If we find ourselves drinking tequila in the future, there will be one guy to thank for it: the Batman of Mexico, a real-life superhero who is both saving the spirit—and a tiny winged creature too.
Tequila is experiencing a boom right now. Last year alone, growth rocketed up 5 percent, which is great because it means more bartenders are experimenting with the Mexican spirit and more brands are producing innovative, high-quality offerings. But this stratospheric industry growth comes at a cost, and involves factory farming, monoculture and a tiny, endangered desert bat.
Sugar, Decay & Agave
Tristeza y Muerte de Agave, also known as TMA or “the wilting and death of agave,” is the poetic catch-all term for the bacterial and fungal cataclysm that the tequila industry has been battling for over a decade.
The entire issue is somewhat complicated, but here’s the short version:
Agave plants flower just once—shortly before dying—and it’s right before they blossom that the plants have their highest levels of stored sugar (energy). That sweet, sweet sugar is a big part of what farmers are after, because it is what gets fermented into the tequila.
This is a problem for our little desert bat friend, the Leptonycteris nivalis, because it is a nectarivore, and gets most of its nutrition from the nectar of agave flowers. But when the farmers harvest the agave before it flowers, there’s nothing left for the little winged creatures to eat.
Let’s Get Asexual, Baby
This is a problem because, like bees, bats have a symbiotic relationship with their food source, and they cross-pollinate as they flit from plant to plant. By removing the bat from the equation and relying on asexual reproduction instead—agaves can produce clone stalks, or hijuelos, that can carry on the line—genetic diversity is lost in the fields. In 2007, estimates placed roughly 95 percent of the 200 million blue agaves under cultivation as the product of such reproduction.
The loss of genetic diversity, of course, is a central issue in monoculture farming, because it opens up the entire crop to potential devastation by a single factor. In the 90s, tequila farmers experienced this devastation in the form of Tristeza y Muerte de Agave. As the genetic diversity continues to shrink, farmers are forced to protect the agave from TMA with ever-higher use of pesticides and herbicides.
A Hero Emerges
Dr. Rodrigo Medellín, or the “Mexican Bat Man,” as he’s become known, has no tragic superhero origin story. Instead, his story is the fulfillment of a lifelong avian obsession: his first word was “flamingo” and he was known to feed his own blood to pet vampire bats as a child. He’s a committed guy.
In addition to his strictly scientific work, Medellín has become the public face of bat conservation in Mexico and abroad; he’s even the subject of a BBC documentary, narrated by none other than Sir David Attenborough.
To Medellín, the fight to protect the long-nosed bat, ensure the safety of the larger eco-system and maintain the viability of the agave industry are simply different aspects of the same battle.
The Tequila Interchange Project is in alignment with these practices. The TIP is a non-profit organziation working for “sustainability, preservation of tradition and quality, and just labor practices in the agave distilled spirits world.”
Working with Dr. Medellín, the TIP is developing a “bat-friendly” certification and labeling system for distillers willing to let two percent of their plants flower and die, thus providing nectar for the bats and promoting genetic diversity in the agave.
Until that certification process is complete, look for certified-organic tequila brands such as Casa Noble or sustainable mezcal brands such as Del Maguey. In fact, the Bat Man himself suggests expanding your horizons to include more Mezcal since it is “naturally set up to be bat-friendly” since it is often harvested in non-monoculture environments.
A lot to take in? Let it digest while enjoying a palate-cleansing pairing of the Oaxaca Old Fashioned—which features both tequila and the smokier mezcal—with this adorable and slightly creepy video of a baby bat eating a grape.
And if you’re toasting? Make it to Dr. Medellín, Bat Man.