[indent]It didn't begin very well. Some days before I left, I contracted a vicious cold that was going around town, and I was ingesting cold medication every few hours to try and keep the symptoms at bay. I stayed in Toronto the night before I left, but bad weather had made the trip a three-hour ordeal rather than the usual 90-minute trek. I slept fitfully, waking every few hours.
Up at 5 a.m. in my Toronto hotel, feeling wooly-headed and snuffling, I got through the airport procedures without incident, grabbed a tea at Starbucks, boarded, and managed to arrive in Mexico City intact and even a few minutes early. Then I played the guess-which-gate game trying to locate my next flight, and wandered around for an hour looking for something to eat while I scanned the departure screens, eager to be in the air again.
The last leg of the flight was bumpy enough to discourage reading. I had stared out of the window trying to guess where in the mental map of Mexico we were, wondering if the fields below were agave or some other crop. By the time I reached Guadalajara, my cold symptoms were coming back, I had been travelling for 12+ hours, I was tired, stiff, hungry, crusty, and anxious.
Anxious because for all the book learning I'd accumulated over the years, I had never been to Tequila, never actually stood in a distillery to watch the piņas being loaded into a horno, or smelled the rich agave scents oozing from barrels stored in a dark cellar. Would reality meet my expectations?
Anxious because I was joining a group of people who I'd never met, to spend four days in close quarters, people whose knowledge and appreciation of tequila and the industry equalled and often surpassed mine. Many had been to Tequila before. Would I appear the fool?
Anxious because I'm not the most social of the butterflies and I'm not great at small talk. I'm more introspective, an observer more than a participant, someone who stands outside trying to assess, weigh, analyse and comprehend. Makes for a good reporter, but not necessarily a good companion on a tour. Would I offend my fellow travellers, or annoy them? Lose their respect?
Anxious because I was out of my element. I love Mexico, I'm comfortable in Mexico, but my Spanish is clumsy and takes a while to kickstart, so I can't communicate well. Although I enjoy exploring and I like entertaining new experiences, I didn't know the area, and I had no familiar touchstones to ground me.
Since I was the last to arrive, I had to take a cab - an hour's drive - to meet the group. My Spanish was only slightly better than my driver's English, but I was too tired to make much of an effort at conversation, so after a few fitful attempts, I lapsed into silence as we weaved through the city's busy traffic. I had only a vague idea of how to get to Tequila, and was even more murky on just where La Cofradia was. I could only watch the scenery slip by the window.
But somewhere along the highway, about fifteen minutes away from my destination, it all came into focus.
The landscape had grown hilly the further we retreated from Guadalajara. The views had also changed, from merely interesting, to spectacular. Mountains loomed in the distance under the clear sky, crisply lit in the late afternoon sun. And then I saw them. The fields of spiky agave - coloured somewhere between a pale azure and a steely grey-blue. Row upon row, neatly tended and following the undulating passage of the hills.
At that moment, everything made sense. Everything came together. This was why I was here. I felt my heart catch in my throat. All those years and this was the moment I'd waited for.
The cabbie slowed, and began the descent from the toll road down towards the town. At the bottom of the hill, we spotted the Cofradia sign and the cab turned off to crawl slowly along the rough cobblestone street. Looking at the stones, my little science brain muttered "volcanic rock." Of course! There's a volcano here. I smiled.
We stopped at the gate, got directions, and continued up to the buildings. I grabbed my luggage, paid the driver, and stumped towards the noise of voices around the corner.
And that moment remains etched in my memory. There everyone was, milling about, chatting, joking - and all waiting for me. I felt like I was coming home. So many people to meet, to greet, to try and match faces with names and forum identities. There was a confusion of faces and handshakes. I recognized one or two people from their forum pictures - Harry in particular. I had planned to say something memorable, to tell Harry how important this was to me, but I choked. I gushed my pleasure, my thanks, in garbled words, but nothing he deserved for his efforts to make sure I was on the trip, and for his endless generosity.
There I was, in Mexico. At a tequila plant. Standing in Mexico with blue agave growing a stone's throw away. And I had this great, big, silly grin on my face, thinking, "I'm here. I'm really here."
I wanted to give everyone a big hug, but that seemed a bit premature, since we had barely met and hadn't shared a glass of tequila (yet). Time for that later. I contented myself with pumping Harry's hand and muttering "thank you, thank you," a few dozen times, then trying to say hello to the rest.
The afternoon was still warm, a lot warmer than I had expected and I felt overdressed as we set out up the road. Still in a daze, I trundled out with the group to watch a jimador slice the leaves off an agave with consummate ease. The coa was offered around to any gringo bold enough to attempt it in the company of such a practiced expert. I heard my name being called, I was dragged out of the crowd. Gawd! Me?
Time to dispell any illusions that I wasn't a fool. I grabbed the tool with false bravado, and cut away a few of the leaves. Look! I didn't remove a foot, managed to keep the sharp blade from lodging in a shin, and I was able to keep alive my daydreams of one day working my own agave field... okay, that's a lie. But it certainly taught me that being a jimador requires practice and skill, neither of which I had. I escaped with my body parts and pride intact.
That was the first notch in the belt of respect that I tightened throughout the trip.
We also got our first close-up look at an agave, and its thick, straight leaves with their sharp thorns. We sniffed at the edges of the fresh cuts, smelling the green scents of vegetation and sap. The link between plant and process was starting to cement itself.
Then we got the tour. My first distillery. It was kind of like my first marriage, without the lawyers at the end. I was starry-eyed as we were shown the ovens, the fermenting tanks, and finally the distillation. This was where it actually happened! Everyone was glued to our guide, hanging off every word, snapping photographs.
Photographs! There were more cameras than at a presidential press conference. Everyone had one, some had two (myself included). Lou had one, but it was the mother of all digital cameras, packing a whopping 12 megapixels. The techie in me salivated when he said that... the green monster of envy poked me in the ribs.
I tasted the sweet baked agave, delighting in the dark caramel flavour, surprised that it was so good. Most of us weren't quite sure how to eat it - I saw more than a few people trying to chew the tough fibres, swallowing them (they would return to their source, somewhat later, and mostly intact... empirical proof how the agave fibres were useful for making rope and clothing). The trick is to strip the soft flesh off with your teeth, and discard the fibre. A few more distilleries and we'd all be experts at sampling these slices of cooked agave.
We tasted the fresh distillate, right from the still, first and second distillations. That was like being offered holy water. The tall tube passed around, each of us sampling it, becoming a little more intimate with each ritual, passing through the rites of tequila together. Each step, no matter how small, is another bardo plane achieved on the passage to enlightenment.
Cofradia, we learned, recycles everything. Waste water is returned to the fields, the pulp (bagaso) from the agaves composted and used to help fertilise the growing plants. Some distilleries also use the pulp to make paper. At Cofradia, nothing is wasted. That touched the environmentalist in me. Cofradia means "stong ties" or brotherhood, and it suggested to me ties to the land, to the people, to the culture.
Tour over, we were whisked through the museum, ogling at collections of bottles and glasses, then into the dining room where four huge tables were set up with chairs for our presence, each setting with a flight of tequilas - blanco, reposado and aņejo. The tasting had begun.
This moment was special, very special, because it was the first night of the tour, and everything was a historic moment for most of us, a personal Rubicon crossed at every stage. All those firsts culminated in this moment. But it wasn't merely a tasting - we were the first people outside the distillery to sample the new (excellent) Casa Noble Crystal, triple-distilled blanco.
Now not only is this a real treat for we Canadians who are starved for premium tequilas (especially in Ontario), and Casa Noble is certainly an ultra-premium product, but it was doubly special for being able to test a new product. And the tequila didn't disappoint: it was clear, crisp and delicious. In fact, it stands as one of the two best blancos I enjoyed during the trip.
But wait - there's more.
Up comes Pepe with a bottle of this new product, signed by all three owners. It's the first bottle off the line, too - every collector in the room was drooling. And he calls me up to offer it to me, me their special guest. I didn't know whether I should continue to look goofy in that dazed "who-me?" feeling, or simply pass out from the honour of it all... this was way more than icing on the cake. It was exceeding all my expectations already and it was only the first night.
Cor and Chelle of Tequila Tastings introduced the process - we'd all develop a real affection for these two and their dogged efforts to record everything on an Ipod for their website podcasts.
At each place setting, Cofradia also provided a shrink-wrapped copy of the Artes de Mexico guide to Mexico's best art galleries. It was a gentle reminder that tequila is inextricably linked to Mexican culture, not merely a drink or an industry.
For the final phase, we were herded into their cellars where, standing among the barrels of aging tequila, we were treated to samples of their excellent tequilas, and some delicious Mexican appetizers including some cheeses I'd never sampled before, and possibly the best guacamole I've ever had (aside from Susan's own recipe).
Cofradia set the bar with their hospitality, their attention, their welcome and their warmth. Everyone after this night would have to live up to this night. Plus, being our first event and our first-ever Tequila experience, it was memorably magic for many of us.
I returned with the first bus to get my hotel room in the Mision Tequillan - a nice, small, clean room that suited me quite well. Then I joined a dozen others in the lobby as we followed Juan Mesa to a tiny bar off on a sidestreet, where we had more gringos than there were seats available.
First we had to stop in an alley behind the cathedral, where we got some food from the local street vendors - we hadn't really eaten at La Cofradia, merely snacked. Since Lent had just begun, there was no meat (a bonus for me), so I had a "shrimp burger" - camarones a la diabla - fried shrimp served with lettuce and tomatoes, hot sauce, on bread. Delicious! Others had the bean dishes.
A few blocks away, the little bar, La Capilla - the chapel - was right out of an old Pedro Infante movie. behind the bar was Don Javier, 83, the owner. Don Javier's grandfather opened the first bar in Tequila. That original bar featured pool tables, and there was a photograph of its entrance on the wall. Don Javier's place had little space for anything as massive as a pool table.
The name is a bit of a joke, by the way. Men could tell their wives they were off to church when they really meant the bar.
Years later, Don Javier's father took over the operation, and moved its location. In 1940, Don Javier started working in the bar, the third generation, and he's been there ever since. He loves the work, loves his customers, and was extremely gracious - and patient - with us.
The house drink was Batanga - a mix of cola, lime juice and tequila blanco (a mixto). Most of us were unable to finish one (rather too sweet for my palette and I really don't like mixtos). However, Don Javier brought out some dusty bottles of 100% agave from his back room - even going home to get a bottle of El Tesoro aņejo, just for us. Other bottles appeared, although I contented myself with slowly sipping the El Tesoro Tim brought to the table for us.
This was my first chance to talk with some of the others, and to get to know them. There wasn't a lot of room to circulate, so I sat at at table. Tim (Iron Chef) and Tom (T.P.O.) bantered, and I laughed with them, joined by Tim & Jennie who also appreciated Iron Chef's largesse in sharing his bottle with us. I was relaxing, slowly, despite the cold making my head feel like someone had stuffed cotton balls into my sinuses. Here I was, in a small, local bar, in the heart of Tequila. Hard to believe.
A couple of hours later, tired, in a mild alcoholic daze (I curtailed my drinking at Los Capalitos, but even so I'd had some at the tasting, some at the reception after, then some at the bar), we walked back through the quiet streets of the town. Day one was over.
I wrote in my notebook that, if the trip was no more than just this one day, it would be worth everything it took to get there. How could it get any better? What would the next day bring? I read for an hour or so before finally falling alseep.