There is no agave-based liquor more ubiquitous in private jets, nightclubs and Hollywood after-parties than Patrón. But what is known to most as a blingy, baller beverage so popular with rappers and clubgoers is actually more artisanal than first glance would suggest. Utilizing slow, traditional production methods, Patrón deserves respect beyond its reputation as a superficial luxury brand.
When hair care mogul John Paul DeJoria and architect Martin Crowley founded Patrón in 1989, their goal was to create the world’s first “ultra premium” tequila, elevating the drink above shots of gold “mixtos” made with non-agave sugars. Make no mistake: DeJoria and Crowley were entrepreneurs who happened to like tequila—not tequila makers. But they had a secret weapon in Master Distiller Francisco Alcaraz.
“I designed the whole factory,” declares Alcaraz, referring to the mills, stills and fermenters that he built from scratch. And as the company expanded over the years, Alcaraz firmly chose to never rebuild larger facilities. “I’d rather duplicate or clone the equipment so I can control the same conditions all the time,” he says. “It’s more expensive and more hand labor, but that’s one of the philosophies of the company: to give work to the people.”
Alcaraz was even responsible for choosing the site of the distillery for its contaminant-free water supply and highland climate. “The type of soil, the altitude, the range of temperature, and the amount of rain…influence the raw material,” he explains, adding that highlands agave is sweeter and fruitier than that of the lowlands. Alcaraz relies upon seven local suppliers for the vast majority of Patrón’s agave supply, claiming that this allows him to select the best from others’ harvest, rather than getting stuck with personal yields that don’t make the cut.
Despite the great foundation Alcaraz built to ensure a first-class product, it wasn’t until Ed Brown was hired as CEO in 2000 that the brand would become the global force it is today. “Ed took this artisanal tequila and commercialized it,” says Chief Marketing Officer Lee Applbaum. Patrón has since become the largest producer of 100% agave tequila in the world, and is biggest in the United States, where sales grew about eight percent last year, after selling just over two million cases in 2014.
If there were an ideal representation of the dichotomy of Patrón’s identity, it would be their hacienda in Jalisco, Mexico. The opulent distillery grounds look like something out of Scarface, featuring a glorious fountain, an immaculately maintained garden and statues of Brown and Alcaraz that tower like shrines to dual benevolent dictators. But behind the scenes is an incredibly authentic operation of traditional means: For example, Alcaraz bakes agave for three days in brick ovens, even though they are slower and more expensive than the autoclaves (pressure cookers) and diffusers (which force hot water and chemicals through raw agave) utilized by so many other distilleries. “Slow cooking takes more time, but the cooking is very uniform from the exterior part of the agave to the center,” Alcaraz explains.
Similarly, some Patrón products are made with Tahona mills, which only six of the 160 Mexican tequila distilleries employ. Again, the ancient process of rolling a giant Tahona stone over agave is slower than the alternative “roller mill” method (in which an automated mill squeezes the agave for its juice), but it introduces more agave fibers into the distillation process. The result is earthier tequila, with mushroomy or vegetal-like characteristics quite different from the citrusy, fruitier aromas and flavors produced by a roller mill. “When you combine those processes, you combine more flavors,” explains Alcaraz. “That’s what makes Patrón so different, so special.”
Patrón is also one of only five distilleries to exclusively use small capacity pine wood fermenters, which insulate against extreme temperatures to provide the most productive environment for yeast. While other tequila distillers opt for easier-to-clean stainless steel tanks that save time and money, Patrón’s porous wooden vessels also provide a home for microorganisms that contribute to a unique fermentation.
And unlike the majority of large producers that distill in stainless steel columns, Patrón only collects alcohol in copper pot stills, which—though much more expensive and less durable—strip unwanted sulfur from the tequila. From start to finish, it takes about a week to produce tequila at Patrón, whereas another distiller could produce the same amount of liquid with alternate methods in merely two days.
While Patrón Silver (their unaged, blanco tequila) makes up the lion’s share of the company’s sales, wealthy connoisseurs have taken to a recently introduced line of products collectively known as “Gran Patrón.” Included are Gran Patrón Piedra (a Tahona-only, extra Añejo aged for over three years in new American and French oak barrels retailing for $399) and Gran Patrón Burdeos (an Añejo aged in bourbon barrels, French oak and Bordeaux barrels retaling for $499.99). At the top of the line is Patrón En Lalique, a blend of the oldest and rarest Patrón tequilas packaged in a French crystal bottle and handmade leather display case, boasting a price tag of $7,500. Only 500 exist worldwide.
Yet despite Patrón’s reputation for extravagance, Lee Applbaum maintains that the brand has never paid any artist or celebrity for product placement or endorsements. “Whether you find us in a lyric or see us in a [music] video, these are things that all happen organically,” he insists. And as consumers imitate influencers, the brand has become synonymous with celebration in general. “Whether it’s Rob Gronkowski after a Super Bowl win, or a guy who just got a promotion…you see on social media ‘Patrón-worthy moments’ that are celebrated with Patrón. [The brand] has transcended lyrics in a rap song talking about ‘driving a luxury automobile, living in a baller house, [and] drinking Patrón.’ Now it’s about the real moments in everyday consumer lives that are deeply important.”
Maybe now that Patrón has begun to represent “celebration” over “luxury,” we can revere the brand for what really matters: the good stuff in the bottle.