Thick in the Middle and the Chapel Knife
A cantina and a hushed Tulum twilight. The bartender doesn’t smile, but he brings me heavy pours of mezcal with orange slices dusted in maguey worm chili salt. So I like him more so than if he smiled. A far off stereo plays gypsy jazz. Wooden tables and wooden chairs. A full moon night approaching and still the shirt sticks to my skin, still the salt and sweat stain my eyes…still the stillness asks so little but to yield to a breeze off the ocean, through the trees to the dirt road where I stand holding a bottle. A bottle of peculiar anjeo mezcal they let me buy from the bar. One in the morning, a taco cart, ice cold coca-cola and tiny plastic stools…across the street from a gated concrete church…makes me think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Eating tacos of lengua and frijoles con queso as I stare drunkenly up at the cross framed by a few nomadic clouds and backlit by that same damn moon…thinking, I’m not catholic, but I could live here all the same. I could live in the history and the stories of the small towns I’ve walked through.
Stories are always thick in the middle, often leaner in their beginnings and endings. That thickness, the hefty mid-section, is all colour, accent, ominous portent, trap door drama and straight out smiling teeth lying. That is storytelling as far as I can tell. Carrying someone willfully or kicking cursing reluctantly from the first page to the end…using any damn trick and foul treachery you can to keep them heading toward the final words. Our head full of fantasy and a longing quickened breath of dreams. Feet waiting on a journey, a path…blood hurried and breathless running…staggered in the dawn…an end. With all that thickness in between, from tippy toes to hair singed by a down south sun.
As a bartender, I like to tell stories, not often but with a rarity inspired by my interests. I like to trade them with regulars and travellers alike. The stories that I like to tell the most are narratives constructed for the purpose of putting the right cocktail in front of them. The beginning of the story, with you sitting down at the bar, hints at the cocktail to come by name and maybe ingredients. The tale of it all is told after that first sip, sketching out the origin and inception of the cocktail…tying it all together with a narrative of dubious history, but colourful and charming nonetheless. The ending…the ending is always an empty glass.
The devil is in the details. What often draws the line between a good cocktail and a great cocktail is the attention to those details. You gotta respect the devil if you don’t want to serve that fallen angel bastard. Its in the details that you can produce a complex cocktail like the Batanga, by respecting the tradition and ritual involved in Don Javier Delgado Corona’s recipe. The cocktail is named in reverence after a regular, who was thick in the middle…he was ‘batanga.’ The old man, Don Javier, is ninety-three more or less. He has been owner and operator of La Capilla (The Chapel) in Tequila, Mexico since the 1950’s. As a devout Catholic he refuses to hang a sign naming it La Capilla, but the name is a carry over from before he called it his. Respect your god, but respect tradition as well.
He has spent most of his life behind that bar, and most of his life has been spent passing a Batanga over the stick. Salted rim on a tall glass, ice, blanco tequila, squeeze of lime and cane sugar coca-cola…stirred with an old wooden handled knife that is used to cut ingredients for salsa and guacamole served at the bar. The ‘cuchillo’ (knife) is seasoned, its the whole damn secret of a complex and yet staggeringly simple drink. We as Pourhouse bartenders are not spending our days prepping salsa for the bar…a shame in my opinion, but unfortunately I’m not drifting through my later years in a true blue every spaghetti western cantina…not yet anyway. So we prep a vegetal cordial consisting of lime juice, lime zest, jalapeño, habanero, tomato and avocado to replicate the effect of a well seasoned ‘cuchillo’. This will be added to the tequila and then topped off with Boylan Cane Cola.
(photo by Christopher Flett)
I hope one day to travel to Tequila in Jalisco and to meet Don Javier, who has been written of and hailed as a standard for what service can and in many cases should mean. Service in his words, “Smile when someone walks in. Greet them. Ask them where they want to sit, and get them a cool drink in a clean glass.” A few weeks ago we had some people at the Pourhouse bar who had been to La Capilla and had met Don Javier. They say he sits in the corner, wrapped in a blanket as his family helps tend to the bar. La Capilla has been listed as one of the greatest bars in the world, finishing well within the top twenty of many lists, take that for what its worth to you. Any ninety year old man still working a bar after nearly seventy years, even if that means greeting you through the door, deserves some recognition…and hopefully our representation of his cocktail can be worthy of honouring Don Javier, his knife and the chapel.
-Derek Sterling Boone
(photo by Jessilyn Laurel)
Maldon Salted rim
2 oz. Blanco Tequila
3/4 oz. Vegetal Cordial
Topped with Boylan Cane Cola
Built and stirred