How Mexico's 'Queen of Tequila' took on a male-dominated industry and proved naysayers wrong
Melly Barajas is the master distiller behind “Leyenda de Mexico."
The world of tequila is one of many male-dominated industries, but one female entrepreneur has managed to build her own tequila business from the ground up – all while employing other women.
Melly Barajas is the master distiller behind the aptly named “Leyenda de Mexico” (Legend of Mexico) tequila. Of the nearly 140 tequila distilleries in Mexico, hers is the only one that’s led and operated solely by women.
It’s located near the town of Valle de Guadalupe in the state of Jalisco, Mexico, a region famous for the distilled alcoholic beverage made from fermenting the sugars of the blue agave plant.
“All this adventure started because of my love for my dad,” Barajas told ABC News.
“I was talking to my dad one afternoon, and he told me he wanted to have a tequila. And you know, my dad was my hero, my prince charming. How could I not give him that?” Barajas said.
When that conversation happened more than 20 years ago, Barajas was about 20 years old and on her way to becoming a fashion designer.
“I didn’t even drink tequila. I never saw myself grinding agave, working in the sun, growing plants,” Barajas said.
Barajas says people early on doubted that she would be able to survive in the industry.
“Predictions were that I wouldn’t even last six months in this business. I wanted to enter a world ruled by men, by people who had grandparents or great grandparents in the business, people who already had a tradition,” Barajas said.
Barajas says that when she started interviewing people, everyone who showed up was a woman.
“Some of the workers are single moms, women who want to leave their town, who want something different for themselves,” Barajas said.
“They are my motivation. It motivates me to see what they do to get ahead, to survive,” Barajas said.
The process begins in Los Altos de Jalisco, where the rich soil and favorable weather conditions make the region the perfect breeding ground for rows and rows of blue agave. The company says they don’t use any pesticides or fertilizer on their crops.
Large agave bulbs weighing up to 55 pounds make their way from farm to factory, where an assembly line of women heave the bulbs into a gigantic masonry oven to be roasted. The inside of the bulbs turn soft and release the sweet juices of the plant, which is the main ingredient of tequila.
Twenty-four hours later, the juice is sent to one of the storage tanks in the middle of the factory for fermentation, which can take up to 12 days, Barajas said.
Aida Carvajal Ruvalcaba, a mother of five and grandmother of seven, took her first job at the factory nine years ago, going from gardener to security manager. She gets emotional talking about what the support of Barajas has meant to her over the years.
“She has always been there for me. She is always taking care of me,” Ruvalcaba said.
Sandra Barba, a single mother of two young children, started as a seasonal worker seven years ago and was at first insecure about her skills and future at the factory.
“I was doing something out there and Mrs. Melly comes and tells me ‘Sandra, I want to talk to you.’ I thought I was getting fired. Melly asked me, ‘What do you do? Are you in school? What are you going to do after this?’ I replied, ‘Nothing.’ And she said, ‘Well, then stay with us, you are such a good asset,’” Sandra told ABC News.
Sandra is now the head chemist of the factory.
The company makes more than 1,300 gallons of tequila every day for six different brands – four of which are owned by Bajaras. The award-winning tequila is sold in multiple U.S. states and even Canada, earning Barajas the moniker "Queen of Tequila."
Bajaras' father died before he got to see his daughter's success, "but he is seeing it all from heaven," she said of realizing her dream.
“I would like my legacy to be that women feel capable and are able to dream. For me, that is wonderful. I don’t know if that legacy will endure, but I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, and what I believe I should be doing,” Barajas said.
ABC News' Clarissa Gonzalez contributed to this report.