It’s not easy to get to where they make Patrón tequila. The Hacienda — a sprawling campus of Spanish colonial buildings encompassing the distillery, bottling plant and world headquarters of this rapidly growing luxury brand — is about an hour and a half outside Guadalajara. Many employees make the same trek, by company bus, twice daily, past endless agave fields, roadside cocinas economicas and cerveza stands and, of course, armed state policías, a brief reminder that this area in western Mexico is prone to outbursts of cartel-related violence.
We’re this far outside the city to be closer to the agave. Up here, in the hills of the province of Jalisco, the agave is said to grow bigger and more abundantly and with a sweeter taste than anywhere else in the country. In fact, it’s one of the few regions of Mexico where tequila is allowed to be produced, because it’s close to the source.
Patrón doesn’t grow any agave of its own, save for the miles and miles of decorative plants that adorn the grounds, its famous blue stems punctuating the landscape as though painted there in watercolor. Instead, they buy agave from local farmers in large quantities — a system, says plant manager (and tour guide) Miguel Escobar, that allows them to cherry-pick the best plants while ensuring that farmers in the area earn a living wage. In fact, Patrón prides itself on being the largest employer in the area (as well as one of only a handful of tequila brands that has its own distillery; most others share space and equipment to keep costs down).
Patrón’s distillery is sacred ground, or so we’re told. Tourists aren’t granted access, unlike other distilleries in the neighborhood. While the Hacienda, which was built in 2002, looks occasionally like a Disney-fied version of a real Mexican hacienda, so carefully aged and ornately landscaped as to feel almost surreal, the quality of the work that goes on here is indisputable. Though Patrón has gone to great lengths to position itself as “premium” — the tequila of private jets and rap lyrics — the secret, isolated Hacienda might be its greatest asset. In fact, just a few weeks after our visit, Patrón launched a massive virtual reality campaign to give Oculus Rift users a drone’s-eye view of the production process.
What VR early adopters will see is a distilling process notable not so much for technique or innovation, but for scale. Patrón produces about two million bottles of tequila each year. That’s not as much as you’d think; brands like Jose Cuervo or Don Julio produce nearly 10 times that amount. But it is unquestionably substantial.
In ethos, though, Patrón seems unwilling to be anything other than a mom-and-pop operation. There are faster, more cost-effective ways to make tequila. But, whether for effect or for luxury-minded affect, that’s not what Patrón does.
Patrón’s small-scale, big-heart technique is dictated by its founding father and Master Distiller and Blender, Francisco Alcaraz. Alcaraz is an ambiguous figure, almost mythic. (In fact, there’s a statue of the man outside the front gate of the Hacienda, a bronzed, life-size figure standing with open arms, proffering a bottle of his prized Patrón to all who pass.) He’s not a tall man, nor a large one. His most distinctive features are his mustache and his mop of unnervingly brown hair. Though it seems assumed he’s in his mid-60s, no one seems to know exactly. Alcaraz is a biochemist by training, and got his start in the tequila business as a government inspector many decades ago. He mastered the Patron formula in 1989, at the behest of John Paul DeJoria and Martin Crowley, tequila enthusiasts and billionaires by way of Paul Mitchell shampoo.
A single innovation made Alcaraz a rich man: combining the two ways to process and distill agave. The first method uses a roller mill, and is typical of almost all large-scale tequila producers in the region. The roller mill is a giant conveyor belt machine that mashes the cooked agave, removes its fibrous innards and sends the rest on to the distillation stage. The second method uses a Tahona, the traditional grinding stone that has gone out of favor for many producers simply because of volume: each Tahona is basically a pit in the ground, with a stone that slowly moves around an axis. In essence, it’s a motorized mortar and pestle, and it mashes the agave into a pulp, fibers and all, which can them be moved onward to the fermenting process.
A single innovation made Alcaraz a rich man: combining the two ways to process and distill agave.
In both cases, the agave is fermented for three days in massive pine casks, which help produce a smooth, earthy flavor, the likes of which would be impossible to attain (or so the theory goes) if the agave were left to sit in stainless steel. From there, it’s transferred to copper pots designed by Alcaraz himself. After two distillations, the result is a clear, if a little pungent, tequila. The differences? The tequila produced by the roller mill is a bit harsher, a bit more citrus-y, a bit more like the bar rail tequila you’ve no doubt downed too much of with a few squeezes of lime. The Tahona tequila, on the other hand, is deeper, earthier. You can really taste the agave fibers that have been distilled along with the juices.
So neither process is special, in and of itself. But combined half and half, they make up Patrón Silver, Patrón’s first offering and the base for nearly every other offering in the company’s lineup. It happens to be my favorite in the bunch: there are real tasting notes, an earthiness not found in most entry-level tequilas, but with enough of a burn that there’s no question that yes, you’re still drinking tequila. Only last year did Patrón release its Roca line (which runs from around $70-$90), an iteration that only uses tequila produced the traditional way, with the Tahona. It’s not the easiest way to make tequila, which is exactly why most producers don’t do it.
While I’m wary of buying too much into Patrón’s self-hype, there is definitely something special here at the Hacienda — some tradition, or heart, or familial feeling that makes such a big multi-national company owned by absentee Americans feel relatively small.
Or maybe I was just seduced by the compost. One of the most striking things about Patrón’s process has nothing to do with the product at all. It has to do with the byproduct. All the spent agave shells and fibrous mulch discarded before and after fermentation has to go somewhere. Most distilleries just toss it. Patrón has invested a small fortune to compost the stuff, turning it back into fertilizer to help grow the agave that makes the tequila. They’ll even take spent agave from other producers in the area — though so far, few have signed on to the scheme.
The compost heap, covered by a gigantic white tarp specially imported from Colombia, takes over the landscape from certain vantage points. This is true even from the terrace off the Hacienda’s executive dining room, where we’ve been whiling away the post-tour afternoon, doing the hard work of tasting, sampling, and re-sampling more.
Maybe it’s the hot Mexican sun, or the pride emanating from Francisco and Miguel, but the tequila goes down easy, and you can’t help but admire the empire they’ve helped build. Is it the best tequila in the world? That’s an impossible question. Is it worth the price tag — considering a bottle of Silver, the base model, goes for about $50? Also maybe not. It’s tequila, after all. It’s meant to be a little quick and dirty. And, despite some innovations when it comes to aging, it lacks the nuance of a Scotch. Still, from this vantage point, it’s all pretty damn impressive.