Think of your worst tequila moment. Right now you’re mentally perusing the overstuffed ‘T’ section in your brain’s library of bad booze memories, searching for the suckiest. If only you had some kind of Drunken Dewey Decimal System to speed up the process.
Now think of your best tequila moment. This might be an equally difficult thought exercise, mostly because you’re probably coming up blank. Uh, maybe it was that one Cinco de Mayo where you ripped several shots of Cuervo and didn’t puke the next morning? That counts as a win.
Point is, if you’re like me, you haven’t had much success with tequila. That’s why I largely swore off the stuff after college, save for the occasional, carefully controlled margarita. But you know how they say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover? Well, the same is sorta true for spirits: Never judge an alcoholic beverage by the hangover.
As I recently discovered, all this time I haven’t just been drinking the wrong tequila—I’ve flat-out been drinking tequila wrong. Turns out the correct way to enjoy the spirit isn’t to suck it down in seconds (go figure), but to sip and savor it and think about all the tender love and care that went into that very batch, while sitting in a friggin’ mansion as a 13-piece mariachi band serenades you into the night.
I learned very quickly to love tequila during my short, but enchanting stay at the Hacienda Patrón in the hills of Atotonilco, Mexico, where every bottle of Patrón tequila has been produced since 2002. The bad news: Both the distillery and its brand-new accompanying guest house are closed to the public. But read on to see what it’s like to take one of the most exclusive booze trips in the world, and I bet you’ll come away with a newfound appreciation for tequila. May we never waste such a complex spirit in a shitty shot again.
When Martin Crowley and John Paul DeJoria founded The Patrón Spirits Company in 1989, their objective was simple: produce the world’s finest ultra premium tequila. Mexican law dictates that tequila can only be produced using blue agave grown in a few select parts of the country, including the state of Jalisco. So the Patrón team set up shop in the Jaliscan Highlands, considered one of the best growing areas for its unique red soil and high level of acidity, both of which help agave plants grow.
In 2002, Patrón built its world-class Hacienda distillery in the heart of Jalisco, within spitting distance of many of the best agave fields in the region. In Mexico, a hacienda is traditionally a big plot of land with several buildings managed by a family, which is why Patrón’s vast, majestic compound doesn’t just encompass its distillery, but includes many offices, kitchens, dining areas, tasting rooms, and even a chapel, too.
Though the central building features four spacious guest rooms, Patrón wanted to build separate lodging for VIP visitors—friends and family of distillers, brand reps, high-end buyers, journalists, chefs and more. (Top Chef’s most recent season finale was filmed at the Hacienda.) So the company’s internal architectural department teamed up with three local firms to construct La Casona, a full-service, Spanish Colonial-style, 20-person guest house (complete with a restaurant, bar and gym) that just opened in February.
When you arrive at La Casona, your eyes immediately gravitate toward the glass chandelier hanging in the main lobby—a bold, colorful piece handcrafted by local artists.
Similar chandeliers, which depict working bees on agave plants in an homage to Patrón’s logo, fill other parts of La Casona, including the spacious, insanely detailed guest rooms. Between the 16-foot ceilings, gigantic wooden dressers and custom paintings (also from local artists), I could’ve stayed parked in my pad the whole time—but hey, I had a bunch of tequila to taste. So I heeded my call and ventured to the full-service bar waiting for me down the hall.
The bar at La Casona isn’t just home to some of the finest tequilas on the planet—it also boasts some of the most knowledgeable and nimble in-house bartenders I’ve ever encountered. The gents behind bar acrobatically whipped up every cocktail in Patrón’s portfolio without spilling a drop, mixing and shaking in circus-like fashion just to stunt. But they also frequently deviated from the script to prep off-menu concoctions based on our personal tastes.
I like my libations spicy, so my fedora-clad bartender reached into his fresh jalapeno collection and also retrieved a habanero tincture to craft a scorching, but smooth margarita with a Patrón Silver base.
I mostly gave the bartenders a break, preferring to sample as many of Patrón’s tequilas the way the gods intended: straight. Silver is the classic—crystal clear, with hints of citrus and pepper—as well as Añejo, which is a Silver blend aged in French, Hungarian and American oaks. But I kept going back to the two gems in the Gran Patrón line: Burdeos, which is a ridiculously smooth and sweet Añejo aged for a year in bourbon barrels, then distilled and aged in French oak barrels for another year; and Piedra, an extra Añejo that’s aged for up to four years.
Real talk: Sitting by a firepit and sipping the super limited Añejo seven Años—aged seven years, it’s among the rarest in Patrón’s line—is a much better use of your time than licking salt from your hand and sucking on a lime in a dingy dive bar. If only I knew that back when I was 20, and if only I had more than $20 and access to a working firepit.
I mostly gave the bartenders a break, preferring to sample as many of Patrón’s tequilas the way the gods intended: straight.
On the first night, I accomplished my chief goal of the trip: to drink copious amounts of tequila. But I figured I should also learn what it is I’m drinking, so the next morning, I ventured out to a nearby agave field to see how the proverbial sausage—er, tequila—is made.
It takes six to seven years for one agave plant to mature and build up enough sugar levels to produce Patrón. At the heart of every agave is the piña; while the average piña contains 22 percent sugar, Patrón’s piñas pack 26 percent. It’s up to the jimadors—local farmers who harvest agave plants—to strip the agaves of their leaves and pack up the piñas for cooking. A veteran jimador can harvest four tons of agave in one day’s work, which is more manual labor than I will ever do in my entire life.
We hopped back to the Hacienda to see the rest of the process, which includes slow baking the agaves in brick ovens (almost 80 hours per oven at over 200 degrees Fahrenheit) and crushing the cooked agaves via two different methods. Patrón uses an old-school, heavy volcanic stone tahona wheel and a stone mill to keep the agave syrup with the agave fiber, as well as a roller mill—a more modern machine that squeezes the cooked agave to obtain all the agave juice, sans fiber.
Fermentation and distillation follow, employing different copper pot stills for each method. If doing all that work twice seems like overkill to you, know that Patrón uses the resulting tequila from both processes to create its core and more advanced tequilas. Patrón Silver, for example, is created by blending secondary distillation from both the roller mill and tahona sides, and is then used as the base for Patrón’s Reposado and Añejo tequilas.
The last stop of the tour was one of Patrón’s vaunted barrel rooms, which houses millions of dollars worth of tequila. Master Distiller Francisco Alcaraz—Patrón’s O.G. distiller since ‘89—has developed an aging system that requires a unique combination of barrels, such as French Limousin Oak and American Bourbon, for each batch to ensure every barrel of that particular blend ends up tasting the same.
Exhausted but satisfied from my long, hard day watching other people do work, I retreated back to La Casona’s bar to put my newly established knowledge to good use. There I was, continuing to treat myself to some of Patrón’s rarer blends—if you can find the sherry cask-aged Añejo at an airport duty-free shop, please pick up a bottle and ship it to me—when suddenly, a mariachi band surprised our party and dropped an hour-long set of nothing but the hits, including “El Jarabe Tapatio.” You know it better as the Mexican Hat Dance, and yes, it’s even better live.
I very well may have hallucinated my two nights at the Hacienda Patrón in some kind of tequila fever dream; the experience is that unreal. Imagine if your favorite booze maker opened up a magical hotel where the high-end liquor flows like water. That’s La Casona, only in your fantasy there aren’t any mariachi bands, because they’re all too busy performing here.
Does it take an exclusive trip to Tequila Land to develop an affinity for the spirit? In my case, yes—but only because I never spent the time doing my homework. I had previously, ignorantly dismissed tequila as an elixir for getting drunk fast and sicker quicker, but after getting a crash course in its intricate origins (and tasting an endless array of sophisticated blends), I’m a proud convert.
Don’t be so quick to cast aside a liquor based on your brief, spotty history with it. Do a little research—and spend a couple more bucks—to find out if you really hate it, or if the two of you just had a bad first date (and morning after).
Otherwise, you might mistakenly dump the drink of your dreams.