“So, which came first, the name of the town or the name of the drink?” I asked my new friend Juan Luis in Spanish as I sat shotgun in his impeccably clean Jeep. The dusty roads and muddy tracks that led into the rolling blue fields of agave were the antithesis of his brand new Cherokee and I wondered if he also owned a car wash.
“I don’t understand. The town has always been called Tequila and the drink shares its name because many of the distilleries began here.” He fiddled with the temperature controls and blasted more AC, turning and nodding to me approvingly. I had told him I was living in Colorado before traveling and he was either trying to make me feel more at home or show me that his car could also double as an icebox in a pinch. When he looked away I closed my vent.
“Well, sometimes governments will change the names of places to try to boost tourism.” I couldn’t think of any examples and now I was just beginning to feel stupid for asking the question.
“No, siempre Tequila.”
I had arrived in the little town as the sun was beginning its descent over the hard scrabbled peaks and the midday heat was still hiding its cowboy residents. I strolled down the main drag, deserted except for a few girls in trinkety storefronts who called out to me in the blazing sun.
“You wanna try?” She was pointing to a lineup of tall clear bottles perched on the upturned end of an old barrel.
“We have these with flavor added or you can try just Tequila. Or you can try them all.” She picked up a shot glass from a counter behind the register and led me to a row of twenty or so bottles of varying stages of emptiness. Either this towns really hurting for business or she’s bored or maybe the tequila really does flow like water. I tipped back a shot of the bottle she recommended and thanked her as she expressionlessly resumed her spot under the shady canopy.
Back on the street the sun resumed treating my head like a punching bag and I strolled halfheartedly until I saw the hostel sign I was looking for.
“Yeah you are the only guest aside from six construction guys who are living here temporarily.”
“How far is it to walk out to the agave fields like those ones?” I pointed to the impressive pictures of big blue agaves amidst burning red sunsets that had been printed on canvas hanging on the yellow wall behind the desk.
“I’m going there right now, I’ll take you.” The young Mexican guy leaning against the stairs called over to me.
“No. Free my friend. We just have to go to the store and buy a bottle of tequila.” I was wary of anything free especially when it was coming from the mouth of a slick looking young guy who looked like he always had business on his mind. “My names Juan Luis.”
We bounced up into the hills past farmers on horseback, their dark faces peering out from underneath cowboy hats pulled low while ripples of heavy clouds began to move over the reddening sky.
“Perfect day to take pictures, especially for this client because they want to have a darker image for their ads. Usually everyday is just sun, all day sun, everyday.”
“Ohhh they’re your client?” I turned the fancy bottle of clear tequila over in my hands.
“Yeah. I am a photographer. All of the tequila companies contract me if they want pictures with the agave plants or the fields or town. This one they are a bunch of guys in LA starting a new tequila company. Popular these days but all the tequila is made in the same distilleries anyways. See this number?” He reached across and pointed to a number near the bottom of the label. “That tells you what distillery made the tequila. Cuervo and Sauza make tequila for most of these small American companies that try to be fancy and sell for crazy prices. They tell me this bottle is eighty dollars in the states.” He tossed the bottle in his hands and smirked.
We pulled to the side of a muddy track and parked the Jeep in front of a huge gate. Skirting the entrance I followed Juan Luis over a shorter fence of piled stones and dropped down into the fields of blue agave.
“This is no good. Usually the fields are trimmed and it’s only the agave.”
We looked out over the field of spiky blue plants that was choked with weeds and tall grasses down every row.
“Oh well.” Juan Luis shrugged and I followed him along a gravel trail until we came to a sprawling overlook with rolling hills in every direction. As he fiddled with his tripod and little tequila display I wandered into the blue hills, the fields clotted with blowing pink grasses and the pointy chutes of plants that would one day be incinerated and fermented into the potent liquid.
On the way back down into town Juan Luis told me his life story. He had gone to film school in Guadalajara and then traveled and lived in Spain and Andorra for several years after school. Eventually he returned home to the sleepy town of tequila and started his own media company. “I do photos for companies, weddings, portraits, commercials, whatever. I also have made two movies and I’m working on a feature length one. Its cheesy horror stuff with a Mexican flavor, I love Hitchcock. I also own and manage the hostel and I own my own real estate business.” He was also married and had a young son. I asked him how old he was. “Just turned 28.”
We slid back into the cobblestone streets of Tequila under the cover of a rare cloudy night sky that hung like wet cement over our heads. The taco stands were starting to be wheeled out to the central plaza where a small stone church stood watch over the hushed town.
“Have you been to la Capilla yet?”
“No, what’s that?”
“Its a bar in town. People come from all over the world just to go to this bar. Some website ranked it in the top twenty for best bars in the world.” We pulled over at a little corner and parked. “There it is.” He pointed to a pair of wooden blue doors in an otherwise nondescript white wall where a few people were milling about. There were no signs or names outside, just an ad for a random tequila company spray painted across the grimy white stone. We walked in and sat down at the only table, a cheap wooden affair covered with a smattering of newspapers and wet napkins ringed from drinks already downed. Juan Luis ordered two drinks as I looked around the room. The walls were lined with faded pictures of anonymous men and dull landscapes wrapped in shabby wood frames that teetered at various angles. Exposed bulbs dangled from overhead and gave the tiny room a harsh blue glow. Above the door for the bathroom, a small shelf was overflowing with medals and enormous soccer trophies perched on the edge of collapse. Juan Luis walked back over to the table.
“You have to meet Don Javier. He is the reason this bar is what it is.”
I followed him across the room to where an old man was perched with a smile atop an unraveling wicker chair looking like a man waiting to tell my fortune. I extended my hand and he wrapped it up loosely.
He responded in a rush of whispered words that I could barely hear and even less understand. I smiled and nodded and he laughed. Probably the millionth gringo who has stood in front of him and beamed in non-coherence. Juan Luis picked up the conversation with Don Javier as I studied the newspaper articles over his head. Stories in various languages with the Don in exactly the same chair he was in now wearing the same white button down. A life filled with the endless repetition of drinks and stories. After a minute we ambled back over to the table with our Batangas, the drink that Don Javier created himself in the 50′s, a stern heaping of tequila with coke and a big slice of lime and salt. A recipe simple enough, but made magical by the knife that Don Javier has used to slice limes and stir Batangas for years.
“You know, he has been working at this bar everyday since he was fourteen years old. Last week they just had a huge 90th birthday party for him. Can you imagine.”
Juan Luis shook his head and kicked back his Batanga.
“You hungry yet? I’m going to get you the best tacos and tostadas in town. But first you probably want a shot of the best tequila we have, right? When in Tequila.”