Herradura recently took a group of bartenders to visit their distillery in Mexico, luckily they had room in their baggage for a flatpack journalist so BarLifeUK went along.
Mexico is an amazing country, big sprawling cities full of beautiful old buildings which tell untold stories of a fascinating and often turbulent history, are surrounded by stunning landscapes stretching to mountains in the distance. However, every time we visit our overriding memories revolve around the people, welcoming and smiling, and as colourful as the buildings in the tranquil town of Tequila.
It is no surprise then that the country, and the people, produce spirits with such variety, flavour and history. It is, and should always be, a place that is atop the bucket list of bartenders around the world. On our trip there were many bartenders making their first visit, and watching their wide eyed amazement during the three days was a treat in itself.
Not even the flight from London to Guadalajara was enough to dampen the sprits of the group. A 20 hour slog, including a change of planes in the US, resulted in us getting to our hotel at around 10pm. Any tiredness and numb buttocks were quickly forgotten as we dumped our bags and crossed the road for our first taste of local food, beer and what was quickly to become our drink of choice for the trip, Herradura Blanco Blanco.
Currently not available in the UK, Herradura Blanco Blanco (not sure if that is what it is officially called but it seemed to be the name our group used) is different from the Plata expression available in the UK. For starters it is 46% ABV (as opposed to the Plata’s 40%) and is also taken straight from the still without seeing any wood before bottling (Plata gets 45 days), giving it a true agave flavour.
Often on these trips the drink you swear by and believe you can never live without, turns out to be average at best when you get it home. A bit like that holiday romance you realise in the cold wind of an English summer night was not only not that pretty but slightly racist. We brought back a bottle of Blanco and can tell you it is just as delicious on home soil.
The first morning started slowly. In our industry there are a few names that jump out when you are looking through your itinerary pre-trip for various reasons, top of the ‘Ohhh My Poor Liver’ list is Lyndon Higginson. Having a quiet night with Lyndon is as rare as quick service at Nightjar.
Sure enough the meet time came and passed, as people started to appear bleary eyed from the lift, blinking and confused like new born deer, we began to get a better picture of how the night had unfolded. Later in the day we were going to see some beautiful artwork, this picture wasn’t so pretty.
After a few room knocks from our Herradura hosts (and semi-professional cat herders) Nicci Stringfellow, Stuart Fritz, Andy Balsillie and Nick Gillett, Lyndon appeared looking annoyingly human. We were still a man down however and a few minutes later when he did emerge we witnessed a brand trip first.
Pete Skelton from Manchester’s El Capo walked out of the lift wearing his coat (it was about 32 degrees) with packed bag in tow. He proceeded to head to the hotel desk and check out before realising it was only the first morning and he had in fact only been in Mexico for 12 hours. Strong work Pete.
After a big night there is nothing like a historic walking tour of a city in roasting sunshine, but with the help of approximately 327 bottle of water it ended up being a fantastic few hours and soon the hangovers were forgotten as the story of Guadalajara unfolded.
As our host, with the superbly Mexican name Luis Enrique Carrillo, showed us around, we got a real understanding of the history of the city. For anyone with an iota of understanding of Mexico it will come as no surprise that there has been a lot of conflict on the streets, best illustrated by the giant bullet hole in a clock on the Government Palace, allegedly made by famous revolutionary Pancho Villa.
However, inside the palace we saw that amongst all the conflict there is a lot of amazing art and culture. Outside we had seen vast churches (complete with bell ringing, just for those who were beginning to forget about the night before), ornate fountains and even some nude statues but nothing prepared us for what lay inside such a formal building.
Jose Clemente Orozco was a famous Mexican muralist born in 1883 who painted many works of art across the world. The Lucha Social (Social Struggle) is a vast mural across the ceiling and two walls of the main staircase in the palace. It is quiet simply the most amazing piece of painting I have ever seen.
It isn’t a cheery subject, showing as it does the struggles of not only his beloved Mexico but of the world, with major leaders and beliefs depicted, and cleverly mocked. Not only was it ahead of its time seemingly predicting the rise of the Nazi’s at least a year before they took hold, but he did the whole thing with one hand, in a year, after an accident left him needing an amputation.
As we took it all in it was probably the only time in the entire trip that the group were completely silent. I am far from an art buff, I’d rather spend a night spooning a sweaty gibbon than a day in the Louvre, but for a moment I actually understood what all the fuss is about, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
All that culture doesn’t half give you an appetite and there are few better countries to be in if you want good, hearty, healthy, quick food. Chefs are tipping Mexican food to be the next big thing across the world (think more top end than your standard crap taco huts that currently dominate) and we can only hope they are right.
Our first lunch saw us quenching our thirst with both tamarind and hibiscus frozen margaritas (if you haven’t tried them before, get involved) before pots of molten cheese and various other dishes crowded the table. It was a good start to proceedings and, in true Sesame Street fashion, was brought to you by Tinder and the letters D, T and F.
Food unsurprisingly became a major focus point for our trip and we had some great meals in some fabulous locations (as well as no food in an extraordinary location). Having breakfast and lunch in the grounds of the stunning Herradura distillery was a real highlight. Plates piled high and served alongside arguably the best RTD in the world (take that Smirnoff Ice). The el Jimador New Mix Paloma in a can was a huge hit with our group and if Alex Proudfoot has anything to do with it you’ll be seeing it in the UK very soon.
However, our favourite meal of the trip came, as is often the case with these trips, in a totally unplanned fashion. Our original stop for lunch on day two was a little way outside of Tequila Town in another distillery. The restaurant was an underground cavern, think Hogwarts meets Alien, which was a pretty impressive setting.
The only issue was that there was also a school trip in attendance (we love a country where they take a school trip to a distillery), and they were very excited to be there. Sitting opposite Manchester bar owner extraordinaire Ross Mackenzie we were convinced there was an indoor barbecue behind him until we realised the steam was emanating from his ears.
Within 10 minutes we were back on the bus and our driver was heading to his favourite roadside taco stand. A menu with pictures to point at, a hugely smiling owner (I’m sure that was down to our stunning personalities not the giant order we placed) and ice cold beers was a good sign. The food, along with a Russian Roulette selection of spicy accompaniments, was superb.
Of course following the Russian Roulette there had to be a loser. It was never going to be Selina Raggett, who as well as being the only one to truly earn her way on the trip by winning last year’s Herradura Cocktail Comp was our group translator which was both useful and dangerous, especially to the guys needing help with their Mexican Tinder translations. However, Lyndon was not so lucky, announcing before a trip to the bathroom, ‘If you hear a scream and a whistle leave me be’.
Bars, Batangas and Beers
We have been to Tequila Town three times and each time we have hoped that La Capilla was open. It never had been. Until now.
For those unfamiliar with La Capilla I will leave it to Jake Burger, who’s words are immortalised in the bar on a big banner celebrating their inclusion in the World’s 50 Best Bars, to explain it:
“Anyone who has ever spent a million pounds on a bar should come here to see why they wasted their money. Don Javier’s bar is as perfect as you ever dreamt it would be. A night here is a humbling experience indeed.”
Don Javier has been in charge of the bar since the 50’s and has created his own legacy through his drink the Batanga (tequila, lime and coke with a salt rim, over ice all stirred with a giant knife) so we were all full of excitement as we entered.
It isn’t the biggest bar in the world and the one big table was taken by a group of locals, however that was no problem for the friendliest staff you could wish to meet. In one corner sat an old man on a plastic chair, the staff picked up the chair complete with old man, and carried him shoulder high to another corner and before we knew it we had our own table set up.
It wasn’t until the Batangas were ordered that it dawned on us that the smiling old man who we had evicted from his favourite corner was none other than Don Javier himself. Now that is hospitality.
As we sat there with our Batangas in hand Jake’s words began to make even more sense. There was something special about the bar, you could sense the history, the stories, the never ending nights. There was a special atmosphere in the air that no amount of money can buy you.
Pictures of Henry Besant and Gregor De Gruyther looked down on us from behind the bar, approving of our choice and reminding us all to make the most of these opportunities our industry affords us. Bars like this can’t be designed or planned, they can only be appreciated and celebrated.
Itineraries wait for no man and soon we were back on the bus, all taking a moment to reflect on the experience. In Mexico, another experience is always just around the corner, and less than 20 minutes outside Tequila we were parked by the side of the main road getting a lesson in speed bartending from two grinning bartenders with lime prepping skills that would make Superman blush.
Before we could blink we each had a giant earthenware cup filled with a fruity tequila punch emblazoned with the bar’s moniker, Los Cantaros. It may not have been the tastiest drink we had on the trip but the setting and the bartending skill both ensured it deserved a mention.
Walking the streets of a foreign city is often the best way to find a hidden gem and later that night we found ourselves with Pete, Thomas Soden and Eoin Kenny, on a Lyndon-led wild goose chase to find a bar that either didn’t exist or wasn’t open. On our wanders we came across a gem.
Norma Metrallas was open, that was a good start. As we entered, it was empty, not so encouraging. As we sat at the bar and looked through the most impressive beer list of local delights we have ever seen in Mexico our bartender introduced himself.
Not only was he the bartender but the owner. The bar itself had only opened a week earlier and he was over the moon to have some international bartenders in town to check it out. Needless to say we had an amazing night and I thoroughly recommend anyone who heads to Guadalajara checks it out.
It doesn’t sound like we had much time in between the drinking and eating but luckily sleep was only optional on the itinerary. As such there were plenty of opportunities to experience more of the country.
The shopping trips were successful (or successfully punctuated with drinks), especially for Lyndon and his giant Virgin de Guadaloupe statue and Tom with his determination to look ‘full cowboy’ for the agave harvesting session.
There were of course the distillery visits. You will notice that we haven’t spoken much about the main reason for the trip, our tour of the Herradura distillery. We will be going into much more detail in an article appearing on the site soon but just to whet your whistle let me say this:
The setting of the Herradura distillery was truly spectacular, I have hundreds of photos none of which do it justice. Our guide, in the form of Ruben Aceves Vidrio, gave the most open and honest tour we have ever experienced. To top it all off we were able to sample from every stage of the production and were followed by a donkey carrying two barrels of tequila!
Keep an eye out for the write up of the distillery and the selecting of the first ever personalised barrel of Herradura tequila for the UK. Coming soon.
In an unusual move for a brand distillery trip we were also taken to two ‘competitor brands’ in the form of the Cuervo and Sauza distilleries. We won’t go into great detail here but it was fascinating to see the different production processes that brands producing what is essentially the same product have. At no point was there any talk about which process or style was better, we were simply given all the information and allowed to make up our own minds.
On the last night we had a real treat. Anyone who grew up watching WWE (or WWF if you are old enough) will know all about the history of wrestling in Mexico. The outrageous outfits, the masks, the highflying take downs are all on show every week in Guadalajara. However, if you are also old enough to have watched Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks on British TV then you will have a better understanding of the scale of the venue.
The throng of people outside suggested a giant venue awaited us, but it seems that singing, dancing and chatting up the opposite sex outside the venue is as important as getting in to watch the wrestling. Once inside there is a real feeling of the class division you see in Mexico, it is something that can make people from countries that either don’t suffer as badly or hide it better feel uncomfortable. But after 10 minutes in the venue any such feelings had vanished.
The ‘cheap’ seats were in the balconies, of what was basically a big school sports hall, behind chicken wire. The ‘posh’ seats were on ground level around the ring. Throughout the evening the good natured banter between the groups was as entertaining and hard fought as the wrestling in the ring. Due to our lack of understanding of the local tongue we weren’t entirely sure what was being said but Selina helped out and, amongst others, a favourite exchange seemed to be (edited) – ‘Your mother enjoys making money for performing sexual acts.’, ‘Well you would know you not very nice person’.
In the ring the outfits were enough to make Elton John jealous (although the masks our group had purchased were pretty epic) and the camp level seemed to rise the closer we got to the end, it got to the point we were convinced the last match was going to be between Alan Carr and Julian Clarey.
We were sat next to Liverpool’s Jack Riley and coming up with nicknames for the fighters was one of the most entertaining pastimes we have partaken in for a long time. Favourites including Camp Nazi Vampire Eyeliner and Captain Manboobs, who it turned out was famous wrestler Shocker. The chants and venom coming from the row behind told us who the heroes and villains were but we were basing our decision entirely on comedy attire, not always making us popular with the locals.
It was the perfect way to end an absolutely fantastic trip. It may seem logical that it’s difficult to mess up a trip in a country as captivating as Mexico but in actual fact the opposite is true. To do the country proud and allow the group to appreciate all that it has to offer in a short period of time is a hard task but one that Herradura excelled in.
So a huge thanks to the whole Herradura, Mangrove and Brown-Forman teams for inviting us and organising such a ragtag bunch. To all the Pugs On Prozac we salute you and muffed every minute of the trip. Mexico? Well my dear friend I’m sweating with anticipation to see you once again.