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db interview: Lee Applbaum of Patrón Tequila

It’s a sunny early spring day in London and Lee Applbaum is celebrating with Margaritas. Sitting down to lunch in the bright, buzzy Oxo Tower restaurant boasting enviable views of St Paul’s, Applbaum is excited for me to try the English Garden Margarita, created by the Oxo Tower’s assistant bar manager Sophie Bratt as part of Patrón’s Margarita of the Year competition, which saw seven bartenders from around the world gather at Patrón’s HQ in Jalisco to create their personal twists on the classic cocktail. The top three finalists will go head to head on 17 April when the winner will be announced.

Patrón’s chief marketing officer, Lee Applbaum

Elaborately made with a pumpkin oil and smoked salt rim, Bratt’s cocktail blends Patrón Silver with lemon juice, apricot liqueur, Patrón Citronge Orange, Earl Grey syrup, orange flower water, sugar snap peas and mint. Cocktail in hand, Applbaum reveals that his job at chief marketing officer for Patrón means that he spends a large proportion of his time up in the air and clocks up serious amounts of air miles.

Based in Dallas, Texas, he makes frequent trips to the Patrón hacienda in Jalisco and spends much of the year visiting key Tequila cities from London and New York to Tokyo, Hong Kong and Melbourne, taking his wife and young son with him on trips to Europe.

Patrón is made with blue weber agave

A keen foodie, he makes the most of his time on the road by checking out the latest restaurant openings around the world and is looking forward to dinner at René Redzepi’s latest Noma pop-up in the Mexican resort town of Tulum.

After our lunch meeting he’s due at the Patrón Secret Dining Society, a one-off pop-up held at MC Motors in Dalston. The blink and you’ll miss it dining concept is due to be rolled out to other key cocktail cities like Paris, Madrid, Israel and Cape Town.

Rather than being bored by the idea after of yet another dinner, Applbaum oozes enthusiasm for the event. While some CMOs end up sounding like a scratched record reeling off rehashed speeches and well rehearsed sound bites, Applbaum’s passion is palpable and genuine.

It helps that he’s promoting such a success story. Patrón was founded in 1989 by Californian entrepreneur John Paul DeJoria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair products.

The brand launched at the audacious price of $37 a bottle when the ultra-premium Tequila category didn’t exist. The bold move paid off. “It was literally door to door sales back in those days, but we were lucky because the brand became very hip very fast,” Applbaum begins.

In the last 27 years Patrón has been pivotal in changing the perception of Tequila as a cheap drink to do shots with to a sipping spirit for discerning drinkers. The brand’s luxury offering has done much to haul the spirit out of the dark ages, with everyone from Bruno Mars and P Diddy name-checking Patrón in songs and Tom Cruise famously ordering it post car crash in the club scene in Vanilla Sky.

“We’re lucky enough to have never paid for an endorsement and yet people talk about our brand all the time. Patrón is everywhere in popular culture and hip-hop songs, which is a blessing and a curse because we don’t want to lose our authenticity or our swagger,” Applbaum admits.

Flirting with the stars and securing the celebrity seal of approval helped take the brand from profits of $US75m to $US450m in a mere six years. Today, Patrón is the world’s number one ultra-premium Tequila, accounting for 70% of sales in the category and outselling its nearest competitor in the US by eight to one with an annual production of 3 million cases.

The Patrón hacienda in Jalisco

Having cracked the US market, Applbaum has his sights set on Britain and plans to build the brand in the London on-trade. “Tequila is beginning to take off in the UK – I hope this is a movement not a moment though. I see it as my role not just to promote Patrón but the entire category. London has such a robust cocktail culture and is really embracing Tequila with innovative cocktails that twist on the classics at iconic bars like the Beaufort bar at The Savoy,” says Applbaum.

The bar’s Incognito cocktail pays tribute to the discretion of the staff towards regular guest Katherine Hepburn, and is made with Patrón Añejo, popcorn, Averna, Martini Rubino and walnut. Keen win over both white and brown spirits fans, Applbaum believes Tequila has a trump card in that it runs the gamut from light to dark.“Tequila is incredibly diverse so we can go after all kinds of drinkers – blanco will appeal to gin and vodka drinkers and añejo to Scotch, Cognac and Bourbon fans,” he says.

Gran Patrón Burdeos is aged in Bordeaux first growth barrels

Another way of luring cocktail lovers over to Tequila is through twists on classic cocktails like the Bloody María, a riff on a Bloody Mary that switches vodka for blanco Tequila; the Old Fashioned, where añejo Tequila makes a great Bourbon replacement; and the Mojito, where blanco adds agave notes in place of white rum.

In the more evolved US market, where Tequila’s shot stigma has all but disappeared, Applbaum has noticed the emergence of the Tequila drinker, who remains faithful to the spirit above all others, with the añejo category gaining popularity in America as consumers move on from gateway blanco expressions.

But as the category gains popularity across the globe, it is falling victim to chancers keen to jump on the Tequila bandwagon. “People have been jumping on and off the bandwagon as Tequila’s popularity rises.

They are selling an inferior product with flashy marketing campaigns. With the agave shortage and prices rising, a lot of them are realising that succeeding in the industry is tougher than they thought so they are leaving,” Applbaum reveals.

“It takes seven years to grow agave and there is a definite shortage at the moment, but it’s not compromising the quality of our brand as we have strong relationships with our growers, but it is to newer players who don’t have those contracts in place. As a result, some producers are harvesting their agave up to two years earlier, which is affecting the quality of the product,” he adds.

Helping to raise Tequila’s profile is Hollywood heartthrob George Clooney, who co-owns the Casamigos brand with business partner Rande Gerber. The pair recently got the spirit on pour at The Golden Globes, introducing it to A-list actors and influencers. Meanwhile, fashionistas like Rosie Huntington-Whitely are switching from vodka to Tequila due to it being low calorie, gluten free and the fact that the blanco expression is unlikely to give you a hangover.

Only the heart of the agave plant is used in the Patrón production process

One key difference between Casamigos and Patrón is the fact that the latter is fanatical about quality, making every drop on a small scale at its distillery. “We’re small batch on a large scale and use a lot of tiny ovens and small stills.

“It’s completely inefficient, it’s crazy really, but it’s how we like to do business as our owner doesn’t need the money so we have no constraints on capital. If other markets suddenly take an interest and want more Patrón then we can grow to meet demand,” says Applbaum.

You get the impression that no expense is spared in the pursuit of perfection. Patrón is made using the centuries old tahona process. The painstaking production method sees a stone wheel crush the blue weber agave fibers.

The extracted juice is then fermented in pine casks. Keen for the entire process to be done by hand, Patrón’s glass bottles are hand blown, individually signed, trimmed in silk ribbons and finished with “the finest Portuguese cork”.

For its limited edition ‘Burdeos’ (Bordeaux) bottling, the company used ex-Bordeaux barrels that once housed first growth wine, though Applbaum is unable to name the château in question.

He believes the barrel lends the Tequila a “sweet finish” and “Cognac-like notes”, and feels the ghosts of first growths past are detectable in the £435 liquid, housed in a glass decanter with an intricate bee stopper.

The brand’s symbol tips its hat to DeJoria’s time in the navy serving on the USS Hornet and the fact that bees go bonkers for blue weber agave. Even more decadent is Patrón en Lalique; a small batch extra añejo release of Patrón’s oldest and rarest Tequila presented in an ornate decanter boasting a pattern inspired by the blue weber agave plant designed by celebrated glassmaker Lalique.

Just 500 decanters were released at an eye-watering £5,000 a pop. Each decanter comes in a display case featuring the brand’s signature bee weaved into the pattern. A second Lalique release is on its way this autumn. “If you only release 500 bottles it’s not that hard to sell them.

Patrón is being used in twists on classic cocktails

“We’ve held a few back so we can do a comparative tasting with the Series 2 when it comes out,” Applbaum reveals. With such success come copycats and the brand has had to defend both its name and bottle shape in court battles. It recently won a case against Peruvian Pisco brand Portón whose name was deemed so similar to Patrón that it would cause confusion in the marketplace.

Looking ahead, social media remains a key arena in which to build brand awareness. Making social media a priority since his appointment in 2013, Applbaum has been significantly grown Patrón’s online identity via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

The brand currently has 236,000 followers on Twitter and has racked up over a million mentions on Instagram. Patrón also recently embraced virtual reality, creating a VR tour of its hacienda in Jalisco with Oculus Rift technology. Shot from the point of view of a bee, the tour starts in the agave fields and ends with the bottles being hand blown.

As for growth, the brand is already on sale in 150 countries, so there aren’t many pockets of the globe left untapped, though Patrón is seeing impressive growth in Australia at the moment. Applbaum has the world’s key cocktail cities on his radar. “We’re going after Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, New York, Rome, Barcelona, Sydney, Melbourne, Tel Aviv and Cape Town,” he says.

China remains a priority for future growth but making headway there is a slow process. Another key market to crack is Mexico, which might sound strange but the ultra-premium Tequila market is tiny there. “Affluent consumers are buying other ultra-premium spirits in Mexico, just not Tequila, but we’re hoping this will soon change through targeting Mexico’s key cities and coastal regions,” says Applbaum.

With Noma about to begin its pop-up in Tulum and Mexico City drawing artists, writers, chefs and international tastemakers in their droves, Mexico is under the spotlight this year, and the time is ripe for its national drink to enjoy its moment in the sun.

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