Meet Sotol, the Spirit of Mexico

Man digging up desert spoon plant
Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre

If you’ve already fallen for Tequila and mezcal, it’s time to give soulful sotol a try. Bartenders are experimenting with this funky, grassy, native spirit of Mexico, and it’s starting to appear on drinks lists at a growing number of bars. As an agave shortage raises questions about the future availability of Tequila, it’s not a surprise to see interest rise in this non-agave spirit, though sotol hasn’t exactly gone mainstream just yet.

What is sotol?

Sotol is a distillate made from a type of shrub, Dasylirion wheeleri, more commonly called desert spoon. That’s in contrast to Tequila and mezcal, crafted from agave.

“People frequently think it’s an agave distillate, but it’s not,” says Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda, in Brooklyn, New York. The bar is noted for its extensive selection of Latin America-made spirits, which includes sotol. “[The shrub] is closer to an evergreen plant than an agave.”

Resembling a yucca plant (or a sea urchin), a succulent with long, spiny leaves, the desert spoon plant grows wild. It’s found in Mexico’s Chihuahua region, though it grows as far north as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The plant can also be found south in Oaxaca, and thrives in both desert and forest climates.

Donkey carrying desert spoon plant
Old-world harvesting / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre

Desert, forest, prairie

According to Ricardo Pico, co-founder of Sotol Clande, desert spoon is still primarily harvested in the wild. Throughout a plant’s lifetime, it will produce several tall, flowering stalks, which drop seeds that are carried by the wind.

Sotol can also be made with an eye toward environmental sustainability. To make an agave-based spirit, like Tequila or mezcal, the roots of the agave plants must be dug from the ground. Those fields must then be replanted, and it will take several years for the new agave plants to reach maturity.

By comparison, when desert spoon is harvested, the root remains intact and the plant will eventually re-grow.

“The plant itself can get very old, up to even 100 years,” says Pico.

More than a dozen species of the desert spoon grow across various regions, says Pico, and each of those varieties contribute to the flavor of the finished product.

“The most important factor is the terroir,” he says. “In the forest, we get more rain and have different vegetation. Some of those sotols will have menthol, eucalyptus, a very fresh taste like mushrooms or pine.”

Sotol grown in more arid desert regions may be more earthy or spicy, which can translate into leather, cacao or peppery notes. And closer to New Mexico, where forest and prairie terrain meet, the plant can reflect additional nuance.

Hearts of the desert spoon plan, and traditional roasting oven / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre
Hearts of the desert spoon plan, and traditional roasting oven / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre

How is sotol made?

The process for making sotol is very similar to how mezcal is made. At the vinata (sotol distillery), the sotolero (sotol distiller), digs a pit in the ground. There, he or she roasts the plant in a conical oven, fueled by whatever type of firewood grows nearby. This causes terroir to again come into play. In forest regions, that’s likely oak, while mesquite is common in desert regions. It cooks from three to four days, after which the softened plant matter is milled into pulp and pressed to extract the sweet sap.

The sap is then fermented in rectangular wooden vats, about 4–5 days in the desert region, or 5–7 days in the cooler forest region.

“It’s a super-rustic process,” says Pico. “The maestro sotolero only knows if it’s done by tasting the mosto (must) and hearing if it’s boiling.” At this stage, the liquid is called vino, which is then distilled in a copper or steel pot still.

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To determine when the desired alcohol level (usually 50%, or 100 proof) has been reached, the sotolero pours some of the liquid into a cow horn, says Pico. The liquid is passed into a second horn and back again to examine the size and position of “pearls,” or tiny bubbles, that appear in the sotol.

Most sotols are unaged (joven, or young), although some are barrel-aged. Hacienda de Chihuahua, for example, offers reposado and añejo bottlings, similar to how a Tequila’s age is specified.

Sotolero using a cow horn to examine the spirit's "pearls" and evaluate alcohol levels / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre
Sotolero using a cow horn to examine the spirit’s “pearls” and evaluate alcohol levels / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre

How does it taste?

Compared to crisp Tequila or often-smoky mezcal, sotol tends to be bright and grassy. Depending on how and where it’s made, some bottlings can have musky, earthy or vegetal characteristics. It’s not unusual for some to liken sotol’s funky aroma to sweaty socks.

To describe the flavor of sotol, Mix points toward evergreen plants. It’s not fruity, but instead has a pine-like quality.

“It should be crisp and clean, and a pine-y, sappy brightness comes through,” says Mix. Some bottlings have distinct minerality, others can have a lemongrass-like lilt, or a green note that suggests the capsicum heat of a fresh jalapeño pepper.

In short, sotol can be remarkably complex.

Getting to the heart of the desert spoon plant / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre
Getting to the heart of the desert spoon plant / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre

Is sotol Texas’s new signature spirit?

In addition to the handful of Mexican-made bottlings available in the U.S., like Hacienda de Chihuahua, Sotol Por Siempre and soon, Sotol Clande, Texas producers also are getting into the spirit. Austin producer Genius Gin was first to create a groundbreaking experimental Texas sotol but no longer sells it.

More recently, Desert Door, another producer just outside of Austin, has rolled out a fully made-in-Texas sotol made with Dasylirion texanum. It’s a different strain than the one that grows further south, which yields a lemongrass-accented spirit that the producer describes as “creamier,” compared to traditional versions.

Jacob Jacquez, 6th generation sotol producer at Sotol Por Siempre / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre
Jacob Jacquez, 6th generation sotol producer at Sotol Por Siempre / Photo by Max Kelly, courtesy Sotol Por Siempre

How do you drink it?

In Mexico, the traditional way to enjoy sotol is neat, from a small glass, sometimes with a beer on the side “to refresh,” says Pico.

Infusions called curados also are common, flavored with locally grown ingredients. Pico describes a pecan-cinnamon-raisin curado often enjoyed during the cold-weather months “like a punch.” There’s also infusions made with wild-growing damiana or even peyote.

However, beware of sotols infused with snake venom, often signaled by a rattlesnake image on the jug. It’s sometimes sold as a health remedy. “That’s a gimmick,” says Pico. “Like putting the worm in mezcal.”

In the U.S., consumers are just starting to become acquainted with sotol. It’s often paired in cocktails alongside another, more familiar Mexican spirit: Tequila.

“Remember when mezcal was first coming out, and you had Tequila and mezcal together in every single cocktail you saw?” says Mix. “That’s where sotol is now.”

Yet, as a growing number of sotol bottlings become available here and consumers slowly become more familiar with it, sotol is likely to find its way into the cocktail spotlight.

Published on January 23, 2019
Topics: Regional Spirits
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She’s the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip., NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening and Cocktails With a Twist, released August 2019. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net



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