Journalist Amira Arasteh shares her experience of visiting Hacienda Patrón’s distillery in Jalisco, Mexico.
This year it feels like, finally, the environment is at the forefront of the world’s minds. Fast fashion brands are facing backlash, beauty is under scrutiny for its packaging, restaurants are championing the zero-waste movement and eco resorts are popping up left, right and centre.
So it is no surprise that the drinks industry is also doing its part to be environmentally friendly, and at the forefront of this movement is one of the world’s premium tequila brands – Patrón.
Made 100% from Weber Blue Agave, sustainability has been at the heart of Patrón’s ethos for many years. The company believes it has to have a commitment to the environment in order to grow and its green initiatives aim to decrease the carbon footprint of its tequila production as much as it can. Patrón’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, with the Mexican government recognising it as an industry leader in waste reduction and environmental consciousness.
In fact, in anticipation of World Earth Day this year, Patrón organised a ‘Cocktails with a Conscience’ event at London’s Conduit club – a home for a diverse community of individuals passionate about driving social change. The premium tequila brand and one of London’s newest venues paid homage to local brands and suppliers to create a sustainable cocktail masterclass using the spirit. Other bars in London, such as Scout in Hackney, Eve Bar at Frog by Adam Handling and Mr Lyan’s zero-waste restaurant Cub, showed their support by offering a Patrón-based cocktail to celebrate the day. The cocktail at Eve bar remains permanent on the drinks menu.
A visit to Hacienda Patrón in the Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, led me to speak with Patrón’s director of production Antonio Rodriguez. Having worked for the brand for thirteen years, straight out of his studies, the passion he spoke with was palpable.
Responsible farming is one of the core values of Patrón. Agave is needed to make tequila; without this continual supply, the business would cease to exist. It is because of this that Patrón not only protects but proactively funds studies with a top agricultural research centre in Mexico to ensure the sustainability of the Weber Blue Agave plant – which is a key ingredient in tequila production. “Since day one it was important for Patrón to produce one million – ten million – cases of tequila and find ways to produce more with less or by reusing or returning everything we used in production to the land.”
Visiting the agave fields was impressive. For Patrón to use the agave in its tequila production, it must be three things: sweet, have its leaves cut as close to the heart as possible and it must have less than 10% of red (aged) patches. Patrón and the local farmers have an understanding and it is through this that the agricultural process comes about with so much care, to ensure the plants are free from chemicals and fertilisers when it comes to harvesting. Antonio shared the importance of good relationships with the farmers, saying that “one of the complexities regarding agave is that it takes six or seven years to grow so if the industry is not in conversation with the growers, the growers might be planting more or less than needed and you can find yourself in a crisis.” Patrón is proud to have been working with the same local family farmers who grow the agave and the brand does its utmost to ensure the plants are treated with extreme care. They could not do this without the knowledge and commitment their farmers give and they know this. It is also why the brand insists on a minimum price for the agave farming, to ensure that the locals make profit.
The distillery composts 100% of its leftover agave fibres from the process. The compost creates more than 5,500 tonnes of natural fertiliser a year for the hacienda’s vegetable garden, which provides food for the 1,600 members of staff who work there. This is a selfless act, with Patrón also taking in used agave fibres from other distillers, for free; when it comes to sustainability, the competition doesn’t matter to them. Antonio shares that the compost is also returned to the farmers “so that they can return the nutrients to the soil and give us a better quality agave; that is how we close the circle.” He speaks with so much passion and ease, I’m drawing parallels with Mufasa’s circle of life speech to Simba.
Another green aspect of Patrón’s tequila production is the company’s respect for water. Thousands of gallons of water are produced during distillation so Patrón developed a cutting-edge water treatment system. This was to reclaim clean water from the tequila production – a way to sustainably deal with this by-product. Antonio goes on to say that by using deep wells that are refilled with rainwater, the workers are able to control the volume of water they use so that they don’t retrieve an unnecessary amount. “Our treatments allow us to reuse the water from the liquid waste to use for cleaning services and other activities that would require fresh water otherwise.” 70% of the stillage is recycled into clean water and the remaining 30% is combined with the fibres to create the compost.
The agave is crushed using giant Tahona mills which are powered by zero-emission electric motors. Patrón thrives on its pioneering efforts, being the first tequila distillery to install a natural gas pipeline as its main energy source, in a bid to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A sustainable side venture of the brand’s is to use the excess agave to create paper. To ensure as little waste is created as possible, the remaining agave fibres are mixed with water and poured into trays to create a zero-waste, sustainable paper.
Antonio spoke proudly about the company’s close relationship with the local community, saying that “to be sustainable is to provide education to the people.” People who work at the hacienda often start off with little education but are offered the chance to study up to high school level in the grounds so that their quality of living can improve. “All our campaigns to reduce and reuse different things are extended to the people – it’s hard to make change but we educate them on being sustainable in daily life too.” Hacienda Patrón is home to 1,600 workers who all remember to reduce, reuse and recycle. “It is implicit in every worker’s mind-set and I’m so proud of the people who work here,” says Antonio. “Life stories begin here.”
The company offers its employees flexible work hours and free employee transport to and from the distillery daily. Not only does this ensure safety but it is also more environmentally conscious. It also funds charitable projects.
Antonio says that the brand welcomes others brands to be more sustainable. “We won’t teach them how to make tequila!” he jokes, “But any treatments or partnerships, we are more than happy to share that information and we have done this in the past.” Stating that Patrón acts how they think is best “and we try to encourage people to jump into these efforts as we have done.” He adds that brands looking to join the realms of sustainability “need to put their sustainable efforts as the key point in their campaigns and work; if someone is trying to reach the same market as us, they need to have the same sustainable ethos.”
Antonio confesses that it has not always easy. “It requires commitment and long-term forward thinking from those in charge.” He admits that the main obstacle Patrón faces at the moment is to find a way to keep up the speed of production and the treatment simultaneously. “The treatment controls the production, we need to treat more so that we can produce more.”
“Sustainability has been in our DNA since day one but 10 years ago, we were the only ones talking about it. Now so many people are conscious so it is easier to expand our efforts.” He admits that controlling the agave production is a challenge due to the weather changes from global warming as it has an effect on the agave and, in turn, the tequila production and entire industry.
Discussing improvements, he hints that Patrón has a new technology or two up its sleeve to be more efficient in its production and treatments moving forward, while maintaining the same level of sustainability. “It’s one of our priorities, always look to be better and to be ahead.”
Are you looking to take a leaf out of Patrón’s agave book? Antonio encourages those interested in sustainability to understand where your drink – or anything you consume – has come from and to have that conversation with the brand. According to him, if we continue to ask how things are produced, if there was waste, what was done with it if there was; it will put people on the spot and encourage a change.
“If you’re not looking in the long term, whatever money you throw at a project will be a waste. Sadly you cannot teach someone that.”