Why this spirit should be sipped not shot.
The Scottish Highlands are appropriately revered as the cradle of single malt civilisation. Now, their Mexican equivalent in the blue agave hills of Jalisco are getting their due. Except the drink in question is tequila. There exists evidence that the Aztecs were necking a fermented agave drink as early as 200AD, while the Spanish opened Mexico’s first large-scale distillery in the early 1600s. Today’s prime player is Patrón, a premium tequila that takes care to appear steeped in history despite only being launched in 1989. The label was founded by American billionaire John Paul Dejoria (who made his fortune selling Paul Mitchell hair products) and business partner Martin Crowley, their reason simple: they were sick of bad tequila. The pair went to Mexico, recruited master distiller Francisco Alcaraz and started making their own. The nexus of their operation is Haçienda Patrón, a sprawling mansion-cum-distillery where much of the spirit’s production – from harvesting to affixing labels to bottles – is still carried out by hand. Up close, agave plants look like giant pineapples, which is what they’re called in Spanish: piñas. They are unearthed by jimadores (male workers) using a coa, which is a round-headed knife with a long wooden handle that resembles a shovel, but is razorsharp. Operating on fuid muscle memory and maximum efficiency, this is still an intensely physical process. Roughly six kilograms of agave produce a litre of tequila, but the necessary alchemy is far from straightforward. Some 1600 people work for Patrón. If it were fully automated, that number would be closer to 250. That’s a prospect that is clearly not being entertained as product and process seem inextricably linked. What’s more, the reputation of the drink itself is falling more into line with the historical Mexican perspective than it’s more louche salt-encrusted associations. Thing is, most will feign knowing about tequila – the stuff of wild nights and truly awful mornings. But times have changed. Tequila is now a refined spirit in its own right, no longer needs to be masked in sugary cocktails or slammed down with lemon. Good tequila should be smooth and enjoyed with little more than ice – maybe a wedge of lime and some good company. Which is why we’re here, in the home of the spirit, to find out what goes into a bottle of Patrón.
While other distilleries use largescale autoclaves, which cook the agave quickly but can leave them burnt, Patrón does so in small brick ovens that create a unique flavour. After the jimadores finish in the fields, the plants are transported to the distillery, where they’re cut by hand and baked at around 95ºc for 79 hours.
The Haçienda Patrón uses two different methods of crushing the cooked plants and extracting the agave juice. For the first, a roller mill separates the agave juice, which becomes tequila, from the fibre, which is used as compost. The second is Patrón’s trademark tahona method that employs a heavy volcanic rock in the shape of wheel that slowly crushes the cooked agave. This process has been used to make tequila for hundreds of years and allows the agave syrup to stay absorbed within the agave fibre. Each process adds different characters and flavours to the finished product.
After both the different extraction processes, they’re transported to pine wood fermenters for 72 hours. Though more expensive to maintain than the steel tanks used by other distilleries, pine creates natural thermal control for slower fermentation.
The tequila is twice distilled in copper pot stills designed by master distiller Francisco Alcaraz, who still oversees production at the Haçienda. This is different to other producers, which use large-scale column stills that are more costeffective, but lose many of the unique characteristics of smaller distillation.
The 80-proof Patrón Silver is unaged and goes straight from blending to the bottling plant. Gran Patrón Platinum is also 80 proof, but rests in oak tanks for up to 30 days before bottling.
Patrón bottles are produced off-site two hours from the Haçienda. On arriving, they’re rinsed with tequila (not water), filled, inspected and then corked and labelled by hand.
“GOOD TEQUILA SHOULD BE SMOOTH AND ENJOYED WITH LITTLE MORE THAN ICE – MAYBE A WEDGE OF LIME AND SOME GOOD COMPANY.”