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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: Mexico

The Tequila:  Sieta LeguasReposado

The Book:  Under the VolcanoMalcolm Lowry

I started reading Under the Volcano while in Mexico, finished it back in Canada. A parallel to Lowry’s writing of the book: started in Mexico, completed in Canada. The clever tequila also spanned both countries.



It is light in the glass, straw with a tinge of green, having spent 8 months in white oak. It’s noteworthy from the start, on the nose the woody agave in fine balance with the vanilla and citrus. On the palate, add a dash of pepper and spice. Complex and flavourful. Very well made. (38% abv)

Siete Leguas‘s founder Don Ignacio Gonzalez Vargas named his distillery after the horse belonging to Pancho Villa, the Mexican Revolutionary general. Siete leguas/seven leagues (34km/21mi) was said to be the distance the horse galloped at a single stretch during one of Villa’s military conquests. (Well into Under the Volcano, a horse appears, with the number seven branded on its hindquarter…)

Siete Leguas has been based in Atotonilco el Alto, in the Highlands of Jalisco, Mexico, since it first went into production in 1952, bringing together two distilleries Vargas had started in the 1940s. It remains family-owned and still uses traditional methods in the making of its tequila. The spirit is comprised of 100% blue Weber agave, grown in the estate’s red volcanic soil.

Siete Leguas Tahona

Once the leaves are stripped, the piñas are examined and those approved for production are split, before being slow-cooked in masonry ovens. Some are then ground in the time-honoured way, using mules to drive a volcanic stone wheel, while others are crushed using modern sugar cane shredders. With the “aguameil” extracted, the two liquids are blended (the proportions remain a secret) then fermented and finally distilled in copper pot stills. Siete Leguas is among the oldest tequila producers in Mexico, and it continues to be one of the most celebrated.


Under the Volcano was published in 1947, just as Don Ignacio Gonzalez Vargas was establishing himself in the business of making tequila. Not that the book is much of an advert for the spirit, given the central character, Geoffrey Firmin, ex-British consul in Quauhnahuac, Mexico, is constantly drunk on tequila or mescal. In fact, as a revelation of the effects of alcohol on the human condition, there are few novels to rival it.


The book could only have been written by Lowry, a man who through much of his life struggled with the demon drink. His upbringing, on the surface at least, would seem innocuous enough — born in England to a well-to-do cotton broker, prize-willing athlete, student at Cambridge, a young man not wanting for money or opportunity. His mother, however, had little time for him, something which tormented him all his life, and while at college his homosexual roommate committed suicide, after his advances were rejected by Lowry. His drinking escalated.

He travelled widely and took up writing. While still in his 20s he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital in New York City, following a particularly bad bout with alcohol. His dual obsessions – writing and drink – shaped his life, finding crucial expression when he took up residence in Mexico, arriving there on 2nd of November, 1936, the so called “Day of the Dead.” He chose that same holiday in 1938 as the timeline for his narrative when he set to work on Under the Volcano.

a001-malcolm-lowry-bwThe novel would consume the better part of ten years, most of it lived (after his deportation from Mexico) in a beach shack north of Vancouver. The novel, when it was finally published, following numerous rejections, met with critical acclaim, though it was out-of-print at the time of his death ten years later. Lowry’s reputation revitalized in the decades that followed, and now Under the Volcano is considered one of the outstanding novels of the 20th century.

Although he lived in Mexico for a relatively short period of his life, Lowry was obviously deeply influenced by the country. It stirred his writing talents in the way no other country of the many he visited had been able to do. As an evocation of Mexico alone, the novel is entirely memorable. Yet, it stands out on so many other levels, rising out of the Consul’s stupor to deal with the classical tragedy of failed life and love, condensed over twelve hours. The Consul’s fate is set from the beginning and only a writer of Lowry’s brilliance could make us want to experience it all.

Set, as it is, with the Second World War looming, Under the Volcano takes on ominous dimensions. Lowry himself called it “a prophecy, a political warning, a cryptogram, a preposterous movie, and a writing on the wall.” Complex, constantly symbolic, almost impenetrable at times, clearly heartrending at others, it begs to be reread. Fortunately, there is a considerable amount of tequila left in the bottle.


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The Tequila:  Gran CentenarioAñejo

The Books:  Down the Rabbit Hole and Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I’m in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There seem to be angels everywhere, including in a shop devoted to painted angel wings. The tequila’s label celebrates the “Angel of Independence” and in this part of the country the history of the struggle for Mexican Independence is all around me. It’s a good place to be reading a Mexican writer with a spirit of rebellion.



Bright amber in the glass. On the nose, spice overlaying sweet agave. On the taste buds, smooth yet eager to display notes of caramel and cinnamon, oak and agave. Very satisfying. (38% abv)


In 1895 tavern owner Lazaro Gallardo started selling tequila to customers, calling it Gran Centenario, in celebration of the upcoming turn into a new century. (He is also said to have called on an angel to keep a close eye on his agave plants.) By 1920 his son Luciano began marketing the tequila in an Art Deco-inspired bottle similar to the one used today.

The basis of the añejo is 10-12-year-old Highland Blue Agave, estate-grown in the high altitude, iron-rich soil of Hacienda Los Camichines, Jalisco. The agave is roasted for 72 hours (longer than is common for most tequila production), then aged in French Limousine oak for three years. Gran Centenario uses something it calls Suave Selección, the blending of different barrel batches, the sum making a premium tequila.

Gran Centenario also markets a plata (aged for 28 days) and a reposado (aged 10 months). It is still thought of as carrying on a long-standing family tradition of tequila-making, although it is now one of several spirit brands in the portfolio of the U.S-based Proximo Spirits, owned by the Beckmann family of Mexico.


200px-Juan_villalobos_2012Juan Paulo Villalobos grew up in Mexico, but has lived for many years in Barcelona. It would seem he cannot escape the deep impression the country of his youth made on him. Not that we would expect him to, given the perplexities of Mexican society.

These are two short, exceptional books. Down the Rabbit Hole, Villalobos’s first novel (here expertly translated by Rosalind Harvey), is narrated by a ten-year-old boy, Tochtli. He’s the son of a drug lord, Yolcaut (a.k.a. The King), and except for a brief foray abroad, the story takes place inside his isolated, palatial fortress. The voice is not what one might expect of Latin American literature, and the novel is far from typical Mexican crime fiction, so-called narco-literature.

Tochtli is no ordinary lad. He has no friends his age. He spends his time, when he’s not being tutored, playing video games, organizing his vast hat collection, watching samurai movies, craving the addition of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus to the palace’s collection of exotic creatures, and studying the dictionary. His precocious vocabulary animates the narrative to something both amusing and unsettling.

“Today I’m devastatingly desperately bored. I’m bored because I don’t leave the palace and because every day is the same.” …”Yolcaut hasn’t been out of the walls either. He spends his time talking on the phone giving orders. Miztli says it’s fucking chaos outside.”

“Devastating” is a favourite word. So are “sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic.” Sometimes misused, often intensified with expletives, they echo Tochtli’s routine existence, surrounded by stockpiles of guns and money,  where the talk is of beheadings and disposal of corpses.

“Pathetic” as it is, the boy makes a life for himself. To Tochtli it’s normal; to the reader it’s the writer’s deft sardonic exposé of the Mexican underworld. Villalobos maintains the warped perspective, without the reader ever once doubting Tochtli is still a kid. We smile and ache for him, and wish there was a way for him out of these “sordid” surroundings.


Quesadillas, Villalobos’s second novel, is as off-beat as the first. It too has a boy narrator, 13-year-old Orestes, one of seven children named by their teacher father after classical Greeks. Orestes (Oreo for short) is second in line to his nemesis Aristotle. The twins, Castor and Pollux, bring up the rear. All seven are in severe competitions for food (i.e. quesadillas) in a dirt-poor family living in a dilapidated shoebox of a house, in a town where “there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints, and so forth.”

It is a bizarre rendition of 1980s Mexico, but again it is Villalobos jabbing his pen at Mexican social order, and at the magic realism mode of Latin American literature, while entertaining and unnerving the reader. When Castor and Pollux disappear in a supermarket, the family is thrown into a frenzy, although there is some consolation to be had in the fact that the quesadillas don’t have to stretch quite so far. And when a well-to-do Polish family shows up in the neighbourhood, with a lifestyle in disheartening contrast to what he knows, Orestes strikes out on his own and straight into a series of bizarre escapades. Eventually the path leads him back home and to more oddity in the form of work in the vividly-depicted business of bovine artificial insemination.

The narrative is wacky and outrageous, engaging in itself, but it’s also a front to mock the corruption long rooted in Mexican politics. With Quesadillas (again adeptly translated by Rosalind Harvey) Juan Paulo Villalobos once more steps out of the mainstream of Mexican literature with a novel that’s at once impressive and provocative.

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The Tequila:  Don AgustínAñejo

The Books:  Pedro Páramo and The Plain in Flames by Juan Rulfo

If the drink in one hand was distilled in the state of Jalisco in Mexico (as almost all the best tequilas are), then it only makes sense that the book in the other hand was written by Jalisco’s best writer ever. (Some would argue Mexico’s best writer, ever.)


Pale gold in the glass, from where its aromas arise — spicy, oak-tinted, honey. Toasted warm on the palate, with a creamy, balanced mix of spice. Lovely on its own, or with a thin wedge of lime. (40% abv)

Don Agustín añejo is made from premium blue agave grown in the eastern Los Altos (The Highlands) region of Jalisco. Here, at elevations nearing 2,500 metres, there is less rain and cooler temperatures, allowing the plants to mature more slowly and resulting in more intense flavours. Harvesting is done by experienced “jimadores” who extract the weighty, rounded core of the plant, the piña, using a special circular blade on a long pole. The piñas are split and slow roasted in wood and clay ovens for several days, using a traditional steam method, then shredded and the juice extracted. Diverted to vats, the juice ferments over several days, before ending up in stainless steel pot stills where a double distillation takes place. It is the middle distillate, the corazon, that makes up the body of the tequila. Don Agustín is aged in American white oak barrels for 12 months. It is estate bottled at the distillery in Arandas, the town co-founded by the Camarena family 250 years ago.

The distillery itself dates from 1938, the vision of Don Augustín Camarena (that’s his picture on the bottle). It has grown to the fourth largest in Mexico, with over one thousand hectares and three million agave plants under cultivation. Don Augustín is its limited, reserved line of tequila.


First published in Mexico in 1955, Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo is considered one of the greatest works of Latin American literature. It proved to be a profound influence on major writers who followed, including Gabriel García Márquez. The book is set in the Mexican village of Comala, to which Juan Preciado arrives, having made a promise to his dying mother that he would search out his father whom he has not known since he was a young child. In the mother’s words, “Make him pay, son, for all those years he put us out of his mind.” His father is Pedro Páramo, but Comala, where he lived, is literally a ghost town.

The people who walk the streets and inhabit the houses have been long dead, though they remain as real as if they still breathed the stifling hot air. Their worlds circle around Pedro Páramo, the chief land owner and, by all accounts, a tyrant. Their voices swirl over the memorizing landscape, and on occasion we are not sure who they belong to, creating a novel of fragments that come together loosely, hauntingly, an ephemeral mélange of history and violence that formed the fabric of rural Mexico.

Pedro Páramo is unlike any Latin American novel that came before it, although at the time of its publication it made barely a ripple in literary circles. In subsequent years the novel was rediscovered and has come to be much revered. In the thirty years of his life that followed its appearance, Rulfo would not publish another work of fiction. He had said all he wanted to say in two short books.

A collection of short stories, The Plain in Flames, had been published two years earlier.

This book is even more remarkable. There are some stories among them that will stay with a reader a lifetime.

Set in rural Jalisco in the 1930s and 40s, these are stories of peasants scarred by government neglect, by poverty and violence, fighting to retain their dignity against the realities of post-revolutionary Mexico. Many are close to monologues, confessionals by characters whose Catholic religion has betrayed them, who struggle against bitterness to find meaning in their lives.

One might expect such stories to be rife with anger, mired in grim description. Rulfo was too skilled a writer to take that route. His stories are relatively short, his language distilled to something at once genuine and deeply layered, without being stylized or self-important.

In “It’s Because We ‘re So Poor,” while a flood rages, a young boy sits with his sister who has just seen her cow washed away, a present from father, something he had hoped would attract a husband and prevent her from becoming a prostitute like her sisters. In “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” a father carries overland on his back his injured son, in an attempt to reach a doctor, all the while trying to find reasons why his son has turned against his family and allowed himself to be lured into crime. Summaries do no justice to The Plain in Flames, to the nuance and astuteness in their telling. Rulfo died in 1986. His short stories stand with the best in any language.

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