Aztec legend has it that Mayahuel, the goddess of the agave plant, and Patecatl, the god of Pulque, produced 400 “divine, mischievous rabbits with a taste for good company, good spirits and good times,” according to Mijenta Tequila’s website. That fun-fueling ability of tequila is symbolized in the brand’s rabbit logo — but the brand is showing the industry that those good spirits and good times can be had without a cost to the environment, while giving back extensively to local communities.
What sets the carbon-neutral, artisanal tequila further apart is the women who lead it: Maestra tequilera Ana Maria Romero and sustainability director and co-founder Elise Som, who’s behind Mijenta’s practices like using vegetable ink for printing and agave waste for packaging.
Born and raised in France to Cambodian and Chinese parents, Som, 37, studied architecture and interior design, eventually opening her own design studio. After welcoming daughter Nahla, now 5, she began wondering how she could make the world a better place for future generations, and completed a masters degree in sustainability studies at Harvard. Seeing excessive recyclable waste in Cambodia further fueled her desire to “let trash become gold.”
“There’s a Native American saying: ‘We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children,’” Som says. “I wanted to create a better space for my daughter.”
Heading to Mexico with her co-founders, friend and former Bacardi CEO Mike Dolan and mixologist Juan Coronado, Som says she set out to create the “most sustainable, transparent, and honest” tequila. She explored the highlands of Jalisco, searched for agave free of chemicals and pesticides, and went door-knocking in Guadalajara to find vendors who could provide materials in order to avoid the carbon footprint of having supplies shipped in.
For Som and Mijenta, the work continues outside the distillery: Mijenta, derived from the Spanish “mi gente,” meaning “my people,” supports local businesses and communities in Mexico through its Mijenta Community Foundation.
Despite the setbacks of Covid-19, Mijenta launched its blanco in September, and it swiftly won a silver medal at the Los Angeles Spirit Awards. A reposado followed and an añejo is currently in the works. Bottles are available online as well as fine retailers, bars, and restaurants, and will be rolling out globally throughout the year.
Two weeks after welcoming her second daughter, Malu, Som is back to work and talked to VinePair about leading a female-led brand in a “world of men,” how working at clubs schooled her in liquor, and why celebrity tequila brands are no competition for Mijenta.
1. What was your first experience with tequila?
During my studies, I worked for 1OAK in New York, which gave me an understanding of the world of alcohol — the good, the bad, and how certain spirits are better than others, including tequila. I also learned about how people like to drink or mix tequila. I’ve come from the school of learning to sell tequila in the club!
2. Were you always creative as a child [or at work]?
I tried so many things, from server to model to dog walker, but creativity came later, in my 20s. I had Asian parents who pushed more traditional studies. It was like, “If you’re not going to be a lawyer, you’re going to be a doctor,” so I got a BBA [Bachelor of Business Administration] first, then design came later. I’m happy I had this path because my business background has helped me with things like finding the right materials for our tequila or having good negotiation skills with vendors.
3. Your design skills have clearly come in handy. The box is so enticing and appealing to look at — the kind you want front and center of your liquor collection.
I wanted something that stood out on the shelf. I remember going with Mike Dolan to the tequila store and there were about 2,000 brands, and Mike was like, “Good luck designing a product that’s different!” I was like, “Everything’s so masculine.” Our blanco is softer because it’s pink. The intention was to become a brand that would be softer, but still have the tradition of being a well-done tequila.
4. I love that you can smell vanilla and spice as soon as you open the blanco. What do you think sets the drink apart in terms of the taste and the experience of drinking it?
It’s funny because when I was younger, I was drinking Patrón because that’s all I knew. In Mexico I started understanding the different flavors of lowlands versus highlands, and how you can smell the soil and the difference — it’s like a different perfume.
Our tequila takes you on a journey. You look at the packaging and feel like you’re with the jimadores [farmers] cutting the agave at the bottom of the volcano. And with the taste, we have Ana Maria Romero, the queen of tequila, behind it. We told her we wanted something different and more subtle. Not strong or masculine, but more gender-neutral.
We have pink packaging designed by a woman and liquid created by a woman, in a world of men. You’ll notice the difference in the taste — it’s more subtle, soft to the palate, clean, but full of flavor. Just like a woman!
5. How does it feel to have your product out there in what you’ve described as a male-dominated industry?
It’s like bringing fresh air into a man’s world. We’ve made things with our heart first, and when you create something from the heart and from the want to change the industry, it’s received differently by consumers.
This isn’t a celebrity tequila or a brand by a huge company. Everything is traditional, done in small batches and made with passion. The world is accepting that whether you’re a man or woman doesn’t matter — it’s about doing things with heart and because we’re women, things are a little different.
6. There’s been a lot said about the celebrity tequila trend. Kendall Jenner, for example, faced accusations of cultural appropriation for promotional photos taken in Jalisco for her 818 Tequila. There are also concerns that the Hollywood trend is harmful to local brands and workers. Do you think celebrity brands are problematic?
All I know is that it’s important to do things right. I don’t feel they are competitors as we’re completely different. The people drinking our products are not fans of certain celebrities, they’re fans of the drink. They want a good tequila because it’s well-made — and usually it’s pushed onto them by bartenders or they find out about our sustainability practices. So, we don’t feel we’re in the same world, because [celebrity brands] do things differently. We work at a slower pace and don’t use chemicals. We’re not there to judge them; we just know why we’re different and that we have consumers who are connecting with our brand pillars.
7. Sustainability and giving back are a big part of those pillars. What’s involved in your day-to-day working towards that?
On the design side, I’m still creating. We set out from the beginning to leave the least carbon footprint. We’re developing a [mushroom-based] packaging that’s biodegradable. We’re also giving back part of our profits to the Mijenta Foundation, which is helping local communities and jimadores. We’re supporting their families with health plans and education. We’re also partnering with Whales of Guerrero because whales capture so much carbon emission, it’s like planting thousands of trees.
8. What is it about Ana that makes her the “queen of tequila?”
She’s like a poet, a scientist, and just an incredible person! She’s so passionate and knows her job so well. Talking to her is like traveling — especially during Covid, when I really needed to get out of my four walls in London!
9. How did Covid-19 impact the brand?
We’re one of the only brands that launched successfully during a pandemic because we had a different approach. Traditionally, you would hit restaurants, bars, and liquor stores, so we changed our strategy. Launching online was challenging, but it’s working for us. We used a lot of social media and word of mouth has also helped. Again, we don’t have celebrities pushing us, so we’re evolving in a world where it’s connoisseurs, bartenders, and people who understand the world of tequila who are supporting us.
10. What changes do you think lie ahead in the tequila industry?
The region of Jalisco is planting a lot of agave and we need diversity. When land is cultivating the same thing over and over, we start losing minerals in the soil, so we need crop rotation. We’re working with the University of Guadalajara to provide biodiversity and support forest plantation. That’s really important because we’re buying agave, so we need to give back to the soil, which means pushing for diversity. That’s what the industry needs to do and it’s important we all do a little something.
11. What do you do outside of the tequila world?
Right now, I’m busy becoming a mommy of two little girls, which is challenging! I work with my daughter’s school doing readings about recycling and teaching the younger generation how to be sensitive to natural resources that could be running out. I teach children about turning off lights or taking showers versus baths. My daughter’s 5, so she understands. It’s fun because we’re training the younger generation to create changes right away, not when they’re becoming young adults.
12. What’s your favorite way to enjoy Mijenta?
I like it neat. My preference is the Reposado, which is a bit darker, aged six months and has a sweeter, honey taste. It’s perfect for someone who might want whiskey with an ice cube at the end of the day. I also like it in a spicy Margarita!