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Sotol is more than a liquor — it’s northern Mexican culture and history in a bottle

In Madera, a mountain town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Bienvenido Fernandez pours freshly distilled sotol between two cow horns. He examines the tiny bubbles, or “pearls,” that materialize to determine the alcohol level. The spirit is just right when it contains between 45% and 50% ABV. “If I make it any lower, the neighbors tell me it’s water,” Fernandez says with a laugh.

As awareness of different agave distillations, from bacanora to raicilla, is slowly growing, it’s easy to assume that sotol, with its depth of aroma and flavor, is simply another mezcal relative. And though sotol is growing in demand — it can be found at the likes of New York’s Cosme and Los Angeles’ Salazar— it is made from a different plant altogether, one of 16 species of the Dasylirion genus. The plant and the spirit it yields are both called sotol.

Madera, Mexico
 
(Los Angeles Times)

At Fernandez’s vinata, or distillery, a smoky, sweet smell fills the air from the cooking and fermentation process taking place out back. Fernandez started working with sotol at the age of 7, the tradition dating to at least his grandfather.

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For most of the 20th century, as international spirits made inroads into the Mexican market, sotoleros (and other indigenous spirit makers) were marginalized and persecuted — treated like moonshiners instead of people preserving and practicing a traditional foodway.

“We didn’t have to run much because we were in the middle of the forest,” says Fernandez. Later, however, he tells stories of hiding with a rifle as a young child when the police arrived. Officers, he recalls, would also treat his mother “like a servant,” demanding a meal, on unexpected visits.

Today, sotol production is again legal and locals line up outside Fernandez’s vinata waiting to fill empty Coca-Cola bottles with his product, which tastes of eucalyptus, pine, moss and wet dirt — typical of sotoles made from plants grown in the forest regions of northern Mexico.

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Eduardo Arrieta, another sotolero, works from a ranch deep in the desert below Texas’ Big Bend National Park. The property belongs to the family of Alfredo Garza and has seen its fair share of sotol production over the years — Garza’s great-grandfather produced the spirit on the grounds after fighting Pancho Villa in the Mexican Civil War. Arrieta’s sotol, as with others made in the desert, is characterized by leather, cacao and dried pepper. He pours a sizable sample from the still and passes it around. Like mezcal, sotol isn’t a shooter — it is meant to be sipped straight, slowly enjoyed.

Most sotoles on the market are either a blend or single-origin from the forest or desert, but there is a third terroir yet to be truly explored: prairie. Juan Pablo Carvajal, founder of the brand Los Magos, hopes to develop a single-origin sotol from prairie plants in the near future. “We want to showcase the variety that we have here in Chihuahua,” he says of the decision.

Say hello to sotol, mezcal’s wild cousin
Master sotolero Bienvenido Fernandez is a staple in his town of Madera. Each June, he hosts a Sotol celebration “El Burrito Sotolero” where donkey-drawn carts take to the streets and a cocktail made with the spirit is served to enthusiastic locals.
(James Burke and Molly Mandell)

Chihuahua, home to the largest concentration of commercial producers, is one of three states that makes sotol. Here, and in Durango and Coahuila, the spirit is protected by a denomination of origin, not unlike Champagne or Parmigiano Reggiano.

That status isn’t stopping entrepreneurs on the other side of the border from trying their hand at distilling the Dasylirion. Two distillers in Texas, Desert Door in Driftwood, and soon, a new group in Marfa, are making what they too call sotol. Neither producer, however, carries a history like those in Mexico.

Fernandez, Arrieta and the majority of master sotoleros use methods that have been passed from generation to generation. Ricardo Pico bottles and distributes both Fernadez and Arrieta’s sotoles for his brand Clande. “My oldest producer is 65 years old,” Pico says. “His father and grandfather produced sotol, so we’re talking about at least 100 years of tradition.”

In reality, the history goes back even further — thousands of years — to indigenous peoples in northern Mexico and the southwestern United States who fermented the sotol plant to produce a low-alcohol beverage more akin to a beer. Sotol, as with mezcal, likely didn’t become the beverage that we know today until distillation techniques came to Mexico with the Spanish.

Say hello to sotol, mezcal’s wild cousin
At the Jacquez family vinata, the harvest is unloaded from angarillas, the baskets which are attached to the donkey along with tools, water and food for the workers.
(James Burke and Molly Mandell)
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Artisanal methods for making sotol don’t vary drastically from those of the indigenous groups. The plant takes an average of 15 years to mature, and when it is ready, harvesters cut out the piña, or heart. After its leaves are trimmed away, it is brought to the vinata with others by donkey or truck. A few hundred piñas are tossed inside an earth oven, covered with fiber and dirt and left to slow roast for several days. The cooked heads, each of which will yield approximately a single bottle, are then removed from the pit, mashed, fermented and distilled.

Commercial brands, including Clande and Los Magos, are increasingly essential for preserving this style. “If it is difficult to earn a living, the craft may become less attractive to future generations,” says Carvajal. “So we are interested in helping to create that balance.”

Say hello to sotol, mezcal’s wild cousin
Sotol is still primarily wild harvested, though some producers are beginning to adopt an agricultural approach to cultivation.
(James Burke and Molly Mandell)

Meanwhile, players such as Hacienda de Chihuahua and the forthcoming Sotol Terlingua are pursuing more industrial methods in an effort to chase the tequila industry. Tequila’s popularity has translated to a crowded market and what many regard as a reduction in quality. As such, the potential shift in sotol raises concern for both Pico and Carvajal. Protecting the time-honored production methods, Carvajal says, doesn’t have to come at the expense of business success; as illustrated by mezcal, there is a growing audience for authentic, local and ethically sourced spirits from Mexico.

In Chihuahua, every master sotolero puts his own stamp on the distillation process. The final product is a drink that is rich in complexity — the flavor is marked not just by terroir, but by the person who makes it. “The beauty of the Dasylirion plant is that it absorbs everything,” Pico says. “The end result is a spirit that, I think, is one of the most transparent.”

For him, the future of sotol should be clear. “No amount of money in the world,” he says, “is more valuable than preserving the tradition.”

Sotol from Texas?

Sotol isn’t only produced in Northern Mexico — it’s also cropping up in Texas. In 2015, Austin-based Genius Liquids distilled the Dasylirion but only sold the product briefly. Then, in 2017, Dripping Springs-based Desert Door opened a full-fledged “Texas Sotol” operation. The company has faced its fair share of criticism since. While sotol’s denomination of origin has legal backing in Mexico, it carries little weight in the United States.

And Desert Door won’t be the only producer stateside for long; a new group in Marfa (and there are rumors of others to come in both Texas and New Mexico) is preparing to distill the sotol plant this coming fall.

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Tim Johnson organizes Marfa’s Agave Festival, which strives to celebrate agave’s cultural influence, both in spirit form and beyond (the first year no spirit brands were invited). The third iteration takes place this June and, as in past years, includes sotol-related programming. Johnson hopes to continue the dialogue around denomination of origin there, and with more expert voices. For now, he advises American entrepreneurs to approach the spirit with care.

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“If you’re from the States and you don’t have that historical lineage,” he says, “you need to be very cautious about damaging the culture.” Johnson specifies that he is not trying to control outcomes, but says that by fostering conversation and deeper connections, there is the potential for collaboration.

Master sotolero and Chihuahua native Eduardo Arrieta is on the same page. “Texas? They’re our neighbors, our brothers,” he says. “But it’s a matter of respect. This is our history, and they need to approach it the right way.”

There are a variety of opinions on the subject, but for Jacobo Jacquez, whose family has long been in the sotol business, it’s simple: “People died for this craft,” he says, citing the persecution of Mexican sotoleros throughout the 20th century. “You can make it, but you just can’t call it sotol.”

Say hello to sotol, mezcal’s wild cousin
Jacobo Jacquez currently helms the operation in Janos, producing Sotol for brands including Los Magos, Por Siempre and their own Don Cuco. In the case of the Jacquez’, like many others, Sotol distillation has long been a family tradition.
(James Burke and Molly Mandell)


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