Mexican spirit sotol

Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

If you’ve never heard of sotol before, a quick Google Image search will make you think it’s just like agave. Also known as desert spoon, the drought-resistant plant looks the part, with mint-green spikes that protrude from a dense inner core, growing up to eight feet tall and six feet wide, depending on the variety.

But don’t confuse sotol with tequila or mezcal. Though the distilling process can be similar, sotol is actually in the asparagus family and has a rich history that traces back thousands of years—with Indigenous groups across the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila, as well as portions of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, using the plant’s spiny leaves for weaving, and slow-cooking its core for sustenance in harsh desert conditions. Sotol’s juices were fermented to make a ritual beer-like beverage, and, when Spanish conquistadors brought over the copper distill roughly 350 years ago, sotol was introduced in spirit form.

With the popularity of agave spirits like tequila and mezcal, you might be wondering why you haven’t seen sotol offered at your local bars. That’s in part due to the lasting impact of Prohibition, which shut down burgeoning sotol distilleries in Texas, as well as operations in Mexico that trafficked the spirit across the border. But that’s changing now, thanks to sotoleros whose families have been making the desert spoon spirit in Mexico for generations, as well as domestic distilleries born in recent years.

Juan Pablo Carvajal, co-founder of the Chihuahua-based Los Magos, says sotol has been in the Northern part of Mexico in the Chihuahuan desert for centuries. “Back then, we did it to share with the community. That tradition was the one that kept on going, and the one that we’re anchoring ourselves to, to bring sotol to the market today.”

“During the age of Prohibition, there was a growth in the production of sotol, as well as a growth of the production of whiskey that created a rivalry,” Carvajal explains. “Al Capone came down to Chihuahua, tasted sotol, and brought it to Chicago. So we were making this traditional spirit and sending it over the border as moonshine. That became a bit of a problem for the Mexican government so they decided to ban the production of sotol in Chihuahua so that it couldn’t be commercialized, sold, or drank anywhere.”

This, coupled with a negative campaign that branded sotol as a “low-class” spirit, hindered the industry’s growth well into the 1980s and ’90s. Carvajal credits local families who helped keep the tradition alive during this de-facto Prohibition period.

“Al Capone came down to Chihuahua, tasted sotol, and brought it to Chicago. So we were making this traditional spirit and sending it over the border as moonshine.”

Now that sotol can be openly produced, many are taking advantage of the spirit’s relative obscurity outside of Mexico, which allows for more experimentation in harvesting and production methods. Producers witnessed mezcal’s recent leap in global popularity, which has subsequently threatened smaller, farmer-run productions in Mexico, as well as long-nosed bat populations that are responsible for pollinating the agaves. This has inspired a strong sustainability movement within the sotol industry to help protect the plant for future use.

The Mexican government has also created a hurdle that acts as a sustainability measure by requiring that sotol producers only harvest up to 40% of mature plants in any given area. Traditionally, sotol has been wild-harvested, but in hopes of ensuring the longevity of the spirit, Los Magos has also begun planting sotol that they plan to harvest once it reaches maturation.

“While a plant might take 25 years to mature in the wild, in a controlled environment, it might take six or seven years,” Carvajal explains. “For us, it’s very clear that in the future, we are going to have to have that balance between a wild-harvested sotol, and a planted sotol. And being aware of that right now allows us to learn lessons from other industries.”

IZO Spirits, a brand that specializes in traditional Mexican spirits like mezcal, sotol, raicilla, and baconara, produces its sotol in Durango, where it’s recognized as a state spirit. IZO makes sotol using a process similar to mezcal: After finding wild, ready-to-harvest plants usually between 10 and 12 years old they clean them and bring them back to their distillery, where the core, called the piña, is cooked inside a volcanic fire pit. It slow-cooks for four to five days, before it’s ground in a mill and naturally fermented for two to three more days.

Then, the distillation process begins. IZO utilizes a double-distillation process that gives their sotol a smooth and clean finish, while landing at 47% ABV. The taste is specific to the region, with grassy and earthy notes that showcase the sweetness of the plant.

To ensure the future of sotol and the Durango deserts where it grows naturally, IZO has created a sotol trading program with local ranchers. “It’s a win-win scenario,” says IZO co-founder Gaston Martinez. “We buy sotol from them and then go back and replant some that we’ll buy back from the farmers when the plant is mature in about 10 years. That’s one way we’re trying to maintain and sustain this business for years to come, but we also utilize solar panels, our own water treatment plant, and well.”

Desert Door founders
The founders of Desert Door. | Photo by John Davidson

Across the border in West Texas, Desert Door seeks to highlight the history of sotol in the Lone Star state and runs America’s only sotol distillery and taproom. While most Mexico-based brands work with the Dasylirion wheeleri species of the sotol plant, Desert Door uses wild-grown Dasylirion texanum, which, as co-founder Ryan Campbell points out, “literally has Texas in the name.”

Dasylirion wheeleri has a different growth profile,” he continues. “The leaves are different shapes and it tends to be a little bigger. It has different colors. And as a result, it has a very different flavor than ours.”

Desert Door’s sotol is wild-harvested from the desert that surrounds its Driftwood, Texas, distillery. The company makes a point of referring to its product as Texas sotol since the production differs from traditional methods. Instead of cooking sotol hearts in underground ovens, distillers steam them in cookers that create a lighter, smoke-free flavor. After the cooked sotol hearts have been individually pressed, the sugar-rich juice is fermented for five to six days with the brand’s organic, proprietary yeast.

The mash that’s left after fermentation is then distilled in a custom, hybrid still. Texas sotol averages 155 proof, so after distillation, water is added to bring it down to a more approachable 80 proof which is then bottled, while higher proofs up to 120 are barrel aged. The result is a smooth sotol that’s herbaceous and grassy, with notes of natural vanilla, mint, and citrus. Desert Door’s oak-aged sotol is reminiscent of a bourbon, with spiced cinnamon, oak, and vanilla flavors.

Meanwhile, Los Magos, which translates to “the magicians,” offers a sotol with a uniquely Chihuahuan taste that Carvajal says is best absorbed through a slow sipping experience.

“We ask people to first try it neat, and that allows them, as with mezcal, to actually get the flavor of sotol, and understand why this traditional spirit of the Chihuahuan desert has this rich history,” explains Carvajal. “It is very broad in the spectrum of aromas, and because it’s wild-harvested, the terroir and land that impregnates the plant really shines through the spirit. So for us, it’s important for people to actually take the time, get a big open glass, pour some Los Magos sotol into that, let it open up, and let the sotol show its magic.”

Committed to preserving the tradition of sotol while rebranding it as a modern spirit, Los Magos proprietary sotol recipe is triple-distilled in a unique process that dates back over 120 years. At 38% ABV, Los Magos sotol lands soft on the palate, with bright citrus and a blend of earthy and floral notes. This multi-faceted flavor profile makes sotol ideal to use in craft cocktails.

Sotol cocktail
A sotol Paloma. | Courtesy of Desert Door

Desert Door features a selection of sotol cocktails at its distillery and taproom, and Campbell recommends pairing it with citrus for the best results. “It makes the best Paloma you’ve ever had in your life,” he says. “What’s amazing is that because there’s no burn or bite, it allows you to be more forward with the alcohol. A lot of the time when you’re making cocktails, one of the things you’re attempting to do is to mask the burn.”

Martinez agrees that simple cocktails work best and suggests trying a skinny or spicy sotol margarita to let the sweetness of the spirit shine through. No need to add Triple Sec or Cointreau as these liqueurs are intended to offset the sting of harsher spirits—simply add freshly squeezed lime juice, ice, and sotol, then shake or blend your cocktail.

But Campbell’s favorite sotol cocktail happens to be one that can only be found at the Desert Door distillery. “It’s called a Comanchero and it’s a very simple cocktail with a little lime, infused agave, and sotol nectar that acts as a natural sweetener,” Campbell says. The sotol nectar is squeezed from the cooked plant and reminiscent of a sweet bitter coffee. “I can’t tell you how many people ask us to bottle that nectar so that they can make the cocktail at home.”

Whether making it in Chihuahua, Durango, or West Texas, sotol distillers agree that connecting the spirit’s history with the importance of the land where it’s currently harvested is the key to enjoying every sip.

“Sotol is about connecting with people and growing our community in a way that when the next generation comes around they look at it and say, ‘Wow, I want to be a part of that, I want to build on that,’” Carvajal says. “If we can do that, then we are actually creating a community that’s stronger, and that’s looking out for the environment and for the people who are in it. And that, for me, is the most beautiful thing we can have.”

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Danielle Dorsey is the West Coast editor at Thrillist.