Some four million people a year pile into Puerto Vallarta, a balmy strip of sand and surf pressed between the Sierra Madre Mountains and Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Most of them spend their time at one of the big resort-hotels, subsisting on a steady diet of sun, swim and umbrella drinks.
Cocktail menus haven’t changed much since the 1990s: lots of rum and vodka, sugar and juice, blenders buzzing in the background. You might stumble on a nice bottle of mezcal, and of course tequila holds its own with the usual brands represented. (This is, after all, Jalisco, the birth state of Mexico’s native spirit.)
What you almost certainly won’t find? A customized one-of-a-kind tequila.That is, unless you’re staying at Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa. It has a house tequila produced exclusively for the resort—not what you’d expect from a chain hotel. But Marriott is wisely giving some local focus to PV, one of the most touristy areas of Mexico.
Sixteen years ago, former general manager Dennis Whitelaw birthed the resort’s tequila project. He came up with the idea of having tequila distilled especially for the hotel and began hunting for the right distillery to produce it. He ended up partnering with Tequila del Señor in Colonia Atlas in Jalisco’s Guadalajara to make a joven ($36), reposado ($41), añejo ($48) and extra añejo ($60), all certified 100 percent blue agave tequila.
Each is balanced and delicate without going too heavy on oak in the aged renditions, allowing the agave to shine. At merely 300 to 500 bottles a year, this is small-production house tequila available only at the resort. (The resort recently changed producers so there is a new season and evolution underway.)
On top of that, there’s an on-site tequilier. Audrey Formisano, also a sommelier, brings both wine and spirits expertise to the resort. A native of France, where she earned a degree in service and hotel management as well as her sommelier certification, Formisano moved to the U.S. after graduation and worked at Embassy Suites and with Royal Caribbean cruise line. She moved to Puerto Vallarta in 2002 and never left.
She started working at the resort in 2003, and immersed in the native drink of her new home, her knowledge of agave spirits grew. She recalls the early days when the house program was birthed: “Mr. Whitelaw came to me and said, ‘You know, Audrey, we are in Jalisco where tequila was born, and not many of our guests know that.’”
Whitelaw insisted that they start producing their own tequila. “At the beginning, I have to admit I did not take him too seriously,” says Formisano. “But he was extremely serious about it.”
As the house program grew, she earned her tequila somm certification in 2006, eventually supervising the resort’s Mikado restaurant and overseeing its wine cellar, La Cava. She leads tequila tastings, pairing tequila with dinners in the hotel’s magical herb garden, strewn with white lights, surrounded by greenery and herbs used in the kitchen and cocktails.
“It’s always a challenge because each person has a different taste or palate,” says Formisano about tequila food pairings. “The great thing about tequila is that it’s able to pair with almost anything. But tequila is like a language, so I still learn something new almost every day.”
One wishes hotels in general would adopt such customized programs, specific to their region’s food and drink. There are many options for enjoying the house tequila, the most obvious being at one of the bars or restaurants, preferably at the open-air Las Casitas, with the sand and waves at your feet. Or at its new ceviche and tequila bar, which has more than 180 different tequilas to choose from.
But there’s also that enchanting Herb Garden for private dinners, paired with tequila and cocktails, not to mention the resort’s best food. One of the inspired menus is of regional Mexican dishes and is treated as a journey around the country, exploring its varying cuisines.
The afternoon guacamole prepared poolside is an ideal apéritif hour of tequila, Margaritas, guac and chips. As sunset approaches, it’s a ritual that confirms (if any confirming was needed) the uniqueness of that vibrant Mexico welcome, one that makes the cares and stress of the world blur. Restored by the waves, sunset, lush avocado and slatey, green, mineral goodness of a sip of tequila, it’s almost impossible not to feel grateful.