Twenty-seven years later, it’s hard to imagine the tequila world without them. Patrón almost single-handedly built the upscale tequila market, capitalizing on the same craze for pricey, small-batch authenticity that gave the world endless brands of “luxury” vodka. The company now sells well over two million cases per year.
But my pilot wasn't kidding. Guadalajara is emphatically not Puerto Vallarta. Or Cancún. That is, Guadalajara isn’t one of the cleaned-up, homogenized parts of Mexico that’s been made palatable for tourists. The city is not without its charms, certainly. In the suburb of Tlaquepaque, for instance, on a cobblestone street lined with restaurants, art galleries and gift shops, I encountered the single finest Margarita to ever cross my lips. Much of the city, though, is coarse and gritty. Curbs and sidewalks crumble. Discount pharmacies squat next to empty storefronts. People on the street glare with casual distrust. Graffiti is everywhere, Spanish tags written in hip-hop font.
That grittiness comes into sharper focus the next morning. As we drive out of town, we pass enormous slums lining either side of the highway. From inside our air-conditioned van, we stare at them, chilled bottled water in hand, silently gazing with that curious mix of gratitude, shame, and the vague desire to “do something” that strikes affluent people who are forced to contemplate third world poverty.
Soon, though, the air cools and clears. The elevation rises. The shanty towns give way to open fields, farms and picturesque, roadside cervasa stands. Twenty minutes later, the soil turns burnt sienna and we are rolling past long, orderly rows of spiky blue agave stretching to pretty green hills in the distance.
The drive takes about two hours, depending on how many trucks packed with live chickens you must pass along the way. Our trip was fairly quick and uneventful. This, perversely, left me disappointed. In addition to slow-moving chicken trucks, that particular part of Mexico is also prone to the occasional outburst of cartel-related violence. There’s even a U.S. State Department warning against traveling in the area. Deep in some dark, little part of my soul, I had secretly hoped for an encounter with desperadoes. I’d envisioned myself laughing at their AR-15s, the crazy gringo refusing to be robbed, winning their begrudging admiration with my unexpected courage―a bravery, mind you, born of existential exhaustion and ennui―then being invited to join their small but fierce band of outlaws. “Demaciado, mi amigos,” my voice would crack with raw emotion, “pero no esto mi destino.”
There were, however, no bandits to be seen. The greatest peril we faced was occasionally spotty cellphone service. That, plus a traveling companion who, like Sean Penn when he met El Chapo, was unable to suppress a musky fart.
Hacienda Patrón itself is a grand, gated, well-guarded complex that encompasses offices, a distillery, bottling plant, laboratory, chapel, and a construction site that’s soon to be a 20-room guest lodge. The main building is a new, bright pink mansion, built in the Spanish Colonial-style, surrounded by palm trees and painstakingly manicured gardens. It’s quite lovely. Stately, even. A lot of famous spirit makers open their distilleries to the public. They give constant tours and offer well-stocked gift shops, replete with bumper stickers, key chains and shirts that say “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, FLOOR.” Not so at Patrón. The joint is invite-only, and there’s nary a t-shirt to be found.
Inside the main house, we pass through a huge foyer under a wrought iron chandelier, past florid European art, through hand-carved stone archways and upstairs to a dark, wood-paneled meeting room. There we are served snacks to revive us from the not-very-grueling journey. These snacks, I’m thrilled to find, include ice cold bottles of Mexican-made Coca-Cola, about which I am infinitely more excited than the impending samples of pricey booze. I’m a massive Cokehead (note the capital “c”), and the good stuff is far harder to find in the States than Patrón.
First, though, we must sit through an exhaustive PowerPoint presentation about the brand and its history. Patrón, we learned, doesn’t grow their own agave. They buy it from local farmers—allowing the company to be more selective about their fruit. What really sets Patrón apart, though—beyond top notch marketing and packaging—is an unusual distillation process that combines ancient and modern techniques.