The rise and rise of tequila
No longer lime-salt-hangover-regret territory, tequila is gaining a reputation as a premium spirit. Intrigued? Find out what happened when High Life joined 22 of the world’s best bartenders in Jalisco, Mexico, for the Patrón Perfectionists competition
Over nearly 60 miles, the road from Guadalajara to Atotonilco El Alto offers commanding views of the horizon. As dense suburbs give way to rolling fields of blue-green agave and rust-red soil, billboards promote the alcohol that has made this region, Jalisco, famous for 400 years. This is tequila country – and at its heart is Hacienda Patrón, annual host of the Patrón Perfectionists global final.
Since the first contest in 2014, this has become one of the most important events on any bartender’s calendar, growing from a battle fought on British soil between six UK-based mixologists to a competition involving regional heats across the world, resulting in 22 finalists being flown to Patrón’s HQ in Mexico to decide the ultimate winner.
Unlike many similar competitions, there is no cash prize or material reward for winning – unless you count the victor’s trophy, complete with ceramic agave farmer, crafted by local sculptor Rodo Padilla. So why do people from all over the world enter?
“Historically with trade and consumers, there has been a lack of understanding as to what tequila could be,” says Matt Sykes, Patrón’s senior global marketing director, who founded the contest. “It was very much lime-salt-hangover-regret territory, certainly not a premium spirit to buy into. We wanted to change that, and the best way to reach consumers is through bartenders. So, we gave them a platform on a grand scale to showcase the spirit’s true versatility.”
Entering gives contestants an unrivalled insight into how the spirit is made. A day is dedicated to touring the fields where tequila’s raw material, agave, is cultivated. There’s also a tour of the distillery, where they learn how the pina (the leaf-trimmed agave heart) is turned into alcohol with little waste (Patrón has a water purification plant and composting area), followed by guided tours of Guadalajara and Tlaquepaque, seeing architectural wonders such as the Museo Cabañas and eating in the region’s most exciting restaurants. Yet, perhaps the most tantalising reason to enter is getting to showcase your work.
Guaranteed a good time
In the bar at the Hacienda in January, four judges await: two from the influential online cocktail bible Difford’s Guide, one from Patrón, and last year’s winner, Spain’s Yeray Monforte. Key to the challenge is timing – contestants have eight minutes in which to create four identical drinks (using Silver, Añejo or Reposado Patrón), simultaneously explaining their method, prepping glasses and demonstrating not only that they can make a mind-blowing cocktail, but also that anyone who comes to their bar is guaranteed a good time.
“The crucial difference between a chef and a bartender is that the bartender is in front of you the entire time,” says Paloma Alos, one of the judges and MD of Difford’s Guide. “There are 50 points available, but only 20 are for the flavour of the drink. The other 30 are for technique, appearance of the drink and hospitality. Of course, the flavour is crucial, but the engagement that bartender gives you at their bar is pivotal.”
If that sounds like a lot of pressure, it is. In the prep room, it’s not unusual to see the contestants practising their speeches while glancing at their watches – there’s a five-point penalty for every 30 seconds they overrun. Nerves and bad luck mean that mistakes really do happen: one contestant can’t fit her special ice blocks in the glass and another spills her cocktail shaker just as she’s about to serve, meaning she has to mix another batch.
While not visibly nervous, Britain’s entrant, Giulia Cuccurullo from the Langham’s Artesian Bar, is losing her voice. “I just love bartending,” she shouts to the audience as two cocktail shakers flutter like hovering hummingbirds. “None of us are up here because we hate it. We just love serving you!” As she extravagantly ‘rolls’ her concoction, the audience whoops and applauds.
The judges look visibly impressed. Cuccurullo’s cocktail, The Bridge, wins the contest the next day in a playoff against six other grand finalists. “She had a very personal, very authentic story,” explains Alos. “It was about her family and her background in architecture through Lego models. Each of the judges was even given a little Lego figure of themselves. She’d done her research and she was just herself.”
At the afterparty, I meet the newly crowned Patrón Perfectionist. “It’s not really a competition with the other guys, it’s a competition with yourself,” she says. “You want to do your best and after that it’s up to the judges.” If there is any animosity in the group, it certainly can’t be seen. Those who missed out are talking, dancing, laughing around the fires, sipping on exclusive Patrón tequilas.
If Patrón started this competition to elevate tequila to a premium spirit, it is clear from the sheer amount of talent on show here that it has succeeded – but the timeless essence of tequila as a drink to enjoy on a great night out? Well, that hasn’t changed at all.
How to make The Bridge
The winning cocktail by UK finalist Giulia Cuccurullo, bartender at Artesian at The Langham Hotel, London
Italian-born Cuccurullo’s cocktail is inspired by the power of bridges to connect people. Her ingredients represent the two countries she calls home, as well as Mexico.
Ingredients: 50ml Patrón Silver, 50ml rhubarb cordial, 30ml fortified wine blend (Martini Amaro & Cocchi Americano), 30ml tomato water, dash of salt solution
Method: Shake all ingredients. Serve on ice in a highball glass. Garnish with tomato and rhubarb
¡Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’dentro! Discover more tequila cocktail recipes and meet the other Patrón Perfectionists finalists at patronperfectionists.com