Victorino Matus’ review of “The Patron Way”, by Ilana Edelstein, in the Wall Street Journal sounds like the perfect fit. I may go and buy it today. Here is the review. I hope that the WSJ dosen’t mind my putting it here word for word. My bet is that you don’t have access to the website.
The Cure for the Mexican Itch
How tequila went from a low-brow bar shot to a top-shelf liquor.
Until recently, this was the common perception of tequila—it was a revolting liquor consumed only during destructive benders. It was also never to be drunk straight. “Pour some table salt onto the back of your left hand round about the base of the thumb,” advised Amis. “Grip a slice of lime in your right hand. Have a tot of neat tequila standing by. As fast as possible, lick the salt, suck the lime, shut your eyes and drink up.” Embury referred to this familiar practice as the “Mexican Itch.”
But something changed in the early 1990s. A new brand of tequila started appearing on liquor-store shelves. Patrón came in a handblown perfume bottle with a glass stopper. It carried a premium price tag. And, like fine Scotch, it was meant to be drunk straight. At first, Patrón sold about 10,000 cases a year. But by 2011 sales had skyrocketed to two million cases and $1.1 billion annually. Tequila, which is distilled from the blue agave plant and has been made in Mexico for more than half a millennium, was suddenly a sophisticated beverage.
This marketing miracle is the subject of “The Patrón Way: The Untold Inside Story of the World’s Most Successful Tequila” by Ilana Edelstein. The author was present at the creation and offers a rather intimate view—intimate being the operative word. She was both the lover and business partner of Martin Crowley, the ambitious entrepreneur who discovered Patrón while driving through Jalisco, Mexico, in 1989. “For 12 of our 13 years, Martin and I shared every inch of our beings together,” writes Ms. Edelstein. “Seduction was present in everything we did, and our everyday life was as voluptuous and sensuous as could be.” There are numerous passages of this sort in the memoir, plus the revelation that the couple took part in the occasional ménage à trois—not that we asked.
Crowley had always been dismissive of marriage, and Ms. Edelstein’s problems began when the relationship went south in 2001. She wasn’t officially employed by Patrón, and there was nothing acknowledging that her work had been integral to the success of the brand. Following the breakup, Ms. Edelstein found herself increasingly isolated and vulnerable—the police even attempted to kick her out of Crowley’s million-dollar mansion overlooking the Pacific. A bitter court battle ensued. Lawyers brought up the sex, parties and drugs. In the end, a judge ruled in Crowley’s favor—he owed his longtime partner nothing. Despite the bad blood, Ms. Edelstein claims that Crowley assured her “you don’t need to worry” and “at the end of the day you will have the last laugh.” But when he died in 2003 (of a massive coronary), the entirety of his vast fortune went to a charity for disadvantaged youth. Ms. Edelstein, meanwhile, “was busy rebuilding my life and livelihood” and successfully returned to the career she had prior to Patrón: financial consulting.
Amazingly, the author insists that she has no regrets—except, perhaps, for not having her contributions recognized. And these were considerable: Ms. Edelstein hired and trained the employees, helped with the bottle design and marketing strategy, and served as Patrón’s publicist.
“The Patrón Way” is a good chronicle of a luxury brand’s path to success. It helps to know people in high places—Crowley shared his idea for a premium tequila with his friend John Paul DeJoria, who had made a fortune creating the Paul Mitchell hair-products company. One taste, says Ms. Edelstein, and he was hooked. Mr. DeJoria provided not just the financing but also Hollywood connections. Bottles were carefully placed in movies, at sporting events and charity fundraisers. They were given away to celebrities on the red carpet. “Know who your tastemakers are, and use them wisely,” Ms. Edelstein writes. “In the consumables business, word of mouth from fashionable and hip brand ambassadors speaks volumes to the mass market.”
Another aspect of this marketing strategy was building strong relationships with bartenders and distributors, educating one and all on the finer points of their product—and getting them excited enough about something new to do the selling for you. It helped, too, that, unlike vodka or gin, tequila can be aged, leading to a range of price-point possibilities and tastes. To wit, a bottle of barrel-aged Gran Patrón Burdeos will set you back $500. (A single shot of it at the St. Regis King Cole Bar in New York costs $125.)
Ms. Edelstein dispenses useful advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “You are your own best customer”; “negotiate rather than litigate if you possibly can”; “know the difference between consistency and clinging to the old ways.” Yet some of her claims are overstated. She contends that Patrón came up with the idea of using beautiful women (in some cases, actual escorts) as brand ambassadors at conventions, though Sidney Frank had already done this with his Jägerettes at bars and clubs. (Would you drink Jägermeister if there wasn’t a gorgeous blonde pouring it down your throat?) Ms. Edelstein also says that flavored Patrón hit the marketplace in 1992 and 1993, “many years before any spirit category, including vodka, began introducing flavored infusions.” But flavored vodka already existed—Absolut Peppar came out in 1986, and Absolut Citron was two years later.
Nevertheless, what Crowley, Ms. Edelstein and Mr. DeJoria accomplished is substantial. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, U.S. imports of tequila have increased 72% over the past 10 years. In 2012, Americans spent over $5.6 billion on the Mexican spirit. As Ms. Edelstein notes, “the burn that had become synonymous with tequila was gone.” It had become something “to sip and savor.” No doubt David Embury and Kingsley Amis would’ve been thrilled to discard the lime and salt.
—Mr. Matus, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, is writing a history of vodka in America.A version of this article appeared June 29, 2013, on page C8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Cure for the Mexican Itch.