As the tequila and mezcal industries continue to grow and find fans across America, another Mexican spirit is starting to make the journey to the States. If you’re attracted to the smoky, earthy character of mezcal and the herbaceous, mineral qualities of tequila, it’s time to turn your attention to sotol.
Unlike tequila and mezcal, sotol is made from one of 16 species within the Dasylirion genus (the same family as asparagus)—from a plant called the “desert spoon” for its signature squatty leaves. Wild plants grow from Texas to Southern Mexico, and while sotol is unofficially produced across Mexico, with a protected denomination of origin, the spirit can only be labeled as such if made in the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila.
Most of the sotol in the U.S. comes from Chihuahua, which has the highest concentration of commercial producers (and that number remains fairly small; think dozens instead of hundreds). It’s a state with a diverse landscape that ranges from dense forest to rugged desert. With such varied growing conditions—paired with the fact that plants take 7-22 years to mature—terroir plays a big role in the final product. “Sotol from the forest is very piney, with menthol, moss and eucalyptus notes,” says Ricardo Pico of Sotol Clande. “On the other hand, sotol from the desert can taste more herbal, earthy, leathery, with dried pepper or cacao flavors.”
For most of recent history, commercial producers like Sotol Hacienda de Chihuahua have steamed the hearts of the plants, called piñas, instead of roasting them underground, but that practice is changing as more farmers look to recapture the spirit’s cultural roots. Brands like Sotol Por Siempre, La Niña del Mezcal and Flor del Desierto all roast the plants underground for a deeper flavor profile. Sotol Clande—a new co-op forming across the state of Chihuahua aiming to bring a single-village-like model (think Del Maguey) to the U.S.—also supports the underground oven approach. “The real origins of sotol were smoke-cooked; they used to roast the piñas like mezcal. Most of the Clande producers do it like that because it’s more rustic.”
Between the differences in terroir and varying production methods, the flavors of sotol are incredibly wide-ranging, which is one of the reasons the spirit is finding favor among bartenders. “It’s green and minerally and slightly smoky all at once,” says Leyenda owner Ivy Mix. At the Brooklyn bar, bartender Shannon Ponche blends the spirit with tamarind liqueur, blanc vermouth, lemon, orgeat and celery bitters in the Witching Hour cocktail. Sotol and tamarind also come together in the Presidio Old Fashioned, and the spirit works well with elderflower liqueur, Cocchi Americano and orange bitters in the Beatriz from Espita Mezcaleria in Washington, D.C.
For those mixing at home, Espita general manager Meghan Barnes suggests substituting sotol into classic cocktails as a starting point. “Sotol Por Siempre in particular tastes a lot like gin because it’s so incredibly botanical. I’d also compare it to a rhum agrícole. So, take any gin or rhum cocktail and replace it with sotol and you get this really interesting result,” she says, adding that it’s best to sip the spirit neat first to get a good sense for its personality. Here are a few to try.
Sotol Por Siempre
The Perez family boasts six generations of sotol makers, and this release hails from the high desert slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Chihuahua. With plants roasted in pit ovens and fermented with wild yeast, followed by a double distillation in copper pot stills, the flavors are wild and rich. Tropical elements meet pear and lemon, contrasted with an herbaceous quality that rings close to dry oregano. The sotol has a very dry finish with an undercurrent of river rock and slate.
The Chihuahua co-op works with producers from around the state, each bringing a different family recipe to the table. The line includes one release made from plants from the forest, one from the desert, and a third that’s an experimental blend of sotol and mezcal called lechuguilla (made from agave shrevei and agave bovicornuta). The latter is known as an ensamble, or blend, a practice that also traces its roots back to early days of production. “Natives used to cook the plants all together,” says Rodriguez. “They threw any succulent plant they found into the mix, regardless of whether it was an agave or not, so this process is still used by this producer who is making the third release.”
Flor del Desierto
Two expressions of sotol fall under the Flor Del Desierto line. The Sierra, made by Jose Armando Fernandez Flores is made from Dasylirion Wheeleri grown and distilled in the Madera region of Chihuahua. The desert release, made by third-generation producer Gerardo Ruelas in Coyame del Sotol, is made from the Dasylirion Leiophyllum variety. It’s a bold and savory spirit that whispers sage smoke and leather on the first sip and then opens up with an underlying salinity and a burst of black pepper on the finish.
La Niña del Mezcal Sotol
Master sotol producer Gerardo Ruelas also makes the juice bottled under the La Niña del Mezcal Sotol expression. Made from Dasylirion Cedrosanum, the agaves are roasted in an underground oven, fermented in open-air pine vats and double-distilled in copper pot stills. A splash of grapefruit and fresh jalapeño lead the charge, with underpinnings of walnut and lavender tying things together. At 48.9% ABV, it’s on the higher end of the alcohol spectrum, but the texture is soft and welcoming.
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