Sonya Vega, the Founder and CEO of Doña Vega, Wants to Share Her Modern Take on Mezcal With the World

The entrepreneur follows traditional production processes when creating the agave-based spirit—and honors her Mexican heritage every step of the way.

sonya vega of dona vega
Photo: Courtesy of Doña Vega

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Tequila has always played a key role on the cocktail scene, starring in long-standing favorites from palomas to margaritas—including Martha's famous spin on the latter, the "Martha-Rita." If you're a fan of the distilled spirit, you might consider trying its cousin, mezcal. Though the agave-derived drinks are often compared, tequila is produced from just one type of the succulent, while mezcal is made from many. It also has a distinct smokiness that you won't find anywhere else. According to Sonya Vega, the CEO and founder of the mezcal brand, Doña Vega, that's one of the spirit's best features—and the first thing that struck her when she was introduced to it back in 2012 by her Mexican friends and family.

A few things caught her attention from the very first sip: "I was obsessed with the bold taste, but I found that many versions were too smoky or intense," she says. "I was intrigued and began exploring how we could create a blend that honored both the bold tradition and unique flavors of the centuries-old spirit, but with a modern twist."

What started out as a personal project turned into a full-fledged business. Since founding Doña Vega in January 2020, Vega has made it her mission to share her "perfect soft-smoke, smooth mezcal" with the world.

doña vega bottle and cocktail
Courtesy of Doña Vega

Meet the Mezcal Brand

Before creating her own mezcal, Vega wanted to make sure she knew the industry like the back of her hand. She dedicated years of research to traveling through the Oaxaca mountains and visiting farms, agave fields, and distilleries. From there, she looked for her brand partners. "Ultimately, I teamed up with an amazing female-led production team and utilized my background as a PR executive to build the business," she says. "I was grateful to have met with a supportive team of female founders and industry experts that helped guide me and were generous with business advice."

Sonya Vega

I hope to be recognized as a pioneer brand within the world of this fantastic growing spirit and highlight the [sustainable] benefits of mezcal.

— Sonya Vega

Building a Supportive Community

Since Vega didn't initially plan to partner with a female producer—there are few in the industry, she explains—she was thrilled to find and connect with the women-led farm and distillery team at La Curva, who helped her create a mezcal recipe. Vega was particularly impressed by her producer, a fifth-generation mezcalera who worked hard to put her three daughters through college. "Her daughters returned to support the business and community overall, showcasing important values I personally stand behind: strong family and community ties," she says.

When it came time to distribute, Vega and her team began hand-selling, building community relationships, and attending grassroots marketing events so consumers could sample the mezcal firsthand. "We were able to share the brand's story in an intimate setting, such as a gallery," she says. "We're working on growing the brand market by market with both small and large distributors and partners that want to be involved in building the brand together."

Respecting the Process

Honoring Mexican tradition in the mezcal production process, which dates back to the early 1500s, means everything to Vega. "One ritual our producers' practice is to add a dash of chili and salt at the time of cooking," she says. "This is done to take away the superstition of an evil eye. As legend has it, whoever witnesses the agave cook may transmit a curse with their eyes."

The timeline is also important: The Doña Vega team handpicks the wild and semi-wild agave, which have matured over eight or nine years (the average timeframe in the mezcal industry is between three or four years, Vega points out). "Each agave piña, the usable core of the plant, is then roasted for four days over a low, steady fire in a stone-lined earthen oven pit," she adds. "The agave is ground the traditional way, with a horse mill, and mixed with mountain spring water before fermenting in wooden vats for another three days."

The mezcal is stored in oak barrels (this adds richness and texture) before it is then transferred to the Doña Vega bottle, which is inspected and signed by their mezcalera. "During the last step in the production process, Doña Hortensia sanctions the spirit into a hollow bamboo tube and pours it from a height into a jícara, or dried gourd cup," says Vega. "The resulting 'pearls' that linger on the surface of the liquid indicate a mezcal is of superior quality."

doña vega founder and production team
Courtesy of Doña Vega

Staying the Course

Vega launched Doña Vega at the peak of the pandemic in 2020, and initially thought that she was behind the curve as a result. The opposite proved true: "In actuality, it allowed me to spend the year planning, and not just doing—I reached out to a network of executives for informational interviews and gathered advice," she says. As for her best advice to fellow entrepreneurs? If you experience any tentative setbacks, stick to your business plan. This will remind you why you got started in the first place, she says.

Vega has plenty of personal and professional goals for Doña Vega's future. "My goals are to inspire more women to break down walls and follow their dreams, especially in the alcohol industry," says Vega. As she moves her business forward, she aims to continue highlighting the rich culture of Oaxaca and mezcal—and introduce the agave-based spirit to the masses. "I hope to be recognized as a pioneer brand within the world of this fantastic growing spirit and highlight the [sustainable] benefits of mezcal," she adds.

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