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The rise and rise of tequila

Mexico’s best-known spirit is shaking off its image as a low-rent party drink and re-emerging as a premium product to be sipped or used in smart cocktails. We speak to Matthew Sykes, director of international marketing at Patrón, about tequila’s reinvention

The rise and rise of tequila
Patron jimadores

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Tequila has long been associated with a lick of salt, a shot of something resembling paint stripper, and a desperate bite on a wedge of lime. But the Mexican spirit has had a sophisticated reputation for decades in its country of origin, and now it’s finally making waves beyond Central America.

Mexican food is booming in the UK, with restaurants such as Wahaca, Breddos Tacos, El Pastor and DF/Mexico showing there’s more to the cuisine than Tex-Mex. And with tequila’s undertones of pepper, citrus and spice, it can be equally complex, and versatile. Never mind shots or margaritas, you can make mojitos with a quality tequila, or swap the spirit for vodka in a Bloody Mary. The good stuff can even be sipped in the same way you might drink, say, whisky or Cognac.

Tequila has become a huge player in the US over the past decade. George Clooney sold his Casamigos brand to Diageo for $1bn in June 2017, closely followed by the sale of Patrón to Bacardi for $5.1bn in January 2018. Figures like this suggest international markets are about to see a whole lot more of one of Mexico’s most famous exports.

Patrón’s elevation in the US is partly down to the repositioning of tequila as a versatile, premium offering — something other brands such as Don Julio, Avion and Herradura, plus market leader Jose Cuervo with its top-end range, are also doing. Patrón’s unaged tequila, silver, works well in drinks where gin or vodka thrive, while reposado (oak aged for at least two months) and añejo (oak aged for 12 months or more) offer more possibilities.

“Our tequila is very versatile as a flavour profile, you can enjoy it in a variety of different ways — and we’re not restricted to the tequila-based classic cocktails,” says Matthew Sykes, Patrón’s director of international marketing. “You can enjoy it with tonic, you can have it in an Old Fashioned with the aged profiles… If you’re looking for more of the agave notes and the woody feel of a whisky, that’s where reposado and añejo come into it.”

Back to the source
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006, the Valles Region in Mexico’s Jalisco State has been home to tequila (named after the city of Tequila) since the 16th century. While a fermented beverage from the agave plant, known as pulque, existed in pre-Columbian times, tequila’s modern history coincided with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

Traditional techniques have survived, with jimadores, the men who harvest them, passing on intimate knowledge of cultivation down the generations. And while mezcal, tequila’s less famous cousin, can be produced anywhere in Mexico from any type of agave, tequila can only be made from the Weber Blue variety, in Jalisco.

Despite having gained international popularity in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that production of 100% blue agave tequila began in earnest — battling the reputation of the best-known exported tequila, mixto, often based on up to 49% sugars from other sources.

Celebrating its 30th year, Patrón was established in 1989 by John Paul DeJoria and Martin Crowley, whose goal was simply to produce a smoother, premium tequila, with an initial run of just 12,000 bottles. That figure hit 100,000 cases a year by 2002 and three million by the time Bacardi bought the brand.

All this has been achieved while maintaining its original production methods, as Sykes explains: “From our perspective we don’t follow an easy path — when we produce the liquid it would be easy to look for economies of scale, but for us that would not be true to the artisanal, handcrafted nature of Patrón.

“The processes we follow are extremely traditional — so using clay ovens to slow-cook the piñas [agave hearts] for 79 hours using pine fermenters, using copper stills… As we started to grow it could’ve been easier, and more efficient, to build bigger stills and bigger ovens, but we didn’t do that. We literally just replicated the first distillery 12 times as we’ve grown. We’re unswerving in the resolute way that we stick to tradition, we follow a path to get the highest quality liquid.”

With a presence at UK music festivals last summer (Big Feastival, Lost Village, Houghton Festival), as well as London’s Cocktail Week and a variety of clubs and bars across the country, Patrón is taking its mission to convert consumers to tequila seriously. And a recent collaboration with mixer drinks brand Fever-Tree also saw the launch of a citrus tonic water, specifically to accompany Patrón Silver, as a new way to try tequila.

As the drinks industry in the UK has come on leaps and bounds in recent years — the growth of craft beer, the explosion of gin distilleries and the evolution of wine palettes — it’s surely only a matter of time before tequila comes of age.

Recipe: Patrón Añejo Old Fashioned

60ml Patrón Añejo
7.5ml simple syrup
1 dash bitters
1 orange

1 Over a double old-fashioned glass, use a vegetable peeler to take off two strips of orange zest, making sure to express the oil into the glass.
2 Add Patrón Añejo, simple syrup and bitters.
3 Add ice — the biggest cubes you can find—and stir.
4 Adjust sweetness to taste.

Check out our round-up of the best Mexican drinks.