It’s spring, and the U.S. is once again girding itself for Cinco de Mayo, our annual celebration of an attractively bastardized version of Mexican drinking culture. Cocktail sophisticates will explore the possibilities of mixing smoky mezcal with herbal Chartreuse and white tequila with freshly fashionable Cynar. The grapefruity cooler called the paloma, historically underappreciated at these latitudes, will parch an unprecedented number of thirsts. And of course many millions will encounter tequila in its most familiar forms: as the active ingredient in margaritas, and as the live ammunition in a deadening number of shots.
As ever, the holiday is marked by a flood of news items and press releases regarding the liquor. This year, many of these concern premixed margarita-flavored beverages ranging from the burp-making fizzy sparklers of Sauza to the intriguingly not-bad frozen pouches produced by Mike’s Hard Lemonade. But the giddiest buzz of the season emanates from the printed word. Anyone desirous of making sense of tequila’s current status will be well served by chugging The Patrón Way: The Untold Inside Story of the World’s Most Successful Tequila. This is a major minor publishing event: an explanation of marketing sleight-of-hand tricks delivered by the magician’s lovely assistant. Our guide to the brand’s ascendance as the world’s best-selling ultrapremium tequila—the conspicuous choice of consumers hoping to project machismo—is Ilana Edelstein, once the girlfriend of the late Martin Crowley, who, with hair care billionaire John Paul DeJoria, founded the company in 1989. The author writes,
“Even though I am no longer officially connected to the brand, it’s a part of me. I will forever be:
‘The Widow Patrón.’ ”
Edelstein proves herself an innovator in a most peculiar literary subgenre—the pulp business book. Her four-page author bio gives a hint of the tone that makes the book such a hoot: “Creative and street-smart, the stunning young blonde with the piercing blue eyes made her way to the United States from her native South Africa more than three decades ago through sheer grit and determination.” Imagine a b-school case study written by Jacqueline Susann.
It is the consensus view of booze professionals that Patrón is, in gastronomical terms, merely pretty good. It is a matter of historical fact that the brand benefited from being in the right place at a benighted time; it was the first tequila company to encourage mainstream America to sip, rather than to slam, its distilled agave juice. But Patrón’s success as “the first spirit brand in its price point to sell over a million cases” and as a force driving tequila’s current status as the fastest-growing liquor category is a triumph of image, not taste. Much of the book’s value lies in its candid acknowledgment and explication of that fact. It diagrams the cultivation of a mystique that this week enabled Chipotle to begin selling Patrón margaritas that are two or three dollars more expensive than the fast-food chain’s extant Sauza-based offering. Let us examine three notable tequila-related noticias through the eye of a woman who claims to have revolutionized the techniques of liquor-industry trade-show promotion by having a tailor stitch “Team Patrón” logos onto two black Lycra minidresses from her personal collection.
1.“We love tequila. On the rocks, by the shot, at times straight from the bottle,” says Rande Gerber, who, along with George Clooney, has taken his passion for the spirit to the next level, by creating Casamigos, a private label launching nationwide this winter.
Edelstein credits much of Patrón’s success to its Hollywood connections. The Spago launch party in 1991 was a hit, and the Golden Globes swag bags shortly thereafter were a sure coup. But its greatest early triumph was to cultivate the loyalty of Clint Eastwood, who gave the liquor a free product placement in In the Line of Fire in 1993: “In the movie’s most intricate scene, when Clint’s character is negotiating with a terrorist over the phone, Patrón gets a close-up that lasts about a minute.”
Such is the historical context for Clooney lending his aura to a new line of Mexican hooch. The Casamigos team sent Slate a bottle of its reposado, and we took it to a party. A graphic designer remarked that its label was perfectly of the moment in having been overdesigned to appear underdesigned. Women in their early 20s appreciated its notes of vanilla. Women in their late 30s declared that its big nose gave way to a vague body, cast doubt on its sweetness, and finally decided that it might be best for cooking—preparing bananas Foster, say. All the while, these women expressed sharp disappointment in Clooney for degrading his profile thusly, while simultaneously making clear that this misstep was only fractionally as embarrassing as the Chanel ads that find Brad Pitt looking unprecedentedly kinda crappy.
2. Oversized and over the top hats and fancy dresses aren’t the only things to make a big splash at this year’s Kentucky Derby. The Bonita Sprits Company and their celebrity partner hip hop star, actor, and now emerging entrepreneur Xzibit will turn up their ultra-sleek and luxury top shelf tequila, Bonita Platinum, in this year’s gift bags for several high society socialites and celebrities.
“Hip-hop is a community that has embraced Patrón as its drink of choice, even rhyming about the brand in its music,” Edelstein writes, in a sentence that is very nearly charming in its awkwardness. She refers to the free media of hundreds of rap-lyric name drops as an “open architecture marketing style” and turns to FUBU founder and Lil Jon drinking buddy Daymond John for insight into the phenomenon: “It works because it’s organic. … It wasn’t necessarily marketed to us; it was adopted by us, and people like that sense of discovery.” One might add that the name Patrón—which means godfather and which conveys mafia-boss implications with or without translation—speaks to all subcultures that fetishize the Corleone work ethic.
3. As part of Azuñia’s aggressive strategic focus on developing a boutique brand into a marketing powerhouse, a new look and feel of the Azuñia bottle has launched into the market place. Available in April, the new design will align the brand with the concept of modern meets authentic. The new package incorporates, textured paper labels, wood caps, and hand crafted glass bottles to accentuate the award winning tequila.
A booze-biz axiom has it that the Patrón customer is paying top dollar not for the liquor but for the bottle. Edelstein is at her most delightfully direct in explaining precisely how right the saying is. Bringing the lessons of Galliano, Absolut, and for that matter Coca-Cola to bear on their approach to package design, Patrón and its widow devised a handcrafted bottle meant to evoke the luxury of perfume. “No one had ever spent that much on packaging in the spirits industry—it almost matched the price of the contents. … If additional investment was required to create a sense of luxury worthy of Patrón, so be it.” Consider her words a warning if you’re tempted to shell out a couple hundred extra pesos for Patrón’s apian logo this weekend, or for Azuñia’s “wood caps.” You’re better off selecting a bottle of a comparable product preferred by authorities such as Wine Enthusiast magazine and Talib Kweli: “We off of that Patrón, we sipping the Don Julio.”