Sunday, November 24, 2013

The day I stumbled across an illegal trago distillery

It's not everyday you stumble across an illegal distillery. Rarer still to be given a tour and a tasting.

I was in the remote sub-Tropical region close to Facunda Vela. A man had fallen from a horse and we went to offer assistance. He had cracked his spine, but was going to recover if he laid still in bed for a few months (which he was never going to do). But my thoughts soon turned elsewhere; something was tickling my nostrils – the unmistakable smell of alcohol.

We had unwittingly arrived at an illegal sugar cane spirit distillery. The super-strength liquor is known as trago; the same poison I'd been force-fed at La Fiesta de laVirgen de Merced.

We were deep in the jungle. There were no roads (only rocky tracks), no electricity, no shops, no running water. This was the heart of darkness.

So I started sniffing around the distillery fully expecting to hear a "nada que ver aqui, rayo de sol." But no, bizarrely, the owner happily gave us a tour of operations. He even demonstrated the dark art of trago making.

First up the raw sugar cane is sliced in half down the middle. It was fed into a very agricultural looking press, powered by an old generator and saggy belt-drive. I was amazed at how much juice this sticky plant contained, it poured out and we had soon filled a bucket.

The raw sugar cane juice is an unappetising grey/brown colour. I was given a mug to drink. Tasting notes, it was very sweet, but muddy and unpleasant with a faint note of red diesel.

The next part of the process was no less appealing. Fermentation took place in a large pig trough. The flies were thick in the air and the sugar cane bubbled and popped volcanically. The entire mixture looked just like raw sewage. Oranges floated in the mix; although I'm not sure how they were supposed to impart any flavour.

Next I was shown the distillation machine. This looked even more agricultural than the press. They weren't distilling any trago that day so I didn't get to see it working.

With the tour over it was time to taste the trago. I was poured a very generous measure into a filthy cup. Thoughts of blindness and liver failure briefly crossed my mind but only fleetingly, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I knocked back what must have been a quadruple measure by British standards (or what my Welsh friend Alex used to call 'quads' (but then he also pronounced toast as tost so I'm not sure what to believe anymore.))

The experience of neat trago goes something like this. First the tongue burns, then the throat burns, then the esophagus burns, then the stomach burns... and the stomach doesn't stop burning for at least two hours. The warmth of the spirit radiates like a coal furnace in the gut. Within minutes of quaffing the fire juice your heart is pounding and your head becomes pleasantly light. All of a sudden strange things start to make sense, like taking all your clothes off and chasing the wooly monkeys through the jungle with a sharpened stick.

Once I'd been found in the jungle and reunited with my clothes it was time for the final part of the production. The finished product is stored in large plastic barrels and sold to the nearby communities for one dollar a litre. It hardly seems possible alcohol this powerful can be sold so cheaply. The Indian community loves to celebrate with trago and it is seldom drunk responsibly. The culture is to drink until you pass out. Driving through the paramo (the Andean dessert above 3,400 metres) I've seen borrachos passed out by the roadside with their dogs waiting patiently beside them.

The Indian way to drink is very communal. I know because I had first hand experience in a monster session lasting from 9pm until 4:30am. The Indians drink from a single cup which is constantly refilled and passed around a circle. The person being offered the trago can refuse it and hand it back to the server who must down the glass. Of course, revenge is swift and the trickster can expect a double-measure in return.

Back at the distillery and a donkey was being loaded with two large plastic barrels filled to the brim with trago. My host was about to do the rounds like a twisted milkman. The donkey didn't look very happy, but then I suppose they never do.

I was feeling a bit light-headed and had a cramped, bumpy truck ride to the nearest village to contend with.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I can still see and I've not turned yellow.


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