Well, now there is another good reason to consume tequila (not that you beachlovers were looking for additional excuses).
Rejoice, Tequila Drinkers! Now You Can Be Socially Responsible
Mexican biologist urges liquor fans to order ‘bat friendly’ brands from makers who allow the creatures to eat a percentage of their agave plants
Biologist Rodrigo Medellín feeds a bat visiting agave fields at night. Photo: Santiago Pérez/The Wall Street Journal
Updated Sept. 5, 2017 2:26 p.m. ET
ARANDAS, Mexico—Tequila might benefit from a closer relationship with the lesser long-nosed bat, and the bat could sure use a little more tequila.
So let’s reunite them, even if thousands of agave plants need to die.
You can help down at the tavern.
A bat at an agave field
That’s the message from Mexican biologist Rodrigo Medellín, who wants bars to start stocking tequila made from agave grown by farms that let some of the plants flower so bats can imbibe their nectar at night.
For more than a century, Mexican farmers have harvested their blue agave—tequila’s raw material—before they blossom, because they die when they flower. Dead agave plants don’t make good tequila.
But the lesser long-nosed bat loves the blossoms and was vital to pollinating blue agave before humans took over, Dr. Medellín says. So tequila only exists, he argues, because of what some Mexicans call “the tequila bat.”
Mexican biologist Rodrigo Medellín, left, with tequila producer Carlos Camarena. Photo: Santiago Pérez/The Wall Street Journal
And now more than ever, he says, bat and agave need each other for the greater good.
Bats pollinate other flowering species, so blue-agave blossoms will help sustain the broader plant kingdom, he says. And bat-pollinated agave, he says, will produce seeds of varieties that are more genetically diverse than what now dominate tequila production.
The bats, meanwhile, are suffering from human encroachment and would benefit from more tequila-agave nectar.
Among creatures people tend to despise, “no one does more for the welfare of humans than the bat,” what with their flower-pollinating and bug-eating habits, says the 59-year-old Dr. Medellín, a researcher at National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Bats, he says, get a bad rap from vampire mythology and “are the ones who suffer the most from this injustice.”
Dr. Medellín at work. Photo: Mariana Rivero
Dr. Medellín, known in his field as “The Batman of Mexico,” has persuaded three long-established tequila makers to set aside 5% of their blue-agave crops to flower in some fields, through an initiative launched by his university and Tequila Interchange Project, a group that advocates for sustainable and traditional production techniques.
For their pains, they get to call tequila from those fields “bat friendly” and slap on the bottles a hologram Dr. Medellín provides with an image of a bat near an agave flower.
One of the distillers, Tequila Tapatío, produced a bat-friendly version of its Tequila Ocho that its owner, Carlos Camarena, found “to present traces of pepper and pineapple as well as orange blossom aromas.” He allows that those characteristics have nothing to do with bats but stem from “terroir.”
The sight of flowering agaves in Mr. Camarena’s fields is so uncommon that nearby farmers come to ask incredulously why the agave are being allowed to blossom. “In this project, you are basically turning tens of thousands of dollars worth of agave into bat feed,” Mr. Camarena says.
“But this is a love story.”
Agave flowering spikes in a ‘bat-friendly’ field. Photo: Santiago Pérez/The Wall Street Journal
Americans can share the love at bars like San Antonio’s Esquire Tavern, which offers a bat-friendly-tequila cocktail dubbed “Batman of Mexico.” The spicy $12 drink includes fresh corn syrup, a blend of chilies and lime, and bat-friendly tequila.
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“It’s a conversation starter,” says the tavern’s beverage director, Houston Eaves, who calls Dr. Medellín´s project an “eye-opening kind of concept.”
The bat-friendly Tequila Ocho version can be found for around $45 at some U.S. liquor stores.
Dr. Medellín has spent decades in hot caverns studying bats, including the lesser long-nosed bat, the Mexican long-nosed bat and the Mexican long-tongued bat.
For much of that time, he was trying to convince tequila makers that bats are good for business as well as nature. He finally persuaded the three tequila makers three years ago, including Mr. Camarena, who says he was won over by the environmental concerns.
The first edition of the bat-friendly version of Tequila Ocho, right. Photo: Santiago Pérez/The Wall Street Journal
He and a team of students now moonlight sometimes as bat-friendliness compliance officers. Near midnight recently, they paced one of Mr. Camarena’s fields inspecting agave crops that qualify for bat-friendly status.
“Did you bring some tequila?” Dr. Medellín asked. One replied: “Sorry Doc, I don’t drink at work.”
They verified nectar levels of the flowering spikes and set bat nets to study the creatures that fly in as far as 60 miles from their caves. “Bats remember,” Dr. Medellín said, feeding sugary water to an exhausted bat. “After 150 years, they are now back pollinating.”
Since the late 19th century, farmers have propagated agave fields, mostly in western Jalisco state, using clonal shoots rather than seeds. The bats have had to content themselves with flowering agaves in ditches or the wild.
A colony of bat pups inside a cave in northern Mexico. Their mothers fly as many as 60 miles at night to get food. Photo: Marco Tschapka
As a result, Dr. Medellín says, many of Mexico’s blue agave plants aren’t very genetically diverse. That could make them susceptible to disease, he says, and bat pollination could help change that.
Tequila companies and the industry’s trade group have made huge investments to fight disease, says Carlos Humberto Suárez, head of institutional relations at José Cuervo, the world’s best-selling tequila maker. “There’s a strict control of production methods to avoid risks. Blue agave isn’t a wild plant, and its cultivation is closely supervised.”
Tequila Patrón, a major distiller, has commissioned a study with Mexico’s National Center for Genetic Resources to analyze the genetics of agave shoots and to check into Dr. Medellín’s claims they lack diversity. “We want to do the right thing,” says Francisco Soltero, head of strategic planning at Patrón, “but we feel that we need more information about it.”
Tequila sales are booming, and distillers have a hard enough time finding enough blue agave, which takes about six years to grow.
Dr. Medellín with blue agave seeds. Photo: Santiago Pérez/The Wall Street Journal
In Mr. Camarena´s tequila warehouse, Dr. Medellín marvels at one of the results of the bat friendly crop: 350,000 blue agave seeds. “This is a genetic treasure,” he says.
Having turned several distilleries batty, he has had to pitch bat-friendly booze to bars. He’s taken American bartenders to fields in Mexico to show them bats at work at night. “They ended up wanting to have their pictures taken with bats.”
A visit last year to a field made a believer of Joaquín Meza, owner of El Rancho Grande restaurant in Providence, R.I. Before, “I wasn’t that friendly to bats,” he says. Now he is offering the bat-friendly spirit to clients.
“Many customers don’t like such creepy creatures,” he says, “so they get really intrigued when they try bat-friendly tequila.”
Fields in the tequila-producing town of Arandas, known for red soil and blue agaves. Photo: Santiago Pérez/The Wall Street Journal