April 8 2015  |  Spirits & Tobacco

Brown-Forman and Patrón welcome travel retail to Jalisco

By Wendy Morley

One of Herradura's jimadors demonstrates how to access the agave's piña, using the handmade traditional tool still used today

The travel retail industry is special, and sometimes allows its members to take part in very special adventures. Such was the case when Brown-Forman and Patrón together hosted a tequila experience in Jalisco, near Guadalajara, Mexico. The two distilleries do things a little differently, but it’s easy to see that both take enormous pride in creating a superior product, with no short cuts.

Riding out to breakfast at Brown-Forman's Herradura farm

After a tour of the city with a phenomenal guide, a couple of exquisite meals and a good night’s sleep, we set off for the Herradura distillery. A number of calm and easygoing horses were waiting for us, and they took us along a well-worn trail out to the agave fields.  The Herradura distillery grows its own blue agave, ensuring that it is grown to exacting standards to achieve the highest quality plants. For example, many agave growers will trim the agave leaves, helping the piña to ripen more quickly. As our guide Kevin explains, this can also allow insects easier access into the plant, and so at Herradura they do it the slow, old-fashioned way. Their agave ages seven years before being harvested.

The "El Jimador" breakfast prepared for us in the agave fields

As we reached the fields  on horseback, an “el jimador” breakfast was set for us. A woman cooked delicious quesadillas and other delights, and a large urn was filled with delicious traditional spiced Mexican coffee. Before long the jimadors appeared, demonstrating how they use a traditional handmade tool to remove the leaves of the agave, access the piña and cut out the bitter waxy part. The piñas are ready for the ovens at that point, and that’s where we headed. The piñas are roasted in traditional ovens for two days. For the record, roasted agave is quite tasty – very much like a more fibrous sweet potato.

Brown-Forman employees loading an oven with piñas

 

Brown-Forman employee Hannah and I are climbing into the oven to gather some roasted agave

To ferment a substance and make alcohol, yeast is needed. At Herradura, this yeast comes from fruit trees on the property. The 19 different types of fruit trees drop their fruit. This creates the yeast that ferments the pressed agave juice. Meanwhile, all waste from the plants and the process is either composted or made into a biofuel that is used to fire the ovens. Herradura is completely self-sufficient, and has designation as such.

Cuco, the famous El Jimador donkey, joined us for our tour. Yes, those barrels really do contain tequila

After the tour, we had the honor of meeting the Master Distiller Maria Teresa Lara, one of the few female Master Distillers in the world and the only female Master Distiller of tequila. She led us through a tasting of Herradura Blanco, Reposado, Añejo and an Extra Añejo. She explained that Herradura, which was established in 1870, was the first distillery to age tequila, a practice that is now so popular that reposado tequila, which has been aged anywhere from two months to under one year, is the most popular tequila in Mexico. As the Maestra explained, aging tequila does not make it better, but it imparts a different flavor, normally from the charred wood of ex-bourbon barrels. The aging increases the price of tequila because each year about 10-12% evaporates, the “angel’s share.” The aging does, however, impart a rich flavor and a warm color to the clear liquid.

Tequila tasting, led by Maria Teresa Lara, one of the few female Master Distillers in the world and the only female Master Distiller of tequila

Lunch at Herradura's traditional old Hacienda followed this tasting, and we prepared for the next day at Patrón.

 

Hacienda Patrón's beautiful entrance

While Herradura grows its own agave in order to control the quality of the piñas, Patrón purchases its agave for the same reason. The thinking is thus: if you grow your own agave you have to use all of it. If you purchase it, you can purchase only the best. Because the company is purchasing from growers doesn’t mean it has no say in the growing. On the contrary, Patrón is in constant contact with the growers, with staff continuously visiting the farms.  The company pays a higher-than-standard price for the farms’ jimadors to trim the plants down to a point that only the optimal part of the piña remains, before being roasted slowly for nearly three days.

Patrón pays a higher price for its superior piñas; the company also employs more people to inspect all elements of production

And here is where Patrón really shows its difference, with its famed Tahona process of extracting the juice from the roasted agave.  The roasted agave is placed in a large volcanic stone wheel crushes the cooked agave within a stone vat. The pulp and juice are then fermented together in pine casks, creating an incredibly rich flavor. Using pine instead of steel means a far greater expense for both the cask itself, which must be replaced regularly, and for the labor involved in cleaning, but again the company does what it believes makes the best product, not what makes financial sense. Patrón also uses the roller method of extraction, also fermenting in pine. After the double distillation removes the “heads” and “tails,” leaving only the “heart” of the tequila, the results of these two methods are combined to make the famous Patrón tequilas, though the Roca Patrón line and the Gran Patrón Piedra tequila, are produced entirely from the Tahona method.

The Tahona wheel working to extract juice from roasted agave. The only nod to modernity is to use the machine to roll the stone rather than a mule

With the Tahona process, the fiber and juice ferment together

It is apparent that Patrón goes to great lengths to produce a superior product. Every step is taken for a reason. After the roasting, crushing, fermentation, distillation and refining are complete comes the composting. In the back of Patrón’s distillery is a massive composting facility and a huge vegetable garden (we ate some of these fresh vegetables for lunch later). The compost is used for the garden and is also sent out to the farms that grow the blue agave that will later be sold to the company.

The enormous vegetable garden at Patrón uses the compost from its composting facility

As with Herradura, Patrón employs a great many people where other companies would use machines.  This is because, while humans may be fallible, they also provide an inspection service that machines cannot, and this ensures high quality. For these two companies the traditional, labor-intensive methods are the chosen way, and that goes all the way from the plants in the fields to hand cleaning the stones and pine vats to putting the labels on the bottles to wrapping them for packaging. When quality is the desired result, as it obviously is for Brown-Forman and Patrón, cost is of secondary concern. Not only do these traditional methods provide a quality product, they also provide quality employment for many thousands of people in the region—and these employees are well taken care of, by both companies.

The labelling line at Patrón is a fun place, with Latin dance music blaring

 

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