August 4, 2022

Mexican liquor sotol is now distilled in Texas and growing in popularity

When chef Hugo Ortega opened Hugo’s in 2012 and put sotol on the menu, there were few places to find the Mexican spirit in Houston and few products on the market.

Sean Beck, the beverage manager of Ortega’s H-Town Restaurant Group, said most people were unaware of sotol, or even the now fashionable mezcal, at that time. He remembers when most of the margaritas served in Houston came from a sweet and sour mix or a frozen margarita maker.

“The idea was to change the way people approached and drank Mexican spirits,” he said. Hugo’s began serving margaritas with fresh lime juice shaken to order and offering palomas with sotol instead of tequila.

For years, says Beck, the only sotol available in Texas was Hacienda de Chihuahua, a Mexican brand so established in the category that it owns the domain sotol.com. More recently, an increasing number of sotols from Mexico have been imported into the United States, and we are beginning to see the emergence of sotol producers in Texas, including Desert Door Distillery and The Marfa Spirit Co.

Sotol is a spirit distilled from Dasylirion wheeleri plant, commonly known as the desert spoon. It is native to northern Mexico, specifically Chihuahua, and can also be found growing wild in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Texans have probably seen sotol plants without even realizing it: the shrub has slender leaves that form a thorny bush somewhat reminiscent of a sea urchin.

Native people have used sotol in a variety of applications for thousands of years: weaving the leaves into baskets, sharpening the stems for tools and weapons, cooking the hearts for food and, eventually, fermenting the plant into a alcoholic drink.

Today in Chihuahua, sotol is “a way of life,” says sixth-generation sotolero Jacobo Jacquez, owner of Sotol Don Celso in Janos, Mexico.

“Many families (in the desert) struggle to make a day-to-day lot,” he said. “The only way for them to survive is to live off what is around them. The sotol plant is abundant in northern Mexico, and for many families it is bread and butter.

In 2018, Jacquez met a few current and former Houstonians who were looking to start their own sotol business across the border. Morgan Weber, co-owner and beverage director of Houston’s Agricole Hospitality, has been a sotol enthusiast since local bar owner Bobby Heugel opened a bottle of Hacienda de Chihuahua for him in 2009. Seth Siegel-Gardner came to Marfa after closing its famous The Pass. & Provisions in 2019, leaving behind his “grumpy restaurant guy” life. Josh Shepard moved to the area after launching Smilebooth in Houston.

Weber, Siegel-Gardner and Shepard traveled extensively in northern Mexico and visited sotol distilleries to understand the culture behind the spirit and understand the process that sotoleros have been perfecting for centuries. The three of them developed a friendship with Jacquez during their visits to Mexico and welcomed him to Texas in turn, connecting over sips of sotol and home-cooked meals.

“Back then, there were no borders for wild sotol,” said Jacquez, who wants to expand the category and wants opportunities for neighboring states. His family has roots in Texas, he explains, and his father was one of the first to export sotol to the state, establishing a distribution center from El Paso to Houston. When the chance for a partnership with the three Texans presented itself, he dove right in.

Marfa Spirit launched its first product with Jacquez and Sotol Don Celso, in what Weber calls “a true collaboration between distilleries on both sides of the border”. Chihuahuan Desert Sotol debuted in August 2021 and Marfa Spirit opened its tasting room and distillery, in the former Godbold Feed Mill in Marfa, in October. Their products – which also include a gin, vodka and orange and grapefruit liqueur – are available at retailers, bars and restaurants in Houston and Texas.

Marfa Spirit wasn’t the first to make a sotol in Texas. Austin-based Genius Gin launched one in 2015, but it has since been discontinued.

In November 2017, the Desert Door Distillery opened in Driftwood, adding a sotol offering and experience to the wine-centric Texas Hill Country. Desert Door has a tasting room and distributes across the state.

Desert Door harvests its plants about a four-hour drive from the distillery. The company sources sotol from a total of 60,000 acres, between its own 8,000-acre ranch in Terrell County and partnerships with other landowners.

The Marfa Spirit team also plans to harvest wild plants from Texas, a project Jacquez helps them with. The first bottling will come from Cibolo Creek Ranch, whose distilling history dates back to the 1800s.

Both producers make sotol with environmental sustainability in mind, which is easier to do with sotol than with other spirits. To make tequila or mezcal, the roots of the agave must be dug up; it takes several years for new agaves to mature. With sotol, on the other hand, the root of the plant is left as it is.

The seed of the Desert Spoon spreads with the wind and germinates in the wild, so in Desert Door, for example, the plants they come from aren’t actually planted by them. The team only harvests 20% of the available plants at a time, in order to always leave plants mature and flowering, explains Ryan Campbell, co-founder of Desert Door. No insecticides, pesticides or fertilizers are used.

When Marfa Spirit’s harvesting program in Texas begins, the team will also identify a percentage of plants to harvest and not revisit them for years to let them regrow.

Houstonians now have many more options for sotol than before. Sean Beck loves Mexican producers Por Siempre, Flor del Desierto, Sotol Ono, La Niña and La Higuera. Behind the bar at Hugo’s, one of his favorite sotol cocktails is the West Texas Walkabout, made with lightly aged sotol in wood, sweet vermouth, peach bitters, praline liqueur and agave nectar infused with chili de árbol. Siegel-Gardner remembers Hugo being the first restaurant or bar in Houston to really highlight sotol, instead of just throwing it on the list among all the tequilas.

Beck says it’s a bit more work to introduce people to sotol, but like everything, it’s about finding the common thread with something customers are more familiar with. Although the tequila comparison is an oversimplification, he says, it works.

“I always tell people: it’s very similar to some of the agave spirits you’ve had, but it’s more floral, more herbal, more viscous,” he said. “It’s wilder, you know, it’s a little wilder.”

Marfa Spirit has found some interesting ways to showcase sotol, starting with classic Mexican cocktails but going beyond that too. Weber says it’s a very versatile spirit – one of his favorite applications is using sotol instead of gin in a negroni.

New restaurants in Houston are also spotlighting sotol and his Mexican roots. At Maize, which opened last December, the cocktail menu features a drink called Cintli (meaning “dried corn cobs”) made with sotol, purple corn and corn liquor.

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