Wild, weed-like and plentiful, the desert spoon may offer a fun tequila alternative.
By Lara Creasy
One gift these last few crazy years has given us is the opportunity to break out of our ruts, and this has been especially true when it comes to products at the bar. I recently found a fun new option I couldn’t wait to explore, so I phoned a few industry contacts to dig up some more info on the spirits category known as sotol.
Working as I do for a group of Tex Mex restaurants, agave spirits are our life blood. Tequila and mezcal are our best-selling spirits at the bar, and lately it seems we are not alone.
Tequila and mezcal was the second-fastest growing spirits category in 2021 (behind pre-mixed cocktails), growing 30% year-over-year. Revenue has been increasing so fast that agave spirits may soon knock vodka out of the No. 1 position it has held since the 1970s, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Some exciting news for those of us in the restaurant industry is that Fortune Business Insights said they expect on-premise sales to dominate this growth. They predict that consumers’ love of service, entertainment and ambiance will continue to compel more tequila sales outside the home, despite drinking at home being more affordable. The research firm further predicts that millennials and younger consumers will continue to demand quality from their spirits, driving premium tequila to lead the overall growth.
This is all great stuff! But what happens for us loyal tequila devotees when favorite brands of agave spirits are suddenly unavailable? So often recently, tequilas have gone out of stock due to glass shortages, trucking challenges and, of course, the agave shortage that never seems to end. Because tequila is made from only Blue Weber agave, plants that take 6-10 years to fully mature for harvest, an increase in demand without forward-thinking supply planning can spell disaster … and very high prices.
The Sleeper Spirit
Sotol is a spirit that is very quietly entering this conversation. Made primarily in Mexico and Texas, sotol’s production methods mimic mezcal’s and its cocktail applications and price points seem to mirror tequila’s. But since sotol is still relatively unknown, supply has so far not been a challenge.
“We are a spirit 100% made in Texas,” says Shelby Cohen, Georgia’s sales rep for Desert Door Sotol. “The glass comes from Texas, we ship from Texas, so shipping is easy. But outside of Texas, no one is really talking about us yet.”
Not technically an agave spirit, sotol is distilled from the Dasylirion plant, also known as desert spoon. This spiny, evergreen member of the asparagus family grows throughout the Chihuahua desert, which stretches across almost 200,000 square miles from Mexico’s state of Durango all the way up into Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
While there is a Mexican Denomination of Origin for sotol, there is also one in Texas. Each region seems to have its own variant of the desert spoon plant, from Dasylirion Palmilla in Sonora, Mexico, to Dasylirion Texanum in the Texas Hill Country, where Desert Door estimates that sotol was the first alcoholic beverage consumed in the U.S. around 800 years ago.
I asked one of my industry contacts, Jonathan McKinney, an industry consultant and Master of Mezcal, if Mexico held any superiority to Texas in sotol production. He pointed out that the Chihuahua desert where the plants are native spans both regions. “I guess you can argue that Texas used to be part of Mexico anyway,” he adds.
Unlike Blue Weber agave, which is cultivated on farms for the purpose of making tequila, the Dasylirion plant grows wild across the entire desert, in places that other plants are unable to grow. And there is a lot of it out there.
“I remember being on a trip to Durango, and it was everywhere!” says Chris Odendahl, craft spirits manager for Georgia’s Savannah Distributing. He recalled seeing desert spoon plants as far as the eye could see in every direction.
We talked about sotol as a spirit being potentially more sustainable than tequila, because of the plant’s far-ranging territory and hardy growing ability. Blue weber agave has to be cultivated, and farms impose themselves onto a natural eco-system, but desert spoon is wild and it’s plentiful.
Cohen tells me that the founders of Desert Door grew up around the desert spoon plants in their native Texas, and they decided to found a spirit brand using the ubiquitous plants on their own Texas terms. They strictly wild harvest desert spoon plants that are around 15 years old in far west Texas, where the plants grow weed-like, millions of them.
McKinney added that unlike agave plants, which must be killed and harvested in their entirety, when you harvest the heart of the desert spoon plant, the rest of the plant’s root system stays intact and continues to grow.
A Taste for Sotol
So far, sotol sounds pretty great – a wild, weed-like plant that gives us all the distilled spirit we could ever want! What could be better?
But what does it taste like?
The spirit is produced much like mezcal, with the piñas being roasted in underground pits lined with volcanic rock. The roast is slow and lasts several days to enhance the sugars in the piñas. Some sotol can take on a slight mesquite smoke flavor, or even a saltiness, from the process.
This process is a result of mezcal and sotol’s troubled history, when Prohibition in the U.S. and the Catholic church in Mexico conspired to punish families for making the spirit they had been making for generations, centuries even, according to McKinney. To avoid persecution or even death, they took production underground, literally, and the tradition survived.
“Sotol is a work of art,” he says. “You can literally taste the hands of the maker.”
McKinney says the spirit has a dry characteristic that gives off hints of cocoa and fresh herbs. “Some I’ve tasted were like spearmint in your mouth with refreshing undertones of wild honey,” he says, adding that you can find many sotols at or below 40% ABV, which can make them approachable for a novice.
Odendahl references a brand his company sells, Hacienda de Chihuahua, which is made by a master distiller who previously worked in France at Martell and Moët & Chandon. This distiller uses Champagne yeast, which gives his brand a more delicate flavor profile that says more about its maker than its terroir. Other brands may use open-top fermentation tanks and allow ambient wild yeast to perform the fermentation, which “puts a fingerprint on the spirit that says, ‘this is made here’,” says Odendahl.
He also sells a sotol that is part of the Puntagave Rustico line, a collection of all clear, unaged Mexican spirits, which comes across as very grassy. Odendahl even recalls a sotol from the Mezcales de Leyenda house that had a “cheesy popcorn” element to it, because of the open-air fermentation pits used in its production. “It undergoes almost a secondary fermentation, just like the way wine can develop a buttery flavor,” he says.
Clearly, there are some wide-ranging flavors to explore with sotol. McKinney sums it up, however, by saying that sotol “will be more refreshing and earthen [than tequila]. Remember, sotol is made from a wild plant, so the earth is what determines the flavor, not always the maestro.”
Sip, Shoot or Mix?
If you are intrigued enough to give sotol a try, what should you do with it at your bar or restaurant? Is it destined for the back bar, or is sotol something that can be used on a cocktail menu, where we all know it would get more traction?
Cohen says cocktail options are many, not just I’m agave-based cocktails such as margaritas and La Palomas, but also frozen cocktails pairing sotol with passionfruit or pineapple. She says anything that you would use another clear liquor in is fair game, suggesting sotol and Fever-Tree tonic with a rosemary garnish as a delicious option. “At our distillery, because Topo Chico is also out of Texas, we are big on Ranch Waters,” she adds.
“For restaurant operators, my advice would be to step out of their comfort zone,” says McKinney. “For the most part, I drink it neat. Sip, not necessarily shoot it. But it’s soft enough that a shot won’t burn your throat going down.
“I have made several cocktails with sotol, and I usually make things that will bring out the character of the particular sotol I’m using, or I combine it with mezcal to layer the flavors,” he adds. “The refreshing aspects of sotol are great combined with soda. Try garnishing with mint and cucumber.”
“You have to have a starting point, where the familiarity and the cost open the door,” Odendahl says. Once guests get a taste for a spirit, usually through a cocktail, he says, then they start to experiment with the geekier expressions of that spirit.
We mused about the way that Del Maguey opened the general populace up to mezcal by introducing their Vida bottling in 2010, which came in at a cocktail-friendly price point. “Sotol has got the vibe of what mezcal was 15 or so years ago. It could be the next big thing,” Odendahl predicts.
He says that Savannah Distributing will soon be representing a sotol new to the Georgia market, called Oro de Coyame, which will be available at a price point friendly to mixing in cocktails, and it could open the door for some.
Odendahl suggests another entry point for operators might be offering a flight of sotol, “from different producers and different flavor profiles, to let people figure out what they like.” Cohen agrees, saying she is pushing flights as a great special for the holidays, a time when a shared, interactive experience like a flight can be a fun family activity to get people talking at dinner.
Sotol certainly is something to celebrate in the eyes of the spirits aficionado, and perhaps even for the merely curious bar manager. But, Odendahl wonders, “Will it catch on with the everyday consumer? Or will it be a hit at just the very specific mezcal bars? That will be the interesting thing to watch.”
Sotol to Try
Desert Door (Driftwood, TX) Available from Republic National Distributing Company
Vanilla, green grass, toffee, mint, sage, orange zest, custard smooth
Hacienda de Chihuahua (Chihuahua, Mexico) Available from Savannah Distributing
Made by a master distiller trained in France at Martell and Moët & Chandon. Fermented using Champagne yeast. Available in Plata, Reposado, Añejo and Extra Añejo, as well as Crema, Rustico and Platinum versions. There is even an Oro version bottled with gold flakes. Herbal, subtle, clean and focused.
Sotol por Siempre (Chihuahua, Mexico) Available from Prime Wine & Spirits
Big, floral and minty, with touches of pine and juniper, earth and minerals. Try it in a vermouth-heavy martini as an alternative to gin!
Lara Creasy is Beverage Director for Rocket Farm Restaurants, overseeing eight Superica locations in four states. She loves all things beverage from tea to tequila, coffee to cocktails, whiskey to wine, and gets to make a living at it.