Learn why this earthy Southwestern spirit is gaining the attention of bartenders and tequila lovers alike
By Kara Newman
Love peppery tequila? Or the smoky richness of mezcal? Well, there’s a new spirit in town that should be the next bottle on your must-sip list: earthy sotol.
What exactly is sotol? The distilled spirit from Mexico is a little like tequila — it’s even been referred to “tequila’s crazy little brother.” Yet it’s not the same thing at all. Sotol is made from the desert spoon plant (not agave, which is used to make tequila), which grows wild, notably in Mexico’s Chihuahua region. It also grows as far north as Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, and as far south as Oaxaca.
It’s that wild character that makes bartenders love sotol. “Where it’s grown comes through in the taste,” explains Bill Parker, bar director at the Last Drop Bar in Paradise Valley, Arizona. “There are areas in [Chihuahua] where it’s dry desert, or more forested, and it grows wild in all of those places. There’s a minerality to the desert-grown desert spoon, and a piney-ness to the ones that grow in the forest.”
Although sotol isn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as tequila, a growing number of labels are starting to appear on shelves, including Hacienda de Chihuahua, Por Siempre and Don Cuco.
In addition, Austin-based Genius Distillery, best known for making Genius Gin, has experimented with making Texas Sotol, a small-batch spirit distilled from Texas’ version of the sotol plant. The first batch sold out, Genius owner and CEO Mike Groener confirms, but they are refining production techniques, working with a sotolero (expert sotol maker) from Mexico, and new batches are coming shortly.
Bartenders are also mixing the spirit into craft cocktails. In general, the flavor is “more savory and less fruit-forward” than tequilas, Parker says. It works particularly well in spirit-forward drinks. “The challenge is making sure you don’t overpower the sotol,” he says. For example, he mixes Sotol Por Siempre into a refreshing riff on the classic Last Word cocktail El Ultimo: equal parts sotol, green chartreuse, Chareau aloe liqueur and lime juice, served in a martini glass garnished with a cucumber wheel.
So, is sotol poised to become the new tequila? “No!” Parker says, emphatically. It’s made in such small quantities, he reasons. One desert spoon plant yields a single bottle of sotol.
But that shouldn’t stop tequila lovers from chasing the wild dream. “People who consider themselves fans of tequila — and are maybe branching out into mezcal — they should try sotol,” Parker says. “I think it’s wonderful on its own.”