“If I were to make an organizational chart of the most important mammals in the world, I would put bats at the very top,” said naturalist Rodrigo Orozco.
“Every night nectar-eating bats do the same kind of pollination work that bees do by day. At the same time, fruit-eating bats spread seeds far and wide, creating biodiversity, while insect-eating bats prevent bugs from multiplying out of control. Without bats, the human race wouldn’t stand a chance.”
We were sitting at a table in the town of El Arenal, sipping Siembra Valles Ancestral at the Cascahuín Distillery, one of Mexico’s oldest tequilerías and one of the few still producing Mexico’s favorite spirit “the good old way.”
Salvador “Chava” Rosales, Cascahuín’s production manager, was telling us about TIP, the Tequila Interchange Project, a pilot program organized among the owners of Tequila Tapatío, Casa Siete Leguas and Cascahuín.
“This project asks tequila and mezcal producers to let five percent of every hectare of their agaves flower, so bats can pollinate them, benefiting both bats and business,” Rosales explained. “The way we reproduce agaves now – by replanting ‘clones’ – has drastically reduced the genetic diversity of our plants.”
TIP has begun by releasing two bat-friendly tequilas in the United States: Siembra Valles Ancestral and Tequila Ocho, along with a mescal, Don Mateo de la Sierra. And several other distilleries are lining up to get on the bandwagon, according to Rosales.
The project originated with restaurateur and tequila promoter David Suro and Rodrigo Medellín, who is also known as the Bat Man of Mexico.
From his office at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, Medellín told me that the bat-friendly tequila project got started 23 years ago.
“In 1994, I tried to explain to the Tequila Regulatory Council that they owed their very significant profits to this little creature that flies at night and that by using nothing but clonal shoots to replant their fields, they were losing a big chunk of their genetic diversity. They said, ‘Oh, what a nice project, thanks for coming to see us, but don’t call us, we’ll call you.’”
Medellín continued: “They never did. Then, ten years later I went back again, with a paper that a friend of mine had just published showing that over 160 million agaves were clones of just two individuals. So, basically, the genetic diversity was zero. Then I told them you are playing with fire here. All it takes is one of your plants to be diseased and then all of your plants – because they are exact copies of each other – are going to be diseased. You cannot afford to run that risk. You have to start investing in feeding the bats a little, so they can continue exchanging genetic material from one plant to another.”
Once again, the Tequila Council thanked Medellín for his trouble and told him they would think “seriously” abut his proposal and let him know.
“They never did,” Medellín said.
“About five or six years later, the disease I had hypothesized actually showed up. They then said, ‘What? What was that story about the bats and the flowers and genetics? What was that again?’”
To the Bat Man’s delight, some members of the tequila industry began to listen to him and offered to invest heavily in his plan. “Now all I needed was a leg-in to the market,” Medellín told me.
That’s when he met Suro, who informed Medellín that he had been looking for such a partner his entire life and that they needed to start working together immediately.
As a result, the Tequila Interchange Project launched 300,000 bottles of bat-friendly tequila in November 2016, each of them displaying a hologram issued by UNAM.
“We now have bars in San Antonio, New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and many other places, even Arkansas, whose menus now list bat-friendly tequilas and mezcales,” Medellín said. “If you order from this page, one dollar from each drink is going to the project.”
Even if you live far from an Arkansas bar, you can help the Tequila Interchange Project in various ways, Medellín said.
- Read up on bats, pollen and bat-friendly tequila and mezcal (for example, Google “Who cares about Mexican Bats?”).
- Talk to your liquor-store owner and your bartender. Tell them about this fantastic story.
- Consider donating through the TIP website (tequilainterchangeproject.org). “Everything donated goes straight to the field,” said Medellín. Just click on the orange “Donate” button.
You will find the latest updates about TIP on their Facebook page, “Tequila Interchange Project.” There is also an excellent BBC mini-documentary on bat-friendly tequila at bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0521tdr.