In his 1914 book, Insurgent Mexico, centered around travels south of the border during the revolution, noted journalist and socialist John Reed made several references to sotol, a Mexican spirit found in the north of the country. These cameos did not feature the spirit as a peacemaker. “A barrel of sotol further complicated things,” Reed observed at one dance in Jalisco, shortly before a harpist was shot for playing the wrong note.
Mexican spirits have an uncommonly ornate family tree, and sotol does little to simplify matters. In short, sotol is mezcal’s cousin, once-removed. It’s made from a spindly, stemmed succulent plant called Dasylirion wheeleri (more commonly called the “Desert Spoon,” and, also, confusingly, sotol), which grows in a burst of spiky leaves in the arid hills of northern Mexico, much in the way agave grows further south. Indeed, it was once classified as an agave plant (and is part of the same plant order), which would technically make distillates from it mezcal. However, sotol was reclassified more recently, moving it to its own family tree and creating a separate class of drink.
While relatively new to American cocktail bars, it’s old hat in Mexico, as the John Reed comment suggests. For generations, the sotol plant was dragooned into various uses: Mostly, it was chopped up and used in animal feed or fermented and distilled for industrial alcohol. During Prohibition, a potable version of sotol often cropped up in the court records of smuggling prosecutions. Like early mezcal, it was generally associated with bad behavior.
One hyperbolic 1936 article, headlined “Mexicans Roll Dice of Death,” told of dissolute customers in a Juárez cantina smoking pot and drinking sotol (“a cheap, vicious, Mexican alcoholic drink”) before rolling dice to see who would shoot the next person who walked in the door. Even as late as 1955, a border agent told a Dallas reporter that, “Whenever there is a little trouble down here on the river, sotol is at the bottom of it.”
Today, its reputation is defined less as fuel for misbehavior and more as a regional spirit worthy of serious consideration. With the rise of single-village mezcals and a cool-hunting culture that values spirit terroir, sotol is experiencing a moment. (As are, to a lesser extent, other regional Mexican spirits, like bacanora and raicilla.) Fans of Mexican spirits are finding that sotol, especially those that have forgone aging, can be grassier, less smoky and every bit as complex as a well-made mezcal or tequila. And, as a sign of its growing maturity, sotol has been granted its own “denomination of origin” (like tequila and mezcal), which restricts production to the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango.
If you subscribe to the theory that the harder something is to find, the sweeter it will taste, sotol is the nectar of the gods. Although some brands have launched more assertive pushes into American markets, and importers are starting to scout about for other examples to bring north, sotol remains relatively elusive. But keep an eye peeled when on the hunt for tequila and mezcal, and you may spot a welcome interloper.
The mezcals of southern Mexico were discovered one small distillery at a time by entrepreneurial importers, and sotol, at times, appears to be following the same trajectory, although with fewer distilleries to mine. Fabriquero fits that mold. It is imported to the United States by New York chef and Fabriquero co-founder Danny Mena (Hecho en Dumbo, among others), who is also a partner in Mezcales de Leyenda. This is his first sotol, produced by long-time distiller Don Héctor Jiménez at one of only two sotol distilleries located in Durango. Sotol hearts are cooked for five days in pits with mesquite wood and acacia (in contrast to most sotol, which is cooked in ovens), yet the end product is subtle in its smoke influence. Expect more of a musky richness on the nose, and a subtle sweetness on the palate.
- Price: $58
- ABV: 45 percent
Ocho Cientos Reposado Sotol
The Ocho Sientos reposado—sotol aging definitions are analogous to tequila, so this has spent several months to up to a year in a barrel—picks up a side of sweetness from re-charred white American oak, giving it deeply roasted flavors and added depth. It’s made by Compañia Elaboradora de Sotol in Chihuahua, which was the first distillery to get a license to export to the U.S. after sotol was awarded its “denomination or origin.” The piñas of the sotol are roasted for three days in ovens before a week-long fermentation, which allows richer flavors to develop. It’s fine in a snifter and great for mixing.
- Price: $60
- ABV: 43 percent
Sotol Por Siempre
Produced by a sixth-generation distiller in Chihuahua using open-air fermentation tanks and pot stills, Por Siempre is a gateway sotol, since it tends to be easier to find in U.S. liquor stores and to source online. The unaged Por Siempre does a nice job capturing the complex essence of the sotol plant. It starts with an aroma that’s big and floral with touches of pine and juniper, followed by a small shovelful of earth and mineral on the palate and a bright, minty finish. Try it when looking for a something new to substitute in classics, like a Margarita or even a vermouth-heavy Martini.
- Price: $41
- ABV: 45 percent
The French-Speaking Cousin
Hacienda de Chihuahua Añejo
This more polished añejo is distilled at a farm (established in 1881) in Chihuahua’s high desert by master distiller José Daumas Gil de Partearroyo, whose background is in enology (he previously worked at Martell and Moët Chandon). This may explain the French influences on this complex sotol, including the use of Champagne yeast and new French oak barrels. It’s produced on a more modern column still, which offers up a less cluttered canvas for the barrels to paint their unique flavor. The nose is marked by a bit of smoke amid leather-like notes, with citrus and fruit flavors around the edges.
- Price: $32
- ABV: 38 percent