Back in the late 1980s, two friends, Martin Crowley, who at the time was a down on his luck entrepreneur, and John Paul DeJoria, who had made his fortune as the co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair care products, wanted to create their own tequila. They could not have succeeded so spectacularly well without Francisco Alcaraz, the Master Distiller who created their tequila and oversaw production of Patrón for over 30 years.
This softly spoken Master Distiller started his career in tequila in 1968 and over the 50 or so years that followed. Francisco influenced the quality of tequila enjoyed around the world more than any other individual.
Sadly, Francisco passed away aged 75 on 4th April 2021 but I was lucky enough to meet him on numerous occasions and to have benefited from his generous sharing of knowledge. The most memorable was not at the Hacienda in Mexico but in London over a long lunch in 2017. He was with his wife Teresa and I was with Paloma. I asked him directly about some of the most contentious of the many rumours surrounding the development of Patrón. Many were questions I was apprehensive to ask but he answered all directly, in great detail, and with emotional honesty.
Myslef, Francisco and Paloma in October 2017
Francisco was born in the town of Tamazula de Gordiano in the south of Jalisco, a town whose economy is built around sugar cane and the processing of sugar. Seeking better work opportunities his father, a chemical engineer, moved his young family to Guadalajara, the state capital and centre of the tequila industry. Tragically, Francisco's father died not many years after the move, so his sister and three brothers worked from an early age to support their family and pay their own way through university where Francisco followed his father's footsteps and studied chemical engineering.
Fortuitously, around the time Francisco was graduating from university, the Mexican government was setting up the regulatory body governing the production and quality of tequila so were seeking young chemical engineers work as tequila inspectors. After passing the government's test, Francisco started work as a tequila inspector, visiting distilleries to check on production methods and collect samples. At that time, there were 54 distilleries (now there are over 150).
Francisco visited distilleries in the morning and then analysed the samples he collected in the afternoon back at his lab to check methanol content, esters and other compounds to see if they complied with the official stipulated parameters. He was an inspector for ten years and it gave him a unique opportunity to learn the intricacies of tequila production and what production techniques produce the best tequilas.
Then, when he was in his early-30s, the owner of El Viejito distillery in his wife's hometown of Atotonilco El Alto (now also the home of Patrón) said to him, "I'll double your salary if you come to work with me." "I said yes of course", Francisco told us.
So, in the mid-70s Francisco found himself in charge of a small distillery. "The advantage of a small factory is that you do everything from mopping and sweeping to buying the agave. I learnt more because I had to do all these responsibilities."
Francisco worked for 11 years for El Viejito but says "I wanted to know more about the process and to learn English." His boss, Jorge Nunez, also a chemical engineer, was something of a mentor to Francisco. Jorge had some connections with a small whiskey distillery in the American Mid-West and he arranged for Francisco to work there for six months, learning about fermentation and distillation, while also improving his English. He then travelled to learn from a Swiss expert on fermentation. Sadly, Jorge Nunez, who Francisco described as "very intelligent, my professor, my boss and an excellent person" passed away and the company he'd built started changing, so Francisco left to set up his own business.
"There were not many chemical engineers in the tequila business then and the knowledge I'd acquired about fermentation techniques was in demand. I developed a process where I propagated and poisoned yeast to see which yeasts survived and which died. I took the strongest strains, those which survived, and propagated those. Using this technique, I developed a yeast that would out survive other strains so allowing inoculation of competitive yeasts and bacteria during fermentation. My yeast increased production a lot. I sold the nutrients and the yeast and that was my business."
Then one of the distilleries Francisco was giving technical assistance employed him and then, after six years, asked him to design and oversee the building of their new distillery. That distillery, the Siete Leguas distillery (Seven Leagues Distillery) in Atotonlco el Alto is still in operation, as is the adjacent original distillery.
"When I finished the new factory in 1984, I asked for a better salary and conditions, but they refused, so I left. After one year one of the family owners of the factory, Lucrecia González, called me at home and she said she wanted to talk to me. I asked for the same – more salary and better conditions. She offered share royalties if I succeeded in exporting tequila. So, I started working for them a second time.
"When I finished in the afternoons, I walked from the two factories in the middle of the town to the offices which are on the main road. One day, as I was walking to the offices, I heard in English, "Can you help me?" Because it was English, I turned my head and saw a tall guy with long hair, dressed in black with black boots and I said, "Are you talking to me?" He said, "Yes, can you help me? I have been trying to approach the owner of this company as I want to talk to them." He was very strange, and I didn't know why he addressed me in the street, but I thought well, it could be an opportunity to export. So, I said, "wait outside". I went into the office and told Lucrecia that there was a guy outside that wanted to talk to her. She said, "Who?". When I described him, she said, "Oh yes, this shady, crazy Gringo, Martin Crowley." She asked, "Is he a serious person?" and I said, I don't know. I don't know him, but he wants to talk to you. Besides that, you promised me to give me a share if I help build exports. Honour your word. She said, "okay, call him."
"I told Martin to come in with me as they would talk to him. He told Lucrecia that he could build export sales and then he asked me if I could produce the best tequila of the world for him. I said, No, I cannot promise you this. I'll try to do my best, but I cannot promise it is going to be the best of the world. I didn't know if it was going to be the best, but now I think it is the best. He said, "I want a tequila, but different from Siete Leguas." I said, "Yes of course, different." So, Francisco Alcaraz was challenged to create the tequila we now know as Patrón Tequila.
Contention over the Patrón bottle
After explaining his part in introducing Martin Crowley to Siete Leguas, Francisco said, "The bottle, that is another story."
When Francisco mentioned the origins of the Patrón bottle it sparked my interest as Francisco Gonzalez Garcia, one of the two sons of Don Julio Gonzales of the Don Julio tequila brand, once told me that Martin Crowley had copied a bottle originally used by Don Julio tequila. I know Don Julio changed its bottle design and I've heard that this was due to a dispute with Patrón. So, I put this to Francisco who replied, "Don Julio's son pretends that that is his bottle, that is not true."
He continued, "Martin Crowley was looking in the factory, in the offices, and he found an old bottle, full of dust. He started cleaning the bottle and said, "I like this, are you using this bottle?" Lucrecia replied, "No." It was a tall square glass bottle. That was the original."
Francisco explained that the subsequent argument over the rights to this bottle design led the parties involved to appear before the authorities at the Mexican Institute of Industry in Mexico City where the director in charge of patents and trademarks, Jorge Amigo, judged that that Patrón had the right to use the bottle in the United States and the rest of the world, including Mexico, but Don Julio could use that bottle or elements of that bottle design in Mexico. In case of doubt, Francisco finished this explanation with, "That is what happened. That is the truth."
He went on to describe the issues the handblown bottles caused. "We were the first to use a tall square glass bottle. At that time, nobody in tequila used to use this type of bottle. It was a big problem because the stoppers don't fit. Every bottle needed a different-sized stopper. The bottles were different shapes and different capacities. We had to measure the contents of every bottle with a cylinder, like in the lab. But the fill levels were different.
"We ended up with three different sizes of cork which we brought from Portugal. Originally, the stopper was a combination of glass and cork but gluing the glass to the cork proved very difficult. We studied long and hard to find solutions."
When I asked why they'd stuck with that bottle, Francisco replied, "Well, Martin was a stubborn guy. He had an idea and he would follow it. I learnt from him also. He didn't surrender."
Origins of the name Patrón
Like the bottle, when we talked to Francisco it transpired that even the ownership of the name Patrón was for a period, at question.
"Martin liked the name Patrón so started using it, but Patrón was not a trademark he owned. At the time, the brand name "Reserva del Patrón" was owned by Manuel García Villegas, the son of the owner of another tequila producer, Tequilas del Señor. Manual called Martin and told him, "You are using my trademark, would you like to talk to me or should I send my lawyers?" Martin said, "No, no, let's talk business. So, Martin started paying royalties for the produce he was selling in the United States and Manual was happy with that for a while. Eventually, Martin acquired the trademark."
Rapid growth caused issues with Siete Leguas
As Francisco says, "Patrón sales started growing and growing and growing. The people liked the bottle and they liked the product a lot. It was something different. Even though it was very expensive, the other tequila producers said this Gringo is really crazy. Nobody else charged those prices at that time, with such a product and with such distinctive bottles.
"Martin needed more Patrón to meet demand but owners of the Seite Leguas distillery refused to increase production. I don't know why. They didn't need to buy more equipment, I proposed to them that we use shifts and work through the night, but Lucrecia said no. I was very angry with Seite Leguas, so at the proper time, I quit." It's worth remembering that Francisco was on a promised share of export sales from the distiller. Hence, the more Patrón he could make, so the more he would earn. Their decision not to expand production effectively capped his salary.
"Martin needed more product and around the same time there came an opportunity to make a joint venture with Seagram and they made an agreement. Martin bought a piece of land and invited Seite Leguas to participate in the joint venture, but Lucrecia refused. They were afraid of the big fish eating the small fish.
"Martin's land had electricity and a good water supply, and was close to the town. I had basic plans, but Seagram's had their own team of engineers, all types of engineers: chemical, mechanical and electrical. On our side it was only Martin and me. They changed everything. They had their own land and they wanted to start building the factory their way and told Martin that this is not going to work because they are moving this and moving that, increasing the sizes, changing the shapes, the quality of the installation – it is not going to work. We are not going to be able to reproduce our product there."
The distillery Seagram built was the Destilería Colonial de Jalisco, now owned by Pernod Ricard, this is where Olmeca Altos tequilas are made. Although not built according to Francisco's exacting specifications, the Olmeca Distillery was built with the production of Patrón in mind and production moved there with Francisco employed by Seagram. However, Francisco says "After a three-month cycle we didn't have the product we wished for. The tequila changed, but there was nothing I could do. Martin broke off relations with Seagram, so Seagram fired me.
"I was very upset, very depressed because it was the first time in my whole life that I had been fired. Martin said, "Congratulations Francisco, this is the best thing that could happen to you. Now, are going to work for me and you will be in control of the tequila you make. I am going to protect you."
He said, "Next Monday, some lawyers are going to talk to you." Martin's lawyers prepared me for the trial. I was the main witness and it was a painful situation with me. After the trial was finished, he said, "Francisco, here is $5 million to build a distillery. Do what you know how to do, you have all you need." So, Francisco oversaw the building of yet another distillery, Hacienda Patrón.
Production of Patrón moved to Hacienda Patrón, the distillery where it is still made in 2002. Due to rapidly growing sales, this distillery has been much expanded since but thanks to Francisco, the brick ovens, copper stills and wooden fermenters all remain small – the same size as the originals. There are simply a lot more of them.
Martin was an entrepreneur who played by his own rules and who was prepared to disregard a contract to protect the growth and quality of his tequila. Despite all that has been said about Martin Crowley, it is clear he respected Francisco and entrusted him as the guardian of his tequila. While Francisco looked after Martin's tequila, in turn, Martin looked after Francisco.
Perhaps the most touching part to Francisco's story is that Patrón now also owns and operates the buildings which formerly housed El Viejito, the distillery Francisco worked at for 11 years; where he first worked as a Master Distiller, and where he honed his fermentation and distilling knowledge. These buildings are now part of Casa Patrón. Obviously very proud, he told this while looking at his wife sat opposite. Remember, El Viejito distillery is in his wife's home town.
Francisco retired from his role as Master Distiller in July 2020. He is succeeded by David Rodriguez, who worked under his tutelage for 18 years.