Once upon a time, the process of making tequila involved crushing agave with a two-ton volcanic stone. It was laborious, but this ancient tahona process yielded a complex and rich drink, the kind that was sipped. Then, somewhere along tequila’s history, it became a liquor synonymous with firewater, shot back with a lime and salt to make its overbearing taste more palatable.
The rehabilitation of that image has been underway for some time now with the rising popularity of ultra-premium tequilas. But now Patron–the 25-year-old leader in the spiffing up of the spirits’ persona–is taking tequila back to its roots with the launch of its Roca line, a selection of 100% agave tequilas made with the traditional tahona process.
The launch of Roca Patron comes at a time when many factors are influencing and driving the tequila market. In recent years, the popularity of tequila has surged with global sales hitting record highs. And many new high-profile, celebrity-backed entrants–George Clooney, Diddy, and Justin Timberlake have all launched brands in the category in recent years–have only drawn more attention to tequila as a refined sipping drink of choice.
While these trends have contributed to a more sophisticated consumer palate–a significant motivation for releasing Roca since the strong agave taste is an acquired one–the company’s chief marketing officer Lee Applbaum points to another trend that influenced the creation of Roca Patron: the growing appetite for all things artisanal.
“Over the course of the last several decades, we have (seen) on the consumer side a more evolved and educated tequila palate. But more broadly you see, whether it’s in the farm-to-table movement or in luxury goods, a consumer that wants to know and understand the back story, appreciates the authenticity of the products and brands that they’re consuming, and they love to share that information,” Applbaum says. “As we looked at our product line, there was a clear opportunity and this was the right time to create a new line of artisanal, agave-forward tequilas.”
The Roca Patron line will include a Silver, Anejo, and Reposado variation, priced at $69, $79, and $89 respectively. The product itself will be immediately recognizable to those familiar with Patron’s well-known bottle. Applbaum says both the branding and the marketing don’t stray too far from Patron’s established look and feel, calling the Roca brand “a fraternal rather than identical twin.”
The marketing around Roca Patron cheekily draws on the artisanal heritage, whether it be in the copy lines from the print, such as “We crushed it” and “Other tequila makers don’t have the stones,” which allude to the process, or in the digital efforts that include in-depth videos that reveal in detail how the tahona wheel works and why the process results in a superior drink. Offering online content like this is a progression for Patron in the digital realm, which, says Applbaum, “has been nascent at best in the company’s history.”
Applbaum says that with Roca Patron, the company can draw attention to the fact that all of its tequilas use this traditional process to varying degrees. “The tahona process has actually always been part of our production process. It’s a component of our core line and always has been but because it yields a very agave-forward, complex taste, it’s candidly just a more sophisticated tequila, so we’ve always just blended it with roller mill, which is a process that yields a smoother tequila,” he says. “Roca Patron allows us to reinforce our commitment to artisanal tequila making across our entire line. It halos across the whole portfolio.”
That extended reach is key in reaching Roca Patron’s other key market, one that has grown skeptical of Patron: the industry. Applbaum says the rise of the mixologist and artisan bartender has been both a challenge and an opportunity for the brand.
The problem is that members of the trade have dismissed Patron as a brand that rests on the laurels of its clever marketing.
“I’m very proud of and we make no apologies for the tremendous marketing this brand has delivered. In the last several years, unfortunately, there have been some skeptical consumers and members of the trade who believe that perhaps the company rests solely on clever marketing,” Applbaum says. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re victims of our own great marketing. So what Roca does for us is it allows us a fresh conversation with consumer and with the trade, with mixologists and bartenders, about our unwavering commitment to making artisanal tequila.”
The opportunity, on the other hand, lies in the industry’s rabid interest in telling the story of the drinks it serves and a class of bartenders wanting to make complex spirits the star of their cocktails, rather than masking the strong taste.
“Like their consumer counterparts the mixologist and the artisan bartender appreciate understanding the back story of the brand and the authenticity of products is critically important. Bartenders and mixologists are increasingly creating cocktails that are specifically developed for more complex spirits; they are coming up with cocktails that don’t hide the spirit but actually leverage it and accentuate it and bring it out,” says Applbaum.
He also points to how tequila has been embraced as a sipping drink, much like scotch and bourbon before it. “Now you’re seeing tequila and rum being enjoyed on their own but that’s simply because you’re getting more complex spirits that deserve to be presented by themselves. That’s certainly how we expect Roca to be consumed.”