Hablando de Tequila: Hacienda PATRÓN

This podcast series is in collaboration with PATRÓN Tequila, the world’s No. 1 super-premium tequila that is passionately handcrafted in the Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico. To learn more about the PATRÓN, visit PATRÓNTequila.com.

In the second part of this six-episode series, host Zach Geballe speaks with Antonio Rodriguez, the on-trade development director at PATRÓN Tequila. There is a long history of tequila production in Mexico, and PATRÓN operates to ensure that each step of the process upholds those traditions.

From their method of cooking agave to labeling each finished product by hand, there are decisions to be made by Rodriguez and his team at Hacienda PATRÓN. Rodriguez explains how each of those processes sets PATRÓN’s final products apart from the other agave spirits on today’s market.

Tune in to learn more.

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Zach Geballe: Welcome to “Hablando de Tequila.” I’m your host, Zach Geballe. Throughout this six-part series, we’ll explore the history, people, culture, and future of tequila. On today’s episode, I’m joined by Antonio Rodriguez, the on-trade development director for PATRÓN Tequila. We discuss the historical production of tequila, why retaining those traditional methods is so important to high-quality tequila, and what PATRÓN does to ensure that quality in every bottle. Antonio, thanks so much for your time.

Antonio Rodriguez: Thank you for having me, Zach. It’s always great to talk about tequila.

Z: Yeah, almost as good as drinking it.

A: I would rather drink it and talk about it. That’s a good combo.

Z: Yes, indeed. So let’s start with a little bit of background about you, Antonio. What was your path to this role with PATRÓN, and what’s your experience in the tequila industry like?

A: That’s a good question. We can spend four hours on that topic.

Z: I’ll pour myself some tequila.

A: That’s a good call. I joined PATRÓN in 2006. It was just by chance. I had zero interest in tequila back then, but I was just finishing my degree as a chemical engineer from the University of Guadalajara. I got a lovely call from PATRÓN Tequila asking me if I wanted to work with them. Who will say no to that? So in 2006, I started as a production supervisor in Hacienda PATRÓN, their distillery. After 15 years there, I became the production director. I spend my days producing tequila and, most importantly, tasting tequilas. That’s a hard job. Somebody has to do it, but I’m glad to be the one. And just a month ago, I moved to the commercial area trying to help spread the word about PATRÓN and how magical our process is.

Z: Let’s dig into that process a little bit. Traditionally in the earliest days of tequila production — and we’ve already spoken a little bit about the methodology previously — but I would love to hear from your perspective. What are the origins of tequila production? How has tequila traditionally been made in Jalisco and surrounding areas?

A: There’s a lot of history with tequila. The first tequilas in the world were made with one method called tahona, which is basically a volcanic stone that helped crush the agave and release all the sugars that you have inside. That’s a very interesting method that, sadly nowadays, there’s no such thing as a “tahona handbook.” There’s nothing written about how to operate those kinds of methods. That’s why very few people nowadays are still working with those. At PATRÓN, we are one of the only ones that keep the tahona alive. We don’t have just one tahona; we have 14 tahonas at the distillery nowadays. We are constructing two more. So by far, we are the largest tahona tequila producer. We got to experience this method from our former master distiller, Francisco Alcaraz, who designed the PATRÓN process and flavor profile. And in our case, tahona is a key part of our flavor profile.

Z: I want to step back for just a second. In the production of tequila, I think most people understand that you start with agave. But you mentioned the importance of this crushing method. What is it about that method and about the things that are used for fermentation and distillation? The sugar is very easy to access. What is it about the agave that makes this crushing necessary, or the need to break apart the actual physical agave?

A: Good point. It’s kind of tricky, so let me try to put it as simply as possible. In the process of producing tequila, you just need to cook the agave in order to break the long chains of sugars that you have inside the agave. Then you have to crush it, then ferment, then distill. In each operation, you can apply different kinds of technologies. Let me try to go step by step in the different alternatives and why they are important in the way that PATRÓN is made, and we can go from there.

Z: Perfect.

A: Starting with the cooking, which is very important in order to get all the sweetness out. What I mean by that is, you already have sugar on the raw agave, but the way you cook it is going to be highly reflected on the sweetness that you will get in the flavor profile of tequila in your glass. Which in the end, is the most important part, because you’re not going to be at the bar talking to everybody about the flavors. So you need to do these things in order for the glass to speak for itself. The way we cook the agave at PATRÓN is in small brick ovens, and we take a little more than three days to do it. We use water steam and do a slow method process. And the idea here is to get all the sweetness out of the agave, which we start by sourcing the highest-quality agave, and by that I mean the sweetest agave that we can get. That’s on the cooking side. What are some alternatives? What are some technologies in this operation? You can also use an autoclave, which is a big stainless steel vessel. The benefit with that is, instead of three days, you can do the same thing in one day. Let’s put it that way. The problem with this is that the autoclave is basically a microwave. If you are going out for dinner and I can take you to a place to get a frozen pizza versus a nice Italian restaurant that makes the pizza from scratch, which one will you choose?

Z: Yeah, understood.

A: That’s why we’d rather take more time in order to have all the sweetness available for the next process.

Z: Now you have this cooked agave, and you already mentioned to some extent the importance of breaking it apart. I know that at PATRÓN, you use both a tahona and also some other technology. Can you maybe walk us through the different ways that you can physically break apart the agave once it’s been cooked?

A: Once you have the cooked agave, the next steps are to do the extraction — to crush the agave to get the sugars to get out of the fiber from the agave. To dry it, we use a tohana. As I mentioned before, we now have 14 tahonas at the distillery. These tahonas are made of volcanic stone, more or less two tons in weight, and that is going to crush the cooked agave. The key situation here: By cooking the agave the way we do it, the agave is really, really smooth. So it’s easier for the volcanic stone to do that kind of crushing, break the fibers, and release the sugars. What we do at PATRÓN is keep the agave juice and the fiber together. After the tahona, we’re going to use the whole thing — the fiber and juice — and put that into the fermenter. That is one process. We also use a roller mill, which is the most common extraction method in the industry. Roughly 75 percent of the brands in the market are produced with this roller mill method. This is basically a machine that is crushing the agave five times, and you add water in between every crush. You are basically raising the fiber, getting all the agave juice on one end and the fiber without sugars on the other end. After that, you’re going to only have agave juice, the liquid that goes through fermentation. We have covered the tahona, we have covered the roller mill. Something that we do not do at PATRÓN, but some distilleries are doing nowadays, is called a diffuser. What is a diffuser? It’s one big machine in which you can do the extraction and part of the cooking together at the same time. Going back to that operation, we take three days in the brick ovens. An aeroclave can be as fast as one day. This diffuser that I’m talking about, it can be as fast as a few hours. The differences will be in the profile. The highest-risk profile will come from a brick oven. The autoclave produces a little bit of sweetness, but also some bitterness from the agave that you already cooked. With a diffuser, that’s the one that is going to give you less complexity in final tequila.

Z: It’s about time. I know we don’t want to get into this — although I’m sure with your background you fully understand it — does it just have to do with the conversion of the long chain carbohydrates into simple sugars? Does it not do it as completely?

A: Yeah, because the brick oven is a lower temperature and for a longer timer. The autoclave is a shorter time with higher temperatures. When using the autoclave, you are damaging the sugars, because you are exposing them to a higher temperature in a shorter period of time. And the diffuser is even more aggressive on that extraction. So if you are looking for efficiency, the diffuser is the best. But in this case, we’re looking for a flavor profile. The diffuser is the one that is going to give you less of a profile, because it’s basically breaking more of the fiber in an aggressive way that is not allowing the agave to release all the flavors.

Z: Then the next step in the process, as you mentioned, is fermentation. What is fermentation like at PATRÓN? How does that differ from some other tequila producers?

A: Fermentation is one of the most critical operations. Up to now, we’ve been talking about sugar, about sweetness. During fermentation is when we’re going to take those sugars and create all the alcohol and congeners that are going to be responsible for the flavor of that tequila. The way we do that at PATRÓN is using small pinewood fermenters and ferment for as much as three days. We use proprietary yeast in order to develop the flavors that we want. As I mentioned before, one of the key components for PATRÓN’s flavor is the tahona process because we keep the fiber. So we ferment with all the agave on the fermenter, and that increases the amount of congeners. What are congeners? These are all the different components that can give you that fruity, floral, and citrusy flavors in the tequila. All that is coming from the congeners. So that’s why this is so important. The pinewood fermenters that we use allow us to control the temperature of the reaction in a natural way. My example of this is, the pinewood fermenter is like a very nice office for the yeast. If you put the yeast in a nice place, it’s a happy and productive yeast and the flavors are going to be amazing. But what are other alternatives? Most of the industry ferments using stainless steel containers. The problem here is, if you have stainless steel, you can go to bigger capacities, which is going to destroy the yeast because there’s much more pressure on the container. Also, you cannot control the temperature of stainless steel the way you can control it in the wood fermenter. So that’s also bringing more distress to the yeast. In the end, the yeast is like a human being. If you are under distress, your performance is going to be one way. But when you are comfortable, your performance is going to be better. So that’s why we use that method. Going back to another alternative, and this is usually linked to the diffuser use, is that you can also ferment using some chemicals and acids to accelerate the fermentation process. That’s why, in our case, we keep following the traditional method. These are from the brick oven, the tahona, a little bit of the roller, and the pinewood fermenter.

Z: I just have a simple question. What is the proof of the resulting liquid after fermentation? How alcoholic is it when all the sugar in the agave has been fermented?

A: The liquid resulting after fermentation, in our case, is 8 proof, or about 4 percent alcohol. But this number is quite low, considering the average of the industry. You can reach alcohol concentrations anywhere between 8 to 10 percent, or maybe even slightly higher. You can achieve that by using a specific yeast. Our focus is not getting more alcohol. Our focus is on getting the alcohol that we want. But again, if you want to go 100 percent for efficiency, you can apply technology from the ethanol production, and you can bring 45 yeasts that can haul higher alcohol content. But again, you’re going to have much more ethanol, but you’re going to have less congeners. In the end, when you’re at the bar sipping your tequila, you can have a natural, rich, complex tequila, or a flat tequila. There are several decisions through the process that will lead you to different flavor profiles.

Z: Let’s talk about distillation a little bit. What kind of stills do you use, and how does that vary throughout the tequila industry?

A: That’s one of our treasures. If you’re able to visit the distillery, you will find more than 140 pot stills. That’s massive.

Z: Wow.

A: I don’t know of any other distillery, not only making tequila, that has that many pot stills. It’s not only the quantity; all of our pot stills are made of 100 percent copper. The copper is a key component of this equation, because it helps to produce a smoother experience, not only with tequila. During the alcoholic fermentation, you also produce some sulfur components. These components are not toxic in the concentrations that you have in the tequila, but they create bitterness and some other flavors that are not best. The coppers help us to get rid of those components, and that’s why your tequila is able to be smoother. That’s the way we do it. We have, as I said, small pot stills. The common practice in the industry is using bigger stainless steel pot stills. The benefits of this are the quantity and the price. The stainless steel is at least four times cheaper than a copper pot still. Another alternative can be a column still. A column still helps you to keep a continuous distillation. Looking for efficiency is the best; if you’re seeing this as a conversion process at all, that’s the best combination. But it’s going to give you the least complexity in flavor profile. The raw material, at least for 100 percent agave tequilas like PATRÓN, takes years to be ready. I will not mess with that and get rid of those flavors if I already waited that many years to get those flavors out of the plant.

Z: Yeah, a few days doesn’t seem like much after all that.

A: I’m really lucky to be a part of this company because, since day one, our commitment has been to consistency, quality, and respect of the process. If you go back in history and check the growth of volume that PATRÓN has over the years, we never compromised the process. We would rather say, “OK, you want more liquid, but I’m going to tell you it’s going to take me a year to get more liquid out.” We’d rather keep the process. That is something that is happening right now. The trend of agave spirits is massive right now. Everybody’s trying to sip good tequilas, which is amazing. But I can tell you that we are not able to supply all of the tequila that people are looking to have right now. We’d rather wait until we are going to be able to produce more tequila in the same traditional way.

Z: I have one last question about production, and then I want to talk a little bit about what happens once the tequila is finished. You mentioned 140 or so pot stills. I’ve heard from other distillers at other times that, not only does the raw material and the shape of a still matter, but that no two stills are alike. Do some of the stills that you guys own have their own individual characteristics, and is that something that you ever enjoy or highlight?

A: We have different kinds of pot stills. We have a pot still for the first distillation and a different one for the second distillation. You also have to remember that we have two different processes. On the roller mill side, you can have slightly bigger pot stills. But on the tahona side, in which we distill with the fiber, we still have very tiny pot stills. Every distillation batch that we have yields around 150 liters of tequila. It’s an interesting number because we’re talking about a brand that is selling over 3 million cases of tequila. But we are distilling 150 liters at a time. When you understand this ratio, it’s massive — and that’s why we need so much equipment. Besides the equipment and the processes, from my point of view, the key component of PATRÓN is the people. There are over 2,000 people at the distillery nowadays to keep the operation going. I call them the “Agave Army.” It’s a lot of people in one place bringing happiness to the world with some beautiful tequila.

Z: Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit more about the relationship between PATRÓN, the Hacienda, and the community. You mentioned having a staff of 2,000 or so people, and presumably, that’s grown a lot since 1989. Not that you need to give me a list of all the jobs, but what are some of the things that people do? And how do you find people to do that work?

A: We are lucky to be based in Atotonilco El Alto, in the highlands of Jalisco. There are a lot of people there who are willing to work, and even more in a place that takes care of them. You mentioned 1989, which is the year that we started. I can tell you that PATRÓN basically started with less than 30 people. From there, we moved to over 2,000. Why is that, and what are the kinds of jobs that we have? That’s only considering the distillery — receiving the agave, chopping the agave, loading the ovens, operating the roller mill and tahonas, the guys that are working on the fermentation, the guys that are working on the pot stills — that is only covering the production process. This is one of the key things about PATRÓN; we take care of everything. Our job is not finished just when we produce the tequila. The bottling process, in our case, is 100 percent manual. Everything down to the label, we have a handwritten number on every single bottle. Out of those 2,000, over 700 people are just waiting in the bottling room and taking care of these handmade bottling processes. When we built the Hacienda, there were not a lot of job opportunities in the region. So at that point, we basically had two alternatives: either buy expensive, high technological machines and hire three or four people to operate it, or just keep it manual and spread the love. Get more people coming in, give some people benefits. We like to think that every time that you grab a PATRÓN bottle, there’s a lot of passion involved in that. Not only because of the process, but for the amount of people who are involved in that. Outside of the process, we also have a lot of people taking care of the place itself. The Hacienda is lovely, it’s a huge place with a lot of gardens, and a lot of things to take care of. There’s also the environmental initiatives — people who are helping us take care of the waste in the compost area and the reverse osmosis plant. So there are a lot of people working with the different technologies that we have in order to take care of the waste and the production, as well as with maintenance. We’ve been growing since day one. We also have a huge team in the project and construction areas. A few years ago, we opened a casona. This is like a small boutique hotel inside the distillery, where we bring people that we invite to see the process. We wanted to show the process not only in a friendly visit, but it would allow them to stay for two days inside the distillery. So we have a lot of functions. One of the benefits is, we provide transportation for all the employees, so there are also bus drivers. There are a lot of different kinds of jobs. We have two different chefs, a staff in the kitchen. Any career has an opportunity at PATRÓN distillery, because we take care of every single detail.

Z: That’s very cool. I wanted to talk about something that you mentioned a few different times during this conversation about what the production method for PATRÓN tequila is like and some alternatives in the tequila industry. Let’s say I am a somewhat interested tequila drinker, but I’m not that knowledgeable. And I’m somewhere where, for some horrible reason, there’s no PATRÓN. Or even with PATRÓN, how do I know that the tequila I’m getting is made using these traditional, more quality-oriented methods, as opposed to something that’s purely about speed and efficiency?

A: That’s a good question. If you’re sitting at a bar and you can’t find PATRÓN, just go out and find another bar.

Z: Very fair.

A: But in general — and I may be biased because I’ve been working here for over 15 years — but tequila is such a magical spirit. It has all these kinds of processes, all these different decisions you can make in the process, which leads you to different expressions. I will suggest to people, just focus on consistency. What I mean by consistency is, when you’re sipping a nice tequila like the PATRÓN expressions, I always say to people that you have to fall in love with the glass. You have to involve all of your senses in the experience. Everything starts on site, when you grab a glass of tequila and try to see and evaluate the color. In this case, maybe it’s a silver tequila, which should be clear, crystal bright. But if it’s an aged tequila — reposado, añejo, or extra añejo — you may find some different colors, like slightly amber or a little bit darker. So first, try to understand the color. If it’s silver, it should be bright and clear. If it’s aged, see how dark it is. That’s going to tell you what’s coming. Then, one of the most important senses involved here is the aromas. Get the glass close to your nose, just like a fine wine. Try to get the different areas on the glass. What kind of aromas are you getting, and how is the intensity? Sometimes you can find a tequila that looks really dark, and then the aromas are not there in the same intensity. Finally, take a sip, get the whole experience. Make sure that the tequila touches your whole mouth, and get the aftertaste. Also, see how much flavor is still on your palate after it passes. What is the aftertaste like? Is it long lasting, or is there no aftertaste at all? That’s what I mean when I talk about consistency. If what I saw in the glass is pretty much the same complexity or intensity to what I’m getting on the nose and on the palate, that will be a well-made tequila. Because sadly, one of the situations that you can do in tequila is put up to 1 percent of what we call additives, without disclaiming it on the label. These additives are usually used to enhance one of the senses. Maybe I can produce a really dark tequila just by using additives on the color. Or maybe I can heighten the sweet aromas by putting different kinds of additives. Or I can have an extreme sweet, cotton candy, vanilla flavor. But this is coming from an artificial way. Usually, when you use those kinds of things, you’re not going to have balance or consistency. When you have a glass of PATRÓN, you can find that consistency. Something that I love about tequila is not only the consistency, but the complexity. The way that we produce tequila in combining those two different methods, you will find yourself moving all the way from the vegetable side of the fresh agave, to the citrusy notes that are coming from the roller mill, to the sweetness that is coming from the tahona side. There’s a lot of fruitiness, also, from fermenting and distilling with fiber. So you can have an explosion of different aromas when you’re having a glass of PATRÓN Tequila. All the decisions we made and all this time that we spent on the process are going to be reflected on the glass.

Z: Sure. It definitely makes sense then, whichever bottling from PATRÓN you are enjoying, to enjoy that complexity and to think more about all the people and all the work that went into making each one of those bottles possible. Antonio, thank you so much for your time. It was really fascinating to get a little bit more information about the production of the tequila and life around the distillery. Is there anything else that we missed that you might want to mention?

A: Nowadays, a lot of people are enjoying good tequilas, but there are still a lot of people who haven’t tried it yet. I highly suggest you start sipping tequila, to start enjoying it, and start studying tequila. What am I getting in this glass? Sadly, with this boom of the agave spirit, there are people who are sipping tequilas that are tasting like different things, but not tequila. Flavors like vanilla, cotton candy, that’s not what tequila should taste like. I suggest just taking your time to appreciate the complexity of tequilas, find the way that a good tequila should taste, and go enjoy it.

Z: Antonio, thank you so much for your time.

A: Thank you very much, Zach. Have a great day and enjoy your tequila.

Z: I will.