So it seems that “Going to compete in a cocktail competition” is not a valid reason to visit Guadalajara, according to US customs. This answer entitled me to much suspicion, many pointed questions and a free strip search at Dallas. In addition, they helpfully retitled my job as “bartender” to “making drunk people party drinks”.
I made it in the end and was pleased to find out that I wasn’t the only “travel-challenged” bartender among the group. The South Africans had not understood that they were meant to be getting a connecting flight so had spent seven hours in Mexico City getting on it, and were suitably lubricated by the time they made it to Guadalajara. They were good value for it though. I lasted a few rounds then got some sleep so I was ready for an early start.
We got the early bus to Arandas and headed out to visit the agave fields on quad bikes. This was even more fun than it sounds. We got to meet Olmeca’s fifth-generation team of jimadors, and had a go at preparing an agave plant for the oven. We were all terrible, so apologies, Olmeca, if we ruined your agave harvest that day! Arthur, a Canadian competitor, also found to his detriment that uncooked agave is corrosive and picking them up is inadvisable….
After that we had a great alfresco lunch, then jumped back on the bikes, and hit every puddle, stream, and ditch on the way back. Extreme! After dinner we went to a bar called Happy Bar which had a mariachi’s jukebox, questionable adult entertainment on TV and a lot of tequila on the bar, as well as a camp bed to have a lie down on if you are a little “tired and emotional”. No complaints here.
The day started with a talk and tour of the Olmeca distillery with Jesús Hernández, the master distiller, The combination of the old and new was striking: the traditional tahona wheel is visible as soon as you enter, along with traditional stone ovens, and this sits next to the more modern molina (roller-mill) and autoclave. A combination of these processes in different configurations makes up the Olmeca family, with the tequila I’d be using in the competition – Altos Blanco – made from 100 per cent blue agave, and a significant portion of tahona liquid blended in. This makes for a great versatile mixing tequila, with a bright agave character.
After the tour, it was time for the competition! Unfortunately, all of my ingredients had suffered during the journey so I had to attempt to gather everything I needed again. This wasn’t easy: I needed things like micro cress, gelatine, dehydrated limes, cumin seeds, blossom honey, and a carrot juice, which I had made before by juicing sous vide carrots – not easy stuff to source in the Mexican highlands….
The competition was of a really high standard. Everyone said they weren’t taking it seriously but that all changed once we got up there and put on the Lady Gaga-style headset. Special mentions go out to both Chinese competitors, Jason and Stephanie, who took the garnish way past Nightjar levels, and the Ukrainians, who had to present with the help of a translator – not easy. In the end, my lack of ingredients was my undoing, and the competition was won by Heinz Keller from Austria. It was fully deserved, although the judges did pull me up on stage and give me a couple of bottles of Altos for my presentation, which was a nice touch.
The party atmosphere continued as we stayed in the distillery for drinks and music. When the US competitor took off his trousers, it seemed as good a time as any to call it a night.
Today, we took a bus to the town of Tequila, which is known as “Disneyland for bartenders” apparently. We visited La Fortaleza – Tequila’s smallest commercial distillery – where the whole process from cooking to ageing is done in a room about the size of my flat. And my flat is not big. We met the owner, Guilliermo Sauza, a fifth-generation tequila man, who was obviously doing things rather differently from the way others do it down the road. This ended up with us in a cave, drinking tequila and listening to him, Henry Besant from the Tahona Society and tequila ambassador Tomas Estes trade drunken stories for hours. I could have stayed a lot longer.
In the evening we went to La Capilla, where Don Javier – the 89-year-old owner – has been tending bar for over 30 years. I loved this place. The history is on the walls for all to see, but the place just made everyone happy and Don Javier was happy to have so many old and new friends around him. I had many batangas and talked a lot of rubbish with anyone that would listen.
Day 5 and 6
Another essential part of a Mexico visit is a severe bout of food poisoning. I managed to fit mine in here. So while everyone else was off trying traditional pulque, visiting another distillery, and going to a huge market, I preferred to lie groaning on my bathroom floor. I watched a lot of novelas (amazingly over-the-top Mexican soap operas – think Sunset Beach but with more nudity and fighting) and had odd lucid nightmares about agave plants stalking me. Scary stuff.
A lot of people had flights back in the morning, so we all said our goodbyes. This was a great bunch of people: I don’t think there was anyone I didn’t get on with, and there are certainly a lot I will try to keep in touch with in future. Myself and the other UK winner, as well as Olmeca Altos brand ambassador Matthias Lataille, and Stef Oghene and Henry from the Tahona Society spent the night at Casa El Tigre. This was amazing as El Tigre’s whole family showed up, and there was more singing, more amazing food, a lot of tequila, and time to appreciate what we’d all just experienced.
The hospitality extended to us here will always stay with me, and is a great indicator of what is great about Mexico. Tequila is intertwined into the culture in so many ways and I am glad that I had a chance to experience not just the distilleries and agave fields, but also to see what can be achieved with just good friends, some food and a bottle, putting the world to rights, one shot at a time. Salud!
A shorter version of this article appeared in the October 2012 edition of Bar magazine. Click here for Bar magazine’s report on the global final of the Tahona Society Cocktail Competition.