Francisco Alcaraz speaks with a deep, raspy voice, carefully considering every word before uttering it. His hair, still as thick as a teenager’s, forms neat waves across his face, his dark eyes hidden behind a generous flick of fringe. His manner and the way he commands respect call to mind the infamous Don Corleone — and, in many ways, he is the Godfather of tequila. In his role as Master Distiller of Patrón tequila, he was responsible for developing the brand’s winning recipe close to 30 years ago, and, thanks to his intricate knowledge of the production process, has helped turn it into one of the most successful tequila brands in the world, while keeping its artisanal values intact.
Alcaraz’s story with Patrón begins like a scene out of a movie, too. The year was 1989, and Alcaraz was walking along the side of the road on the outskirts of Atotonilco El Alto, a town in Jalisco, Mexico. A man dressed all in black, with big boots and long hair, called out to him, asking for help: his name was Martin Crowley, and he’d been trying to do business with Siete Leguas, the tequila company Alcaraz was working for, to develop something similar to what they were producing. The owners, seven brothers who were still making tequila the traditional way, weren’t interested in what the ‘gringo’ had to say, so he turned to Alcaraz: could he produce the best tequila in the world? Having trained as a chemical engineer and worked as one of the first tequila inspectors, Alcaraz knew the production process like the back of his hand. “And I said, ‘No, I cannot do that. I cannot promise you the best tequila in the world, but I will do my best. I’ll give you a good product, I can promise you that.’”
Tequila has been given a bad rap. It’s been claimed by patrons of dive bars who consume it en masse late into the night, with a lick of salt and bite of lemon, and regret it in the morning. Or it’s mixed with orange juice and fruit syrup and served in a highball glass with an umbrella. But this gimmicky way of consuming it seems to be how the western world has interpreted Mexico’s national drink, rather than how it’s been traditionally enjoyed: inhaled and slowly sipped, savouring every last drop. In Mexico, tequila is taken as seriously as the French do champagne or the Scots do whisky — a regulatory board strictly monitors the production process, and only certain areas of Mexico are allowed to produce genuine tequila.
Jalisco, located in the west, is where this spirit is believed to have originated, and is the only whole state where tequila is allowed to be produced. Driving through the rural areas, it’s obvious just how integral the spirit is to Jalisco’s economy. The sparse landscape is constantly interrupted by flashes of blue and red — the spiky agave plants from which tequila is made, and the mineral-rich soil from which they grow. “This is the perfect environment to grow this kind of plant,” says Mariana Sánchez Benítez, a trained biotechnology engineer and Patrón ambassador. We’re standing between rows of the spiky succulents in the Los Altos de Jalisco, or the Jaliscan highlands, and it’s easy to grasp the exact conditions under which these plants thrive: it’s hot and dry, and the sun beats down on the fields through a cloudless sky. Birds of prey can be seen soaring high up in the distance, and ants the length of a small fingernail scurry underfoot. The agave field workers, called jimadors, wear wide-brim straw hats and loose-fitting shirts to deflect the heat.