Going to college in the desert southwest, just a stone’s throw from the US-Mexico border, we got pretty used to dismissing the rugged, open terrain. Honestly, the landscape there was (and still is) full of scrub brush, sage, mesquite, yucca and other plants surviving on too little rain and tremendous heat. And, as people often do, we discounted pretty much all of it as useless.
Little did we know.
Growing in the rocky hills throughout this sun-scorched desert is a plant known as Dasylirion wheeleri, commonly called Desert Spoon. In Mexico, this spiny, hardy plant goes by another name, sotol. And had we known what this plant was capable of when we were younger, we would have paid it, and the land it grows on, much more respect.
As early as 800 years ago the native people who lived throughout the Chihuahuan desert, which encompasses the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Durango, and much of West Texas and Southern New Mexico, learned how to ferment the piñas, or heart of the sotol plant, into a beer. Later, during the 16th century, Spanish Conquistadores traveling through the area distilled that beer into a potent spirit, named it for the plant it came from, and sotol was born.
If the story sounds familiar to you it’s probably because you know the history of tequila – Mexico’s most-well known native distilled drink. Like sotol, tequila started life as a crude beer made by the people native to the Jalisco region of the country. And, once again, it was the Spanish who distilled the beer into the spirit we know and love today. The main difference was in the plant used. Tequila uses agave, the large, thick spiny plant that grows throughout central and southern Mexico. The desert spoon, on the other hand is much thinner and greener, growing mainly on the rocky slopes of northern Mexico.
But to be fair, the two plants – agave and sotol – are distant cousins. In fact, at one time sotol was included in the same genus as the agave, though it has since been placed in another one that includes yucca and other desert plants. So, the shared history is warranted, after all both were born from a time and place that had little else to distill for the thirsty Spaniards.
But while the plants and distillation processes are similar, it is the taste that really separates the two. Whereas many tequilas taste smoky and earthy, a tradition sotol is much lighter and more organic. What’s ”traditional” mean? Simply put, it means production methods that are quite laborious and time-consuming. The piñas are first baked for a week in underground pits lined with lava rock. Then, the baked and caramelized hearts are hand crushed, allowing the sweet juice to be collected. Next, that juice is fermented in large, open-aired vats that local, air-borne yeast settles on naturally. And then finally, the “beer” is distilled in copper pot stills.
Through this method, you wind up with a spirit unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.
However, not all sotols are made this way. Some that we tried used more modern methods, like specific yeast strains that were pitched instead of local yeast that naturally settled on the beer. These were also distilled utilizing column stills, which take out “impurities” but also the unique flavors. What they ended up with were sotols that tasted much more like tequila, but perhaps just a little bit lighter.
Where’s the fun in that?
We are much more excited about brands like the newly imported Fabriquero Sotol, which is hand made in Durango, Mexico by Don Héctor Jiménez. Don Jiménez uses the same techniques passed down from his own father at a distillery that’s been making sotol for almost 100 years. The taste, as we mention above, is truly unique. It has grass, flowers, earth and maybe even some sage. It coats your mouth with a creaminess the sotols using more modern methods simply don’t have. To be honest it reminds us of that beautiful smell in the desert the morning after a summer rain.
There’s nothing else like it in the world.
When we tried it we never really mixed it with anything, it’s light and smooth enough to sip neat, but it could make some really interesting cocktails, especially when used in place of a tequila or mezcal.
Right now, Fabriquero Sotol is one of only a handful of authentic sotols imported into the United States, but it’s definitely one of the best. It, and other traditional sotols, are only available in limited quantities and areas, so you might have to hunt for them, but it will be worth the effort once they’re found.
Look, we don’t usually make predictions, but drinkers are actively and increasingly seeking newer and more interesting spirits to try. Already mezcal has seen a boom over the past few years, we think traditional sotols will soon be doing the same! Salud!