Drinks Atlas: Sotol in Northern Mexico - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Sotol in Northern Mexico

“I think sotol right now is what mezcal was 10 years ago,” says Ricardo Pico, co-founder of Sotoleros and partner in Nocheluna Sotol, and a global educator for the spirit. This holds true both in terms of popularity and confusion. You’d be forgiven for thinking that sotol was another agave spirit. When botanists first began studying the Dasylirion plant in the mid-19th century, it was mistakenly categorized as a type of yucca. In the 1930s, scientists moved it to the agave category. In the ’90s, scientist David Bogler analyzed the plant’s DNA and discovered it was part of the Asparagaceae family (yes, like asparagus). “Wherever the plant grows—it takes 12 to 15 years to mature—it absorbs all the flavors of whatever surrounds it,” says Pico. “In the deserts, you have minty flavors and minerality, and when it rains, you get that petrichor and salinity, some leathery notes, cacao, peppers. In the forest region, it rains a lot more; you have pine trees and a lot more vegetation, so those [sotols] are greener, funkier, like mushrooms, moss, pine, menthol, and eucalyptus.”

Despite sotol’s long cultural history in Mexico, its denomination of origin for the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila was only officially recognized in 2002, followed by the establishment of NOM 159, which regulates the spirit’s production and bottling. “It used to be clandestine. Since the Prohibition era until the mid-’90s, everyone thought that sotol production was illegal because all the small producers used to be persecuted,” explains Pico. Pressure on Mexican authorities from the U.S. to tamp down production due to smuggling, as well as a religious temperance movement, kept the spirit from growing. “The sotol makers had to stay hidden,” Pico says.

But interest in the spirit is growing thanks to increasing production and the educational efforts of ambassadors like Pico. “Sotol is regaining its popularity because tequila enthusiasts are turning to spirits like mezcal and bacanora and raicilla,” he says. That means the new challenge is differentiating the work of traditional sotoleros from brands looking to cash in on a rising category. “There are new distilleries in Texas calling it sotol because the U.S. doesn’t recognize the denomination of origin. What I foresee is that we are going to end up using geographic indicators instead,” says Pico. “The first step is to be open and to establish a conversation and have respect. If it has a tradition, it has a name.”

4 to Try

Nocheluna Sotol

A collaboration several years in the making, Nocheluna is made by maestro sotolero Don “Lalo” Eduardo Arrieta for a partnership between Casa Lumbre and Lenny Kravitz that launched last October. “Nocheluna sets the standard for desert sotol: a friendly profile with a beautiful flavor-forward balance of wild herbs, dried stone fruit, honey, mint, and cacao,” says Pico. Starting at $65.99, reservebar.com

Flor del Desierto Sierra

“Made by maestro Chito Fernández from the Dasylirion wheeleri plant, this is an interesting forest sotol expression with notes of moss, pine, menthol, and eucalyptus,” says Pico. “It really showcases the range of flavors and layers that sotol can capture and reflect due to its terroir.” $74.96, astorwines.com

Sotoleros Lupe Carney

“Following a long tradition, this is a celebratory spirit on which venison meat, lemon, and laurel leaves are added during distillation,” says Pico. “Lupe produces this expression along the border of the Sonoran-Chihuahuan Sierra, and it combines the freshness of the forest with notes of citrus and cooked meat.” $99.99, delmesaliquor.com

Orígen Raíz

“Crafted by maestro Valentín Cortés, Orígen Raíz offers an expression from Durango, one of the three states that holds the sotol denomination of origin,” says Pico. The Dasylirion cedrosanum plants used to make this expression are harvested from a volcanic valley of Nombre de Dios in the Durango mountains. “This sotol provides some notes of blueberries, plum, and caramel.” $69.99, kegnbottle.com

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