Carlos Camarena believes the future of tequila could be linked to the future of bats.
Camarena is the master distiller for El Tesoro, a tequila made in Jalisco, at the La Altena Distillery. Standing in front of a field of blue agaves, the spiky succulents used to produce tequila, Camarena told us that El Tesoro is allocating 5 percent of their blue agave crop to the bats.
“Bats will fly up to 80 miles in one night to get to them,” said Camarena. When the bats stick their heads into the flowers, they get covered with pollen that they then bring to other agaves.
Many farmed agaves are allowed to reproduce only asexually, by cloning: tiny agave plants grow on the roots, genetic duplicates of the mother plant. In the wild, agaves, like most plants, also send up a flower with pollen that’s shared among others of its kind. On blue agave farms, however, the plants are harvested before they send up a flower; this practice ensures that only blue agaves will be spawned (via clones) and that all the sugar energy remains in the plant’s heart. More plant sugar means more alcohol, so agaves raised for tequila usually are not allowed to flower. Consequently, there’s no chance for genetic diversity among the blue agaves and no food for bats.
Agave flowers sometimes grow twenty or more feet off the ground, high up in the air, where they’re most likely to attract bats. For millennia, bats have visited blooming agave plants by night, carrying pollens to other agave plants. This is good for the future of agave because a population of clones could be wiped out by a destructive pest, just as invasive pathogens wiped out European vineyards and Irish potato fields in the mid-nineteenth century. The same thing could happen to blue agaves, and with no blue agave, there would be no tequila.
The agave is a marvelous plant. The ancient peoples of Mexico used agave fibers to make paper, and even Cortez was amazed by the immense libraries of agave paper maintained by the Aztecs. Agave fibers also produced henequin, or sisal, a key export of the Yucatan peninsula. Merida, the Yucatecan capital, was once the richest city in Latin American, and it was all because of agave … and the diligent bats who kept them healthy.
Last week, Mark Omi showed me around some of the agave plants they have in the Oak Park Conservatory, many species of which I’d never seen before. If you’d like to see what a blooming agave looks like, one is still on display at the Oak Park Conservatory.
So on Cinco de Mayo, as you enjoy a margarita, perhaps at Maya del Sol (which has devoted a whole section of the menu to the cocktail) or Margaritas Oak Park, think on the bat. Be grateful. The bats’ search for something good to drink helps you to find something good to drink.