Blue agave, grown for tequila, in Ms. Barajas Cárdenas’s fields. When she started, she said, “I had to get up early in the morning and drive from one agave field to another to search for the agave I wanted.” Credit Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock for The New York Times
More than two decades ago, when Melly Barajas Cárdenas and her father were on vacation in Mazamitla, Mexico, he told her that he wanted a tequila made in his name. At the time, Ms. Barajas Cárdenas was a clothing designer in Guadalajara, where she is from.
“I didn’t know anything about tequila,” Ms. Barajas Cárdenas, who declined to give her age, said in a recent telephone interview conducted in Spanish. “But it was my father’s wish.” So she decided she would find a way to fulfill it. She knocked on doors, asking various tequila producers for help, and eventually found one who produced a line of bottles for her.
Ms. Barajas Cárdenas quickly realized she wanted to do more.
“At first, it was a goal I had to accomplish, more than something that I wanted to do,” she said. “My clothing business was very comfortable. I went to the office, went home, it was easy. But once I was in the tequila industry, I loved it. The smell, the taste, it was marvelous.”
In 1999, she opened her own distillery, Raza Azteca, in Jalisco. At the time, according to an estimate from Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council, which certifies tequilas with designations of origin, eight or nine of the 79 tequila producers were women. (Today, the number is 12 of 152, or 8 percent.)
“She’s one of the few female master distillers down there,” said Andy Coronado, the owner of La Gritona, a Los Angeles company that works with Ms. Barajas Cárdenas to produce and bottle its tequila. He described Ms. Barajas Cárdenas as protective of her people, knowledgeable about her craft, tough and sometimes eccentric.
“She always has a Coca-Cola and has a steak when we go out to eat,” Mr. Coronado said. “She pushes the vegetables off her plate and says, ‘That’s the food of my food.’”
Raza Azteca produces 100 percent tequila, which is not mixed with sugar or chemical flavors, for three in-house brands — El Conde Azul, Espectacular and Leyenda de México — as well as for other companies, such as La Gritona, Sino Tequila and La Quiere.
“To be a woman in this industry requires a lot of work,” Ms. Barajas Cárdenas said. “It’s a man’s world. When I started, people told me: ‘A woman in this industry? You will not make it.’ I grew off of those comments.”
And she did not focus on advancing only herself. From the early days, Ms. Barajas Cárdenas hired primarily women to work for her company, Vinos y Licores Azteca, which operates Raza Azteca.