Casa Dragones: Tequila with a Pedigree

When passion and expertise meet, extraordinary tequila emerges

Bob Pittman, a tequila aficionado and Bertha González Nieves, a certified tequila expert and first woman to be named Maestra Tequilera by the Academia Mexicana de Catadores de Tequila, founded Casa Dragones in 2008. At $275 per bottle, it is both exceptional and aspirational.

As the story goes, Bob Pittman (founder of MTV, CEO of Clear Channel) has spent many summers in San Miguel de Allende, where he has a home, and over the years became a true tequila lover. In 2007, he and Bertha met at a party and talked about their mutual passion for tequila. Bob shared his dream of creating one. Bertha told him that she always wanted to become an entrepreneur. Together they set on a quest to deliver a true sipping tequila, smooth enough to sip, with no “wince factor.” A short time later, the two founded Casa Dragones.

Bob Pittman and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves
Bob Pittman and Bertha Gonzalez Nieves

I don’t know Bob Pittman but I know Bertha González very well. She and I worked together when she was the Commercial Director North America for Jose Cuervo International and I was a consultant/advisor to the company. Actually, Bertha had a number of positions at JCI, under the leadership of Carlos Arana, including business development, new products and brand management. In short, she knows tequila and how to run a tequila enterprise.

While at JCI, I marveled at her ability to balance the whims of the Beckmann family (owners of Cuervo) and the arrogance of Diageo (distributors at the time). Clearly Bertha’s wit, intellect and charm came in handy.

Here’s an example – when asked in an interview a few years ago whether anyone ever mixed anything with Casa Dragones, Bertha’s reply was, “not in front of me.”

The Product

Casa Dragones Joven tequila
Casa Dragones Joven tequila

I guess the first thing everyone says about the original Casa Dragones tequila is the price tag. If you’re a particular type of spirits consumer, it’s worth it. It’s a 100% Blue Agave Joven Tequila, crafted in small batches. Joven tequila is a rare blend of silver tequila and extra aged tequila. It’s a style rarely used and it took both Bertha and a master distiller, coaxed out of retirement, over a year to perfect the blend.

So, it’s tequila to be sipped and savored and never, ever mixed. Trust me, it’s not like any other tequila you’ve ever tasted. But don’t take my word for it – Wine Enthusiast gave it a 96 and here is what Tequila.net had to say about it.

From the soil to the Agave plant to the craftsmanship to the bottle – this is not tequila to use in a margarita or even as a shot. Like the lady said, sip it.

But, if you must drink your tequila in a cocktail, they have recently introduced Casa Dragones Blanco, 100%Blue Agave silver

Casa Dragones Blanco
Casa Dragones Blanco

tequila designed to be served on the rocks or in signature craft cocktails developed by leading chefs and mixologists. Cocktails like San Miguel, Pink Panther and my favorite, Michelada Primaverde, described on the website as follows:

James Beard Award Winning Mixologist and Owner of New York City’s P.D.T (Please Don’t Tell), Jim Meehan has created the Michelada Primaverde exclusively with Tequila Casa Dragones Blanco. A mixture of dry vermouth and tomatillo juice is complemented perfectly by a splash of Victoria beer and a spicy, salted rim for a refreshing, summer cocktail.

The Blanco sells for $75 for a 750 ML. Feel better now?

It’s All About Mexico

As to the heritage, the elite cavalry that helped spark the Mexican independence movement inspires the name. La Casa Dragones, the original 17th century stables still standing on a street in San Miguel de Allende, is the spiritual home to the tequila.

What makes Casa Dragones especially unique is that it is thoroughly Mexican. A product that comes from the lowlands and the rich soil of the Trans-Mexican volcanic belt; a formula based on the merging of the traditional art of tequila making combined with an innovative process; a product designed for a consumer who is looking for quality and authenticity. It’s the real deal.

Bertha
Bertha

It’s also about Bertha Nieves González and her passion for tequila and innovation. So add her to the list of Booze Business’ Shaker’s and Stirrers – the new breed of alcohol industry entrepreneurs.

Just don’t let her catch you drinking the Joven product with a mixer.

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Last Drop Distillers

Old Whisky, New Management

Last Drop Distillers products
Last Drop Distillers’ current products

At the 21st Annual Whisky Advocate Awards, The Last Drop 50 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky was awarded the highly prestigious Whisky Advocate’s Blended Whisky of the Year 2014.

It’s a remarkable product from a unique and equally remarkable company. I’ve blogged about the company a number of times but only in reference to James Espey, one of the founders. I think you’ll find the full story very interesting, particularly since the day-to-day management of The Last Drop Distillers (LDD) has been handed over to the daughters of two of the founders.

How it began

In 2008, three partners with a proven track record of producing incredible spirits brands (Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Chivas Regal 18 Year Old, The Classic Malts, Malibu and Baileys Irish Cream) decided to pool their skills to create one last amazing brand. So, James Espey, Tom Jago and Peter Fleck founded the company whose single-minded goal was to find and bottle rare and exclusive spirits.

Award winning Last Drop 50 year old
Award winning Last Drop 50 year old

For instance, The Last Drop 50 year old (50.9% AbV, $4,000) is based on the discovery of three overlooked casks that had been distilled between the 1940s and 1950s and sold throughout the 1970s. But somehow these casks were ignored or forgotten about until Espey and Jago came along and further aged them.

The result was twofold. The whisky was extraordinary and described by reviewers as “epic.” Further, they realized they were on to something and have produced a 1960 Scotch and a 1950 Cognac. Other last drop variants are in the works.

New management

As you can imagine, precious and rare spirits, not to mention expensive, require a full time commitment for sales and marketing. As a result, the management torch has been passed to two brilliant offspring of the founders.

Carolin (Beanie) Espey
Carolin (Beanie) Espey

Caroline (Beanie) Espey (daughter of James Espey) is Sales and Marketing Director and comes with a strong global background as well as expertise in very top shelf brands. Following a degree in modern languages at Oxford University, Beanie has worked for luxury brands Chanel and L’Oreal before starting her own business – a Marketing agency run jointly from London and Hong Kong.

Rebecca+Jago.jpeg
Rebecca Jago

Rebecca Jago (daughter of Tom Jago) is Creative Director. Following a degree in Linguistics and time with some of London’s leading design agencies, Rebecca has been running her own small design agency for the last 25 years. Somewhat unusual for a creative director inasmuch as Rebecca’s creativity extends both to design and product.

What makes The Last Drop unique?

There are many very expensive whiskies on the market selling for four, five, even six figures. (Here is an interesting list.) The scotch whiskies on the list are mainly single malts and available in either glitzy or straightforward packaging. What I love about The Last Drop products is that it is about the liquid, not the packaging. If your motivation is ostentation, then you probably gravitate toward elaborate packaging that shows your “good taste” regardless of the quality of the scotch.

Also, the list consists mainly of single malts except for Last Drop Distillers 1960 Blend and Johnnie Walker Blue 200th Anniversary Blend. While I love single malts, there is nothing like a carefully blended scotch, particularly with ancient stocks. For me, that’s the epitome of the scotch maker’s craft.

Add to that a family run business consisting of old school/new school spirits industry connoisseurs and the results are products worth buying.

Of course, that’s only as long as the stock lasts. But, if I know the Espeys and Jagos, more discoveries are on the way.

IMG_3547
The Last Drop team

 

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Agave India: What’s in a name?

A Tequila product from India?

Yes, that’s right. But, even though Agave India produces an outstanding 100% Agave product, the term ‘Tequila’ or even ‘Mezcal’ is protected by designation of origin registration and reserved for use by Mexico.

(You’ll find previous blog posts on how the agave plant found its way to India from Mexico here and issues related to Appellations of Origin (AO) here.)

DesmondJi Products
DesmondJi Products

As a result, Agave India Industries Pvt Ltd, the craft distiller behind Agave India, can only use the generic Agave designation and be content with the following on their promotional material:

100% Agave product, a gift of the blue-green Agave plant. 

A plant grown in the red and black volcanic soils of India’s Deccan plateau and nourished in a semi-arid micro-climate similar to that of Central America.

In other words, it walks like a duck, squawks like a duck, tastes like a duck but… it is not a duck. Or, better, you can’t call it a duck.

Undeterred by this and secure in the knowledge that he makes world-class spirits products, Desmond Nazareth (under the brand name DesmondJi®) has been producing his products since 2011.

Meet DesmondJi®

The term Ji is a suffix used in India as a sign of respect, also known as an honorific and comparable to the Japanese –san or the Mexican Don, as in Don Julio. Kind of ironic actually, since I couldn’t tell the difference between DesmondJi 100% Agave and Don Julio Blanco in a blind taste test. Yes, it is that good.

Desmond is a graduate of the Indian MIT known as Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT-M) and moved to the US as a software entrepreneur. In 2000, he moved back to India. But, while in the States, his home bar became known among his friends as the place to go for the best margaritas. Alas, back in India, tequila products were not widely available (still aren’t due to tariffs) much less orange liqueurs or margarita blends. Too bad, he thought.

But, if you’re an entrepreneur, a problem can easily become an opportunity.

Desmond spent several years researching agave plants and the making of agave spirits including visits to Mexico to understand cultivation and

Cocktail glass water tower at the distillery.
Cocktail glass water tower at the distillery.

distillation. Back in India, he recalled seeing the distinctive agave plant in the Deccan plateau. The next thing you know, he builds a micro-distillery and produces a range of products. Agave India is the country’s first fully integrated “field to bottle” alcohol beverage company focusing on global spirits made to international standards with Indian raw materials and know-how.

When he and I spoke I asked him what the enormous agave plants were used for before he came along. His answer, “They were used as fences.”

Desmond Nazareth and Indian Agave Plants.
Desmond Nazareth and Indian Agave Plants.

A portfolio of 8 products

Under the DesmondJi® label, the company produces a 100%, a 51% Agave spirit and a 51% Agave Gold spirit with an oak finish. In addition, they have an Orange and Blue Curacao liqueur made with the Nagpur orange. After all, you can’t make a decent margarita without an orange liqueur and if you’re using Indian agave, you also should use a liqueur made from Indian oranges. In addition, they produce alcoholic margarita blends or, as we call it, a premixed margarita.

Finally, the portfolio also contains a Pure Cane spirit (think cachaça) made from locally grown sugar cane.

Challenges

While India is primarily a (scotch) whisky drinking country, white spirits like vodka and tequila have shown growth and future promise. But, for now at least, non-whisky alcohol products are a drop in the barrel, ur, bucket.

Desmond would like to set his sights on the US, the largest tequila consuming market in the world. But, I don’t need to tell you that while not yet saturated, the US tequila market is very cluttered. Can a craft agave spirit from India gain a foothold? Even if its terroir and geographic location is comparable to that of Mexico?

Still, the Indian population in the US (according to The Times of India) is the third largest from Asia, after those from China and the Philippines. They are mainly centered in the Boston to DC megalopolis and in Northern California. Further, I’ve been told that more than 60% of retailers in New Jersey are from the Indian sub-continent and in New York City, roughly 45%.

So the challenge is – will consumers from India or of Indian ancestry, have an interest in agave spirits from India? Will retailers?

Maybe the answer is that it’s not about national pride or appellation alone. Maybe it’s about a high quality product that uses these two elements to kick start a venture in the US.

To me it’s like brandy vs. cognac or champagne vs. prosecco – it’s not about nomenclature, it’s about quality.

What do you think?

The Agave India distillery
The Agave India distillery
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