A family legacy that includes one of Mexico’s presidents, government officials and tequila producers, which continues today.
By: John Dade
Whether it’s bravely fighting for the Mexican people in the War of Reform in the 1850s, or participating in the French Intervention (known as Cinco de Mayo) in 1863, the Gonzalez family is steeped in the Chinaco tradition of leadership, perseverance and pride, which has left a mark on the family history.
Beginning with the family patriarch Manuel Gonzalez in the 1850s, and continuing to the present day with great-great grandson German Gonzalez, the family’s unique influence and journey into the tequila industry is a testament to their passion, the people of Mexico and premium tequila.
I spoke with German Gonzalez about his family history, the tequila industry and his latest premium brand, T1 Tequila.
John Dade: Let’s start with a bit about your family history and your great-great grandfather’s involvement as a soldier in the 1850s and ‘60s.
German Gonzalez: My great-great grandfather Manuel Gonzales was a fairly wealthy landowner. His workers were among the first Mexican soldiers, not formal soldiers, but militia men who fought for the people in the War of Reform, and again alongside the newly established Mexican Army in the war against France (the French Intervention) in 1863. They were known for their bravery, heroism and feared by their enemies. This is how they came to be called the Chinacos by the people of Mexico – warriors in battle.
John Dade: So your great-great grandfather was one of those who were praised as a Chinaco?
German Gonzalez: Yes – and after the wars he retired home to his land. He was a general at that time and started acquiring plots of land for his ranch in Tamaulipas, all the way to Mexico City, so he could herd his cattle there safely. This is how he began to get involved in the government.
John Dade: It sounds like a great family history. So how did the family get involved in the tequila industry?
German Gonzalez: Well, since my great-great grandfather was in the cattle industry and became involved with the Department of Agriculture, he went on to be elected President of Mexico in 1880. During his 4 years as President he established the Banco Nacional de Mexico, the first Mexican owned bank. He also brought electricity to Mexico City and greatly expanded the railroad system. Our family’s involvement in the tequila industry actually started with my father (General Manuel Gonzalez’s great grandson) Guillermo Gonzalez who, at the time, was a lawyer in Mexico City. This was in the 1950s
John Dade: So that was when your family’s involvement in the tequila business really started?
German Gonzalez: Well, yes. In 1952 my father was a lawyer but also had a cotton farm in Tamaulipas, on the Gulf side of Mexico. It was completely wiped out by a huge frost, which led him to establish the first National Agricultural Insurance program with the help of the new president of Mexico. Because of his efforts he was later named as Head of the Department of Agriculture. Then in 1965, when hurricane Inez devastated the Gulf areas of Mexico, my father was the one who flew over the area to assess the damage for the Agriculture Insurance Department. When he saw that the agave plants were the only vegetation that survived the storm, the idea flashed in his head – why not plant this area with more agave?
John Dade: That was an interesting turn of events – but why just agave?
German Gonzalez: At that time, as it happens about every 8-12 years, there was an agave shortage for tequila and – I don’t know if you know this – there are over 200 types of agave in Mexico. But for tequila the best is the blue agave. So my father planted something like 300,000 blue agave plants in that area.
John Dade: That’s a lot of blue agave and I’m sure it was a costly endeavor. So what was your father’s plan?
German Gonzalez: That was around 1967, and the agave takes several years to mature. In 1972 a highway was constructed that ran through one of his farms, so he called his friend Javier Sauza to sell him his agave. My father was told by Sauza that he would pay the going rate per kilo for the agave. When my father was ready to harvest, he received a call from the Sauza Company and was told they would pay only half the price.
Now my father had a real problem. What to do with all these agave plants? So he called another friend Guillermo Romo from Herradura Tequila, but was told that he only used his own agave. So that’s when my father built his own distillery, where his old cotton gin factory was located.
John Dade: That was in the Tamaulipas region?
German Gonzalez: Yes – at that time there was not a regional designation for tequila. A lot of countries, like Japan and Spain and others were using it. But it was also around that time that the Mexican government received something from the American government about making an agreement between the two countries, that tequila imported into the U.S. had to be made in Mexico, by Mexican rules, and on the other side, that Mexico would not produce bourbon or American whiskey. This is more or less the deal they made.
John Dade: That was when the standardization of tequila in Mexico began?
German Gonzalez: Yes – this was when the Mexican government set up the Chamber of the Tequila Industry and when the Official Mexican Norm (NOM or NORM) was eventually established. [Find out more at: http://www.acamextequila.com.mx/english/normatividad.html ]
The Chamber was set up in the state of Jalisco and this became very important, since most of the distilleries and the owners were also in Jalisco. So I’m sure that had a lot to do with why tequila can only be made in the state of Jalisco. But many of these owners also had compadres in neighboring states, so this became a very difficult time.
John Dade: Did that became another challenge for your father who was from Tamaulipas?
German Gonzalez: Yes – my father tried many times to register his brand and was denied. So he started fighting and challenging the NOM and the 36 or so big tequila owners that were behind it. He did it all by the law, since he was a lawyer too. So in 1976, when a new president was elected in Mexico – who was also a good friend of my father – my father convinced him to fly over the farms in Tamaulipas with him, and he told him of his problems, and that he had also encouraged others who were in the Agricultural Department to plant blue agave plants there as well. All told there were maybe about 5 to 6 million plants at that time.
President Portillo listened, and later agreed to hold a meeting in Mexico City. At that meeting, after much discussion and debate, President Portillo secured the authorization for the Tamaulipas region to be included in the areas approved for tequila production according to the NOM.
John Dade: Let’s shift topics a bit here and talk about you entering the family tequila business. How did that came about?
German Gonzalez: Well after that, my father started producing his tequila and actually made more than he could sell. He decided to buy some new American oak barrels and used bourbon barrels to store the tequila. And through this process and experimentation, he developed one of the first ultra-premium tequilas to be introduced to the U.S. market. This was around 1983. He called it Chinaco, recalling the family’s proud and esteemed heritage.
John Dade: So how did you get your start?
German Gonzalez: Well, when I ended high school I told my parents that I didn’t want to go onto college but wanted to learn the tequila business. That didn’t go over well, but they finally agreed. I started working with my father first at the agave farms, then working my way up to the distillery.
John Dade: So then you struck out on your own?
German Gonzalez: Yes – in 2007 I moved to San Antonio, Texas to learn more about the distribution side and about the American market tactics. I was fortunate that I had good friends in the restaurant and bar business, so I talked with bartenders and lounge owners to see what they preferred and what the patrons liked. This is where I learned that a longer neck on the bottle made it easier for the bartender to handle, and would be easier to recognize on the shelf.
John Dade: So this is how you developed the unique bottle shape?
German Gonzalez: Yes, and also I noticed that in the nicer restaurants, they usually had flowers in the center of the tables so I wanted something nice that could be re-used and not tossed out!
John Dade: It looks like you developed some good marketing points, so how did you come up with the name T1?
German Gonzalez: Well, I wanted a name that would work in the U.S. and also international markets. The name came about by talking again with some friends. I was originally thinking of the name of a native tree in Mexico, but I found that many Americans had trouble pronouncing the name, so a friend suggested why not go with a unique one that conveyed the quality of the tequila. T1 for Tequila Uno. So that was it – simple and easy to pronounce anywhere in the world.
John Dade: Are you a cigar smoker?
German Gonzalez: Oh yes! I love cigars. I haven’t pursued it a lot in the past few years with my very busy schedule, but yes I love a good cigar.
John Dade: And do you have a favorite? Do you smoke Cubans?
German Gonzalez: La Aurora. It’s one of the oldest brands from the Dominican Republic. I like the smaller ones in a tube. You know it’s funny, I have tasted a lot of cigars and smoked the ones from Cuba, and for me they’re a bit strong and sometimes hard to draw. I prefer the Dominicans.
John Dade: German, thank you for your time today. I will look forward to when we can meet and have a cigar and tequila.
German Gonzalez: My pleasure John, I would like that as well. Thank you.