BIT Blog

The Pilgrimage to Tequila

Sometimes one is granted the rare privilege of being present during the telling of an epic saga……a continuation of the Timeless Human Oral Tradition.  When a person is so graced, the best course is to simply fade into the background and function as a humble scribe—because while the homosapien storytelling tradition is indeed venerable and strong, our memories ain’t what they used to be.  And events of great import must be entered into The Record.

And so it is with The Pilgrimage to Tequila.

A longtime friend, let’s call him “Hasenpfeffer” since I’ve been asked to employ aliases here to protect the guilty, hails, as I do, from Texas (I know, I know…….but what can we say?.......we were not consulted when we were whelped).  And growing up in Texas, we were subject to not only an unfortunate market saturation of Cuervo Gold tequila (no better options being available…..the competition was Armadillo Tequila, which we never stooped to even in moments of impoverished student desperation), but also to a dubious chuckle-headed tradition of tequila shots. 

We’re not proud, you understand.  We’re just saying…….

All of which coalesced to give us a certain long-standing familiarity with, and ongoing consumption of, tequila.  And as these things are wont to go, a certain mythological miasma came to be associated with our past, current and future consumption of tequila.  I think the audio equivalent of this vibe would be listening to the Flaco Jimenez/Dwight Yokum remake of Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” through underwater speakers while sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool that is not as clean as it might be.

So, when Hasenpfeffer saw a story in the Wall Street Journal about a mysterious train ride to the town of Tequila, Mexico, in the state of Jalisco, he was seized with a strong and insistent urge to GO.  The legendary birthplace of tequila, so it was whispered!  As he telephoned two of his Galveston buddies, the road trip was already morphing in his mind into something more…..a quest that would inspire song, burnish loins, and result in the kind of stories that you could (but would not!) tell the grandchildren. 

With this kind of impetus at play, the two friends (let’s call them “Seabiscuit” and “Snord”) were soon infected with Hasenpfeffer’s zeal and before you knew it, Wheels Were In Motion.  One short plane ride to San Miguel de Allende later, followed by a bus (that, crucially, allowed passengers to bring coolers aboard) to Guadalajara, and suddenly the threesome saw their chariot. 

The train.

I think we all can agree that our heroes can be forgiven if their memories of the train have romanticized the conveyance a bit, eliminating the chicken smells and thoughts of the truly-deplorable state of the communal bathroom (this latter may be a coping mechanism employed by the human brain after experiencing extreme multi-sensory trauma).  But if the term “legendary” inherently implies great age and scars born of experience, then there was no question that The Train to Tequila fit the bill.  It was, for lack of a better word, funky.

But it had a bar.  And more than that, it seemed to be full of other gringos who had read the same article and subsequently heard The Call.  Upon inspection, Seabiscuit reported that the bar seemed to be extremely-well stocked with not only copacetically-priced Mexican beer but also with the beverage for which their destination was named.  Amidst the jovial atmosphere in the bar car, a great wheezing and grating was heard, followed by a flatulent chuffing and a hesitant forward motion.  The pilgrimage to Tequila was now right and truly under way! 

As the train picked up speed, there was a collective sense of hurtling toward some mystery….some Great Unknowable.  Consumption in the bar car accelerated apace, with many toasts, cheers and new friendships struck in the libationary haze. 

Then the train broke down. 

As Hasenpfeffer translated the bartender’s report, relayed from the conductor, Snord uttered a Spanglish expletive he’d heard in San Antonio that was, if truth be known, unwise for a Gringo to use in Mexico.  But he got away with it, with only a bit of stink-eye from the staff, and after 40 minutes in the motionless, steaming, un-airconditioned bar car, a great huzzah echoed as the train began to scrape its way forward.  Spirits lifted.  “Look at all that cacti!”, someone exclaimed. 

“Is it agave?”

“It’s sort of blue-ish.”

And so consumption in the bar car regained its jubilant aspect, and all seemed well.  Despite the exalted mood,  however, Hasenpfeffer could not help but notice that the bathroom, which had not been in any way acceptable at the start of the journey, had become so thoroughly objectionable that increased personal drunkenness did not, as is usually the case, make it easier to enter and use.  At the end of his third visit, eyes watering and stomach queasing, Hasenpfeffer vowed to himself that he was not going back in there under any set of circumstances.  Feeling resolute, he strode purposely back across the rolling deck to the bar.

An hour later, the train broke down again.  Or maybe the engineer just needed a nap.  No one knew, and this time explanations were not forthcoming.  As it turned out, there would be five such stops on the tracks during the journey…..Sometimes at a collection of shacks that may or may not have warranted being designated with a name, and sometimes just plain smack in the middle of nowhere.  The mood swings in the bar car were oscillating all over the place, and mutiny was only suppressed via the outstandingly-well stocked nature of the bar itself (although the lack of true options for egress undoubtedly had something to do with it). 

During one of these unscheduled stops, Hasenpfeffer felt a familiar bodily claxon that made his blood run cold.  Oh, no!  He had to pee. 

His resolve to never again re-enter the 7th Level of Hell, otherwise known as the bathroom on the train to Tequila, remained unwavering.  And, in hindsight, it must be said that he was somewhat worse for wear from the hot, exuberant hours in the bar car.  This manifested itself not only in a certain lack of judgment but also in a 52% impairment of motor skills. But being in that moment unaware of these handicaps, Hasenpfeffer was instantly seized with what seemed at the time a brilliant and jaunty idea.

I’ll just step off the train and pee outside, he thought triumphantly!

And so he did.

[scribe’s note:  In the retelling of this saga, Hasenpfeffer displayed a certain reluctance to describe the details of what happened next.  What were his thought processes?  Didn’t he hear the train begin to move?  Was it merely a whizz of unusual duration, as will happen to a sporting man from time to time?  Hasenpfeffer will not say, and so we are left to speculate.  But one thing is clear:  the train left and he was not on it.]

There is an idiomatic phrase in the English language that I will attempt to paraphrase here without offending the sensibilities of the more delicate readers of this blog:  Hasenpfeffer was left standing beside the railroad tracks in Central Mexico with his schwantz, both literally and metaphorically, in his hand.

Wouldn’t Seabiscuit and Snord notice his absence and move heaven and earth to stop the train?  Wasn’t there usually some guy who stood at the railings of the caboose in all trains, watching for just this sort of eventuality?

Evidently not.

[scribe’s note:  Now I know what some of you are thinking:  that any trip that begins with a reading of the Wall Street Journal deserves to end in tears.  And you would not be wrong in thinking that.]

As the reality of his situation slowly seeped in, Hasenpfeffer’s only comfort was that post-game feeling of soul-deep relief and euphoria that always follows such a well-needed expatriation of urea, chlorides, potassium, etc.   And this, he knew from past experience, would only last so long.  And so, grimly, he started walking, following the tracks in the direction of the quickly-disappearing train.

 

INTERMISSION:  time for a cocktail:  Try this Baja favorite: 

The Blue Shark

--1.5 oz. Blue Iguana Silver Tequila

--1.5 oz. vodka

--1.5 oz. blue Curaçao

--to a cocktail shaker full of ice, add everything and shake well.  Strain over rocks.

 

The pilgrimage to Tequila had certainly been epic so far, Hasenpfeffer thought as he trudged mile after weary mile along the railroad tracks.  He had long since given up his fantasy of seeing the train reappearing in frantic reverse to reclaim such an important passenger…….an emissary from the United States of America, no less!  At this juncture, he could only shake his head ruefully at having lost the quest, and the brotherhood of his fellow tequila knights, over a nasty train bathroom and a good ol’ outdoor country piss.

There was no one in sight, and the views were long.  There was no habitations anywhere on the horizon.  The sun beat down cruelly, and he had only the half bottle of Tres Equis he’s exited the train with.  So at least there was that, he thought, although it was getting sort of back-washy.  And so he kept walking.

After a period of time he was utterly unable to gauge, Hasenpfeffer thought he saw something way off in the distance, where the tracks disappeared over the edge of the world.  Were those buildings?  His pace quickened.  Yes!  The flat beer now long drained, he walked with a renewed sense of purpose.  As the buildings got closer, he could tell that the train was there, and stopped!  He began to run.  After another twenty minutes, Hasenpfeffer staggered into the town of Tequila. 

Hot, sweaty, thirsty (and maybe needing to pee again!), Hasenpfeffer clambered back onto the train.  But the bar car was empty.  Not even a note from the traitorous Seabiscuit and Snord.  Feeling more than a little disgruntled, and starting to mutter ominously, he saw a figure approaching as he stepped back off the little train.  It was the bartender, who displayed no surprise at seeing Hasenpfeffer standing there.  In answer to a quick question in Spanish, the bartender replied “Senor, your amigos have left the train.”  Trying to be polite in the face of such a stunningly-obvious observation, Hasenpfeffer asked if the man knew where they might have gone.

“The gringos are all drinking in the café in the square, senor.” 

After hastily getting directions, Hasenpfeffer hurried off toward the town square.  Although he was possibly not aware of it, his muttering increased in volume and vehemence.  With a mixture of guilt and satisfaction, Hasenpfeffer realized that he had never paid his (quite substantial) bar tab from the train.  This provided a welcome distraction for his simmering brain.  After scuffing several blocks down the dusty streets of Tequila, he began to hear faint but increasing sounds of merriment. 

His pace quickened.

Upon reaching the ubiquitous town square, so familiar from all the other small Mexican towns he had visited in his life, Hasenpfeffer zeroed in on familiar voices coming from a mass of gringos crowded around rickety metal tables outside a corner cantina.  Amidst the rowdy and slightly woozy pale-faced throng, there sat Seabiscuit and Snord, feet up on the railing, cold beers in hand, drained shot glasses arrayed about the table between half-eaten bowls of carne en su jugo.  Sitting between them was a gray-haired, dilapidated hippy with a maple leaf flag sewed onto his battered duffel bag.  He seemed vague but content.

“Hasenpfeffer!  Where you been buddy? “, hollered Snord.  “Come over here and meet our new friend Scoot….he’s Canadian, man!”  All three men smiled innocently in the new arrival’s direction.

Hasenpfeffer was speechless.  Standing in the street, not even knowing where to begin.  A vein throbbed on his forehead.  He wanted to throw the Tres Equis bottle at them, but suddenly realized he no longer had it. 

Just then, at this crux of the crisis, a beautiful young Mexican girl approached Hasenpfeffer and asked him a very pivotal question: 

“¿Quieres algo a tomar?

Hasenpfeffer paused.  I want to kill my two friends, of course, but yes……yes, I would like something to drink, he thought.  And so following some very comprehensive ordering, he took the chair that Seabiscuit dragged over for him and sat at the table.

“Man, the food is great here!”, Snord raved.  “After we eat and have some more beers, we’re taking a cab over to the place where they make the tequila.  We made it, man!”, he enthused, slapping Hasenpfeffer on the back and smiling in an unfocused way.  Seabiscuit smiled blearily at him from the other side of the table.  Scoot seemed to doze.  Then the waitress arrived with a tray full of cold Carta Blancas and some more chips and hot sauce.  And just like that, his anger left him.  All quests had their arcs of travails and the overcoming of staggering odds, right?  And sure, I could have died and had my body eaten by iguanas by the side of the tracks, but I didn’t, right?  And after all, Snord was right:  we Made It.  Made it to Tequila.  Hasenpfeffer flagged the waitress and ordered four shots of the town’s namesake.

--CODA:  part of the writing of a great saga is knowing when to end it.  And so your humble scribe is omitting the denouement involving the ride to the tequila distillery, where the taxi driver proved remarkably tolerant until the banging on the roof of his cab that accompanied the full-throated singing of “Satisfaction” threatened the structural integrity of his conveyance/ livelihood.  Suffice to say that our band arrived, was toured and feted with free añejos, reposados and even some bootleg pulque from a jug in the back of a truck out back.   And it was Good.

Iguanas in Tequila

After the gut-wrenching ride from San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato we entered Jalisco, the state of Mexico where the town Tequila hides alongside the posh metropolis Guadalajara, and spied a tiny cowboy on a full size horse. The bluish hue of the textured landscape wasn’t the reflection of the heavy grey clouds hanging over me nor a denim-clad army of hard-working jimadores. It was the first of many Blue Agave Tequiliana Weber fields, the bewitched plant responsible for an intoxicating beverage that causes unsuspecting drinkers to break things that they have little to no consciousness they were ever in contact with.

Driving along La Ruta de Tequila, little Oak trees dotted purple mountains in the distance: forested land filled with cattle and haciendas, avocado farms followed by Bougainvillea vines, terraced hills of Agave enclosed in foot-high loose stone walls and separated by delicate green grass. Mexican men rode by on horseback and tequila barrels lined each street. I passed an above ground cemetery in pastel colors (where Herradura distills their tequila) framed by dormant green volcanoes in the distance thinking that the name of the town comes from the indigenous Nahuatl meaning a place of tribute, and that it is. Drunken tribute.

Behind the scenes at our agave harvest with filmmaker Janosh Chassan and photographer Sean Reagan. 

Behind the scenes at our agave harvest with filmmaker Janosh Chassan and photographer Sean Reagan. 

In four-wheel drive, the distiller and I zoomed through the winding mountain trails till we reached the cloud line, overlooking a vine-laden gorge and reservoir below. Though I’d passed Agave fields being harvested by tractors, the Jimadores hauling agaves for Blue Iguana Tequila used mules with manual release baskets.  As I jumped down from the truck, I was greeted by the supervisor. Assuming that I was less bilingual than I am, he shouted to his men in fast slang, “Look good, assholes. You’re being filmed.”

They paused to look at me. One Jimador yelled back, “But, I’m ugly. What do I do?” I laughed, and after that, they were careful what they said when I was in earshot.

The town of Tequila was hopping, which was the exact opposite of what I had heard about the “Pueblo Magico.” I sat at a bar drinking Coronas and writing. Not my favorite beer, but tolerable. The enormous church emptied, filling the zocalo with people eating roasted corn with mayonnaise. Tequila tour buses shaped like giant liquor bottles or barrels whizzed around the same four main corners like a merry-go-round. Once they made me dizzy, I dipped into one of the Tequila museums which showed a grizzlier side of the fermentation process than I had been aware of. Rather than use a cultivated (and we would like to imagine clean) yeast, they stuffed a dirty guy in the tequila “beer.” By bathing in it, he added the needed bacteria to make booze.

All I can say is thank the Tequila gods for modern technology.

 

 

A healthy ecosystem is a sexy ecosystem

Here at Blue Iguana Tequila, every sip, shot or nip of our high quality tequila revolves around the consensual sex of the Mexican long-nosed bat and the 15 foot stalks of blue agave.  Each stalk blooms with candelabra-shaped flowers which open at night wafting a rotten fruit smell, seducing bats to drink from its nectar and coat themselves with pollen.  While transferring pollen from one flower to the next, these bats are acting as a surrogate sexual partner pollinating each plant, during their migratory season.  Blue agaves, then, are entirely dependent on the seasonal pollination of these bats.  It is important that we maintain a healthy, sexy ecosystem, for without the transference of pollen from bats, we wouldn't have agave at all. 

When each agave is harvested, it is replanted along the migratory corridor of the Agave bat, as well as the longer and lesser-long nosed bats (which are both in danger of extinction), for without the deep kiss of these bats, tequila, one of Mexico’s primary exports would not exist.   No tequila?!?!?!  If there was ever a reason to protect the environment, this is it.

And, though tequila may not be originally a Mexican invention, (as it was the Spaniards who developed tequila as we know it today) Mexicans have always made fermented drinks from the agave, and today it remains one of its top exports. Surely it should be of top priority to maintain the habitat of agave bats as well as the sustainable cultivation and harvesting of agave.

A few years ago, a scientist by the name of Rodrigo Medellin, noticed that the bat population in Mexico was in serious decline and therefore so, too, was your favorite spirit.  During those years, Mexico was hit by two major hurricanes, one after another, both along the migratory route of the Agave bats, and the bats began to disappear.  Were they in hiding?  Did they find new shelter?  Did they die?  Medellin and his team of scientists went looking for the bats, themselves.  And to their luck, they were able to find small groupings of bats where they did not normally congregate.  Thankfully the bats had survived the storms and were regrouping for the continuation of their migration.  

However, there are still many man-made reasons for the decline of the bat itself.  It is important that we identify their roosting sites, and protect them.  That we educate jimadores (agave ranchers) about bats and help them to understand their importance to the ecosystem, mainly that they are not generally a threat to human life.  Many jimadores worry that bats can carry diseases such as rabies and therefore are a threat to humans.  They have, at times, gone on major killing sprees to rid the area of “dangerous” bats.  But, in reality, rabies is a very uncommon occurrence, nor major human threat, and the mass destruction of bats for the ‘protection’ of humans is threatening the population of agave as well as the bat populations in general.

It's becoming increasingly important for scientists to work with the jimadores to save this sexy ecosystem and continue the production of our favorite libation: Blue Iguana Tequila.