviar, an idea she took from her friend and collaborator, acclaimed chef Daniela Soto-Innes. The oily brine goes beautifully with the round sweetness of the tequila, the unique minerality of each in exquisite dialogue. She also loves an oyster pairing with her joven for a similar reason. We move on to chocolate truffles. The praline-like sweets open up the caramel notes of the tequila, heightening its creaminess and nuttiness.

González Nieves says that too few people understand the long history of craft within the country. “There are a lot of clichés about Mexico. Even when I started selling joven, people looked at me like, ‘A $270 tequila? Are you nuts?’ and I said, ‘Why not? Cognacs [can be expensive] because they’re French? Single Malts [can be expensive] because they’re English or Irish?’ We have the craftsmanship, we have the attention to detail. This spirit has over 200 years of best practices in history. Why not us?”

Her title, Mexico’s first maestra taquilera, means less to her than what she feels it might do for other women. “[These titles] are up for the taking. It’s not about gender. It’s about dedication and talent and perseverance and love.” She honors the decades of unseen women that came before her, untitled yet contributing insurmountable knowledge to the craft. “I’m certain there were other women who had those roles throughout history. They just never got the titles or the recognition. I’m just glad to be one of them.”

A Guide to Tequila Tasting

Bertha González Nieves' Sipping Tips

  • Smell

    Smell the back of your hand to bring your sense of scent to a neutral place. Tilt your glass to smell the three segments of the glass: lower (near the rim where you sip), middle, and upper. Smelling in each of these parts of the glass will highlight different notes. Smelling with your mouth open will reveal a wider variety of aromas.

  • Ice

    When pouring tequila over ice, choose carefully, as unfiltered water can impact the taste of the tequila. Always used filtered water, or a premium brand like Acqua Panna.

  • Sip

    Prime your palette with a neutral grain spirit so that you can taste beyond that first alcoholic shock. The second and third sip will be more representative of the tequila’s flavor.

  • Smell

    Smell the back of your hand to bring your sense of scent to a neutral place. Tilt your glass to smell the three segments of the glass: lower (near the rim where you sip), middle, and upper. Smelling in each of these parts of the glass will highlight different notes. Smelling with your mouth open will reveal a wider variety of aromas.

  • Sip

    Prime your palette with a neutral grain spirit so that you can taste beyond that first alcoholic shock. The second and third sip will be more representative of the tequila’s flavor.

  • Ice

    When pouring tequila over ice, choose carefully, as unfiltered water can impact the taste of the tequila. Always used filtered water, or a premium brand like Acqua Panna.

González Nieves' Tasting Notes

  • Casa Dragones Reposado

    I like to chill the glass for Reposado [swirl crushed ice around the glass and then empty it out]. The aroma is of orange blossom and magnolia, with gentle notes of honey and sandalwood. The taste is balanced notes of butterscotch, apricot, and pine nuts. The finish is long with hints of coffee bean and mellow spice.

  • Casa Dragones Blanco

    I like to drink this over a two-inch square ice cube in a tumbler. It has a slower melt, so you have a more consistent sip over time. Add a little twist of grapefruit. I think lemon or lime is overused. Fresh, herbaceous, with notes of grapefruit and green apple, the taste is a unique balance of semi-sweet notes of agave, warmed by hints of pepper and cloves. The finish is crisp and light with hints of almonds and a bright, open aftertaste.

  • Casa Dragones Joven

    Best served neat, in Riedel tequila glasses. The aroma is subtly floral and citrusy with notes of sweet roasted agave. Its soft taste has hints of vanilla and spiced undertones, with delicate notes of pear and a clean, warm finish with hints of hazelnut.

  • Casa Dragones Añejo

    You can have this tequila with ice or no ice. But if you’re going to use ice, use [crushed ice] because it's just a touch, just to open the tequila. The aroma is fresh, floral, pear, with notes of figs and almonds. The taste has notes of macadamia, nutmeg, and blackberry, and the finish is long, with notes of cacao and spicy black pepper.

  • Casa Dragones Reposado

    I like to chill the glass for Reposado [swirl crushed ice around the glass and then empty it out]. The aroma is of orange blossom and magnolia, with gentle notes of honey and sandalwood. The taste is balanced notes of butterscotch, apricot, and pine nuts. The finish is long with hints of coffee bean and mellow spice.

  • Casa Dragones Joven

    Best served neat, in Riedel tequila glasses. The aroma is subtly floral and citrusy with notes of sweet roasted agave. Its soft taste has hints of vanilla and spiced undertones, with delicate notes of pear and a clean, warm finish with hints of hazelnut.

  • Casa Dragones Blanco

    I like to drink this over a two-inch square ice cube in a tumbler. It has a slower melt, so you have a more consistent sip over time. Add a little twist of grapefruit. I think lemon or lime is overused. Fresh, herbaceous, with notes of grapefruit and green apple, the taste is a unique balance of semi-sweet notes of agave, warmed by hints of pepper and cloves. The finish is crisp and light with hints of almonds and a bright, open aftertaste.

  • Casa Dragones Añejo

    You can have this tequila with ice or no ice. But if you’re going to use ice, use [crushed ice] because it's just a touch, just to open the tequila. The aroma is fresh, floral, pear, with notes of figs and almonds. The taste has notes of macadamia, nutmeg, and blackberry, and the finish is long, with notes of cacao and spicy black pepper.

Our Contributors

Sophie Mancini Writer

Sophie Mancini is an editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.

Ana Hop Photographer

Born in Mexico City, Ana Hop is a photographer whose work focuses on portraiture defined by her use of natural light and the intimacy she is able to achieve with her subjects.

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