What is Sotol?
Traditionally the name “Sotol” can be used for both the Spirit and the plant from which it is made. It has a long history as a plant and a Spirit, local indigenous peoples may have given it its moniker of “desert spoon” because they roasted it and chewed on the spoon shaped ends just like giant artichokes.
As a Spirit it seems like it popped up soon after the Spanish arrived with distilling technology and has had something of an outlaw reputation ever since. That’s partially because it’s grown in the border zone, partially because Mexican laws have kept it in a semi or illegal state, and partially because people like that idea. But now it’s joining the Mexican Spirits revolution with new labels of exquisite quality.
Why is Sotol considered similar to Mezcal?
Then they are roasted underground, crushed by hand or with shredders, fermented with wild yeasts, and distilled using mostly small copper or stainless steel stills.
Sotol plants grow wild and widely across the Chihuahuan desert so there is a long tradition of distilling where the plants are rather than always bringing plants back to a centralized distillery.
The distiller and his team will go out into the countryside, harvest a bunch of sotol, dig a pit, roast the sotol hearts there, then dig fermentation pits lined with wood that look eerily like coffins, and do the rest of the distillation work right there out under the stars.
Obviously that approach is terribly work intensive, slow, and doesn’t yield much Spirit. It can also result in a fantastic Spirit but with the growth in demand for Sotol more distillation is happening at larger facilities, even if larger mostly means a very simple location with open air fermentation vats and a still that has many modifications.
The definitional conundrum
Traditionally it’s been made in the triangle of states that define the Mexican side of the Chihuahan desert (Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango) but plants don’t respect borders and traditions don’t either. Still, legal definitions and branding campaigns being what they are, the official Mexican appellation for Sotol only allows the name to be applied to Spirits made from Sotol plants in those three states.
Spirits are distilled from Sotol plants in many other Mexican states but especially in neighboring Sonora. The heartland of Mezcal, Oaxaca, also produces a Sotol called Palmilla because that’s the local name for the plant. It seems that the plant has been local to Oaxaca for some time so it’s perfectly possible that the Spirit has been as well. And, since Oaxaca is on the other side of the country from Chihuahua, it’s perfectly possible that many other Sotol Spirits have been and are being made throughout Mexico.
And, there’s a long history of Spirits distilled from a mixture of agave and sotol that continues in Chihuahua, Sonora, and other states. Traditionally these may have been called Sotol or something else. Today they can’t officially be called that any longer.
The Sotol plant grows wild in all those areas so distillers like Desert Door and Genius Liquids have been making Spirits from it and calling them Sotol. There’s some friction about this legally and culturally with the Mexican state trying to assert control over the name and some arguments that U.S. distillers using the name “Sotol” are usurping Mexican heritage. The discussion is ongoing.
The sustainable choice?
There is plenty of research to be done in this area but if this holds true it could be a great development. The fact that sotol plants grow so robustly in the wild, have such a wide range, and don’t require irrigation makes a great case for them as sustainable alternatives. After all, there’s a reason why they’re used as drought resistant plants in nurseries all over the West and Southwest of the U.S.
Sotol brands to try
Fabriquero Sotol focuses on expressions from two of the states in the appellation, Durango and Chihuahua, to give you a sense of how Sotol flavor changes with terroir.
Sotol La Higuera offers three labels, each the product of a different Sotol species. These are intensely flavorful, and incredible bargains.