“So what are you most excited about, Mom? The giant tortoises? The penguins? The Blue-footed Boobies?”
That last one always makes every one laugh—until you see a picture of the bird, in which case you’re trying to figure out how to slyly shove one of those cutey patooties into your suitcase to return home with.
“The distillery,” I answered truthfully.
I heard the distinct sound of a hand suctioning itself onto a forehead. It would be a familiar thump as well over the next couple of weeks, as we were nearing the end of Chloe’s “Countdown to the Galapagos” calendar—the trip of a lifetime my daughter had gifted me.
Weeks earlier she had surprised me on a Zoom call.
“I’ve checked with your work—all is thumbs up, and all the animals will be looked after. I’m taking you to the Galapagos Islands.”
“What?” I was stunned. “Why?”
“Firstly, you’re welcome. And secondly, as a thank you.”
I chose to ignore the firstly bit and moved on to the latter half of her explanation. “Thank you for what?”
“You know, the whole thanks for raising, clothing, caring, feeding bit, plus all the extra effort helping me get to where I am so that I could accomplish what I have.”
She was referring to her ever so awesome job and lifelong dream of sending shit up into space. “You are welcome. I knew those math flash cards were going to pay off one day.”
“I’m serious,” she said. “You were there with the support and encouragement and shoulder—”
“Don’t forget ice cream.”
“Yes, and ice cream too,” she added.
“Why the Galapagos?”
She smiled with glee through the screen. “Well, I may never be able to take you to Mars to study what we’re hoping to discover there—possibly some origin of life, so I’m taking you to where Charles Darwin first studied it on our little planet.”
Obviously, Chloe knew exactly how the poetic parallel would fill me with admiration, and it neatly explained why she had mailed me a beautiful copy of On the Origin of Species just a few days before phoning.
And so, every day for the next two weeks I received some version of the text ELEVEN MORE DAYS TILL GALAPAGOS, MOTHER!!! And I would send her back a picture of one of the animals I could not wait to lay eyes on.
This, of course, after researching whether any of the islands had some form of working distillery upon them, and after discovering one did, announcing that this was where we had to go first.
“We are leaving work behind, Madre—no computers, no spreadsheets, and no liquor apart from that which any charming South American bartender hands you in a glass, got it?”
“But this is not work, Chloe. This is learning. This is research. And as we are going to be spending hours wandering through the ample exhibition halls, gardens, library, and living labs of the Charles Darwin Research Station, we surely will wish to further our research on other aspects of the islands’ elements as well, right?”
“Discovering how some old geezer is distilling sugarcane will likely disappoint you. It’s not going to be like you’re in Scotland, and as you’re hunting through castles and stone circles you accidentally stumble upon some ancient, perfect, long silent but suddenly brought back to life prized distillery.”
I huffed. “I will not be disappointed, Chloe. Clearly, there is an artist waiting to be appreciated—and likely frustrated that Charles Darwin is constantly overshadowing his work. I aim to aid his need for recognition.”
“You aim to be poisoned, likely by a large dose of methanol, is my guess.”
But my sweet, generous, overly and uncomfortably educated child was wrong. Meeting Adriano Cabrera of El Trapiche was one of the most memorable moments ever. Maybe because having seen some of the world’s most impressive and flush-with-cash companies, with their shiny copper pots, their massive barrel-filled warehouses, and their gleaming tasting rooms, experiencing Adriano’s barebones setup was the refreshing, reaffirming chapter I needed to slip in to my ‘book of life.’ It brought back the this process is magic feeling that can sometimes be buried beneath all the new glamour whisky making tours now provide to consumers.
Not one of the countless distilleries I’ve visited ever employed animals as part of the workforce, and yet Adriano had harnessed not just a braying donkey to run the press that squeezes the liquid out of the cane sugar, but every bit of flora and fauna he had available to utilize.
All throughout the facility—and by facility, I mean a long, open air shack—he was growing plants indigenous to his island of Santa Cruz. Whether it was the sugar cane, the coffee bushes, or cacao beans, the surrounding landscape was filled with flowering plants.
Those flowering plants brought birds, butterflies, and bees to pollinate them, and those thriving plants introduced an abundance of wild, ambient yeasts. Those indigenous yeasts then fermented that sugar cane juice, which attracted a good handful of insects looking to score a solid buzz on their buzziness and ended up dying for the cause. And still flying with the theme that Adriano was capturing flavor everywhere, surely there’s got to be a scientist who would agree with me that those insects added a bit of nuttiness to the mash, or that their natural fats and mineral-rich exoskeletons left some “flavorprint” behind.
It doesn’t matter. I have empirical evidence. My tongue was the judge.
Once that mash trickled downhill via garden hose to the antiquated, blackened oil drum that was his makeshift still, flames licking and embracing its bottom half as it heated and fractionated the fermented juice within, the magic was nearly done.
Adriano’s method of testing his alcohol’s proof was to use a scuffed-up glass hydrometer, but more to my amusement, was his flamboyant technique of simply throwing a cupful of distillate right onto the still’s flames.
If it goes boom, we bottle, could be a motto he might consider putting onto the label.
Of course, the proof is in the pudding as well, which to me—any small, albeit worrisome, overdose of methanol aside—was a nip worth sipping and a risk worth taking.
As I see it, the El Trapiche distillery succeeded in distilling the entire experience of The Galapagos Islands’ essence of origins into liquid form. The smells, the taste, the sights, the sounds. The true flavor of all its endemic species.
Charles Darwin would have been proud.
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