Stuck Inside Guadalajara with the Cancún Blues Again

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To get to the Patrón tequila distillery, you must fly to Mexico's second largest city, Guadalajara, the decidedly unglamorous capital of Jalisco state. Here's one way to know that a city is uncool. When we landed, the pilot joked over the intercom “Welcome to Puerto Vallarta!” and everyone laughed. The joke, which I needed to have explained to me, is that Puerto Vallarta is super fun, while Guadalajara is decidedly not.

Screw the haters, though. I was pumped. First, it was wonderfully cool in Mexico, a welcome change from my beloved, but unseasonably sweltering midwest. Second, traveling to Mexico meant I could buy cheap cigarettes at the duty-free shop—which I did. Delightfully, my carton of Dunhills did not have any of those milquetoast, small-type Surgeon General's warnings. It said “SMOKING KILLS” in giant, black, block letters. Finally, a country that gets me.

People in Mexico will tell you that Jalisco is the “most Mexican” part of the country. That’s because many things stereotypically associated with the country originated there. Mariachi music, for instance, and the woven straw sombrero that clueless North American college kids culturally appropriate every Cinco De Mayo. And, of course, tequila. Oh, Lord, is there tequila. As Épernay is to Champagne and Kentucky is to bourbon, tequila was born, and can only be officially made, in Jalisco state. Somewhere between a staple and sacrament, the drink is only slightly less popular there than water.

Patrón Spirits built their operations in the Jalisco highlands, where the red volcanic soil is said to make the agave grow sweet. Originated by Casa Siete Leguas, one of the country’s oldest distilleries, the Patrón brand was purchased in 1989 by architect Martin Crowley and his friend John Paul DeJoria, a founder of the John Paul Mitchell hair care line. Together they formed St. Maarten Spirits, expanding operations and ramping up the marketing.  

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.

First, the bulbous, basketball-sized agave―which look like alien eggs Sigourney Weaver might torch―are cleaned and roasted. About half of the fruit is then crushed in a roller mill, standard for most large-scale tequila producers. The rest is squashed by tahona, a traditional hand-carved grinding stone that slowly rotates on an axis, mashing the cooked fruit into a pulp—fibers and all. Traditionally, the tahona was powered by burro. Patrón, quite sensibly, has replaced the beasts with electric motors. They’re more efficient. They also don’t crap on the floor.  

The roller mill, essentially, is a giant conveyor belt that mashes the cooked agave and removes its fibrous innards. It's a faster, more efficient process than the tahona, and, depending on who you talk to, arguably produces a more distinct representation of the agave, including lighter, citrusy top notes. Because the tahona process is so much slower, in fact, fermentation actually begins in the pit. This produces a more earthy and funky product with tequila's signature, medicinal twang. When the two are combined, fermented for three days in pine vats and twice distilled, the result is the company's flagship spirit, Patrón Silver. Retailing for about $40 bottle, it has a big, nutty, woody base with astringent, grapefuity top notes and heavy mouth feel.

Silver, though, is just the start. Like most tequila distilleries, Patrón also puts their products in oak barrels for aging. After a few months it’s become a reposado, from the same Latin root as “repose.” After a year or so it’s an añejo, from the same root as “annual.”

Patrón is a brand built on the back of the upscale consumer, so it’s unsurprising that they’d also chase the wealthy dilettante lust for faux-primitivism. Hence the existence of the Roca Patrón line, which is made with a tahona-only process and costs another $20-30. There’s also the seven-year-old Extra Añejo 7 Años, a bottle of which will set you back an extremely hip and exclusive $300. Or, should you prefer your extra añejo poured from a handmade French crystal decanter, you can pay more than seven grand for a bottle of Patrón En Lalique Serie 1, which retails for $7,500 a bottle. Note to bargain hunters: the Lalique crystal decanter comes in a sweet leather case, which I’m pretty sure they throw in for free.

Of course there’s also Patrón’s line of liqueurs, including orange-flavored Patrón Citrónge (basically a triple sec), spicy XO Cafe Incendio (which combines Patrón Silver with Criollo chocolate and chili peppers) and, my favorite, Patrón XO Café; a coffee liqueur with subtle chocolate notes. The stuff is so damn tasty that, to quote Tracy Jordan, I wanted to take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant. All are undeniably delicious. They are also about as far from tequila's down-and-dusty roots as it's possible to get. Sipping them, you can almost hear Ray Liotta laughing at you.

Back at the Hacienda’s main building, in a well-appointed dining room, we had a late lunch including four—count 'em four—tequila-based cocktails. Being a professional  reporter and all, I carefully took notes on the composition of each libation. Being something of a lushy moron, however, I promptly lost those notes. But I’m pretty sure lime juice was involved in one of them. There may also have been a paper umbrella. It was great. Ray Liotta can suck it.

Then, in something of a haze, we finished the tour, visiting the bottling facility and aging room, the on-site reverse-osmosis wastewater treatment plant and a compost heap the size of a football field―part of the company's admirable, if profoundly stinky, commitment to sustainability. Then it was back to the main house to sit on the balcony, sample the aforementioned liqueurs and smoke Cuban cigars in the sun, which was simultaneously awesome and guilt-inducing. Nothing will make you feel more unaccountably privileged than smoking a fine cigar on a sun-drenched veranda overlooking an acre of lush gardens in the heart of a really poor country.  

On the half-buzzed, half-sleepy trip back down to Guadalajara, we still didn't see any bandits. The closest we got to drama was getting stuck behind a bad accident on the highway, necessitating a new route back to the city. Once there, in the humid, sexy, subtropical bustle of a warm, clear, Mexican Friday night, we had dinner and drank more tequila, followed by the kind of weirdly satisfying, anonymous sleep you can only get between the ultra-clean, crisp, white sheets of a hotel bed.

The next day, while heading for the airport, I cracked the 375-ml of Roca Patrón   Reposado the distillery had given us after the tour and took a big swig, which seemed to amuse my cab driver. He laughingly refused when I offered him a drink, then confessed that he can't afford Patrón. I took another slug and joked that he must be saving his money to pay for Trump's wall. My muy divertido joke, suffice to say, did not go down as smoothly as the booze.

There’s no question that Patrón is a powerhouse brand. And they don’t mess around when it comes to quality in their production process. Granted, they pander to high-net worth, hedge fund bros. Put your spirit in a squat bottle with a cork stopper instead of screw top, tie a ribbon around the neck, and you can charge twice as much as the pendejo down the street who never saw Mad Men. Patrón is something people buy to prove they can afford it, the same psychology that allows restaurants to sell four dollar artisan toast. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a great spirit. Marketing only gets you so far, and without a good product, they would have foundered long ago. Having been there, I can attest: the company runs an extremely tight ship. They have a near-religious insistence on excellence, are deeply committed to sustainability, and have doggedly maintained their dedication to small-batch craftsmanship despite an ever-expanding production scale. The only shame is that I, just like my cabbie, can't really afford to drink it.

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