The Forgotten History and Revival of Mexico’s Great Border Spirit

With the likes of mezcal and raicilla booming in popularity across the U.S., Mexico's lesser-known—and harder to find—spirit, sotol, is also gaining traction. Sarah Baird on the rich history of northern Mexican "moonshine" both north and south of the border and where to find it now.

Sotol Cocktails

In Oaxaca, there’s a saying that’s often quoted back to me when I whine about problems in my life: Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, también. (For every sadness, there’s mezcal; for every happiness, too.) It is, I am happy to report, an approach that works wonders.

Other Americans, it seems, have also started to embrace this mentality: The spirit has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity over the past decade, making its way onto back bars across the country and creating legions of devotees north of the border.

With mezcal as the gateway drink, some drinkers are now pushing deeper into the complexity of the agave family tree, discovering that there’s a regional Mexican spirit—from Jalisco’s raicilla to Sonora native bacanora—for almost every desired flavor profile.

Among the spirits gaining traction in the states is sotol, distilled from the Desert Spoon (Dasylirion) plant. Originating primarily from the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango—where it holds the official designation of “state drink”—sotol has been a lynchpin piece of the region’s culture and history for centuries, sitting at the precipice of community-building, exploration and revolution.

Sotol—and the plant it’s made from—has long attracted attention from all kinds of geeky outsiders. The Dasylirion was sought out and deeply researched for centuries by European flora surveyors, who, at first blush, considered the plant to be a member of the agave family. Not so. It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that its rightful taxonomy—as an agave cousin, not a true agave—was straightened out. Today, there are 16 identified varieties of Dasylirion, with its complexity continuing to be a botany buff’s dream.

It’s this diverse nature of the plant that makes sotol such an intriguing spirit. The Desert Spoon plant takes roughly 15 years to mature, with each plant yielding only a single bottle of sotol (unlike agave, it blooms more than once in its lifetime). It is also profoundly influenced by the climate in which it is grown. “There’s sotol that’s produced in the desert, in the prairie and in the forest, and it all has its own unique flavor,” says Ricardo Pico, a Chihuahua native who works for Hacienda de Chihuahua, one of the largest exports of the spirit to the U.S. Sotol from desert regions tends to have earthy, mineral, leathery notes, while forest-borne sotol shows off greener flavors of mint, eucalyptus and moss.

Production methods are largely similar to mezcal, with the Dasylirion piña steamed, fermented and, eventually, distilled. But the sotol industry (if you can even call it that) hasn’t yet become populated by large distilleries like tequila and mezcal have, likely due to its longtime reputation as a kind of Northern Mexican moonshine. It is, and has been, a low-key drink of the people, reflecting local traditions far more than any international agenda.

“When you go to meet these guys [and they’re making sotol], they hand you it like it’s a six-pack. You’re just drinking together, eating—someone will run to get some beans or steak,” says Pico.

During Prohibition, the close proximity of sotol’s motherland to the U.S. meant that it was frequently smuggled across borders to thirsty Texans and New Mexicans, becoming a quintessential border spirit. By the early 1930s, Chihuahua was producing upwards of 300,000 liters of sotol each year.

Soon, though, swayed by a desire to make the country appear more “Americanized” (and, of course, the almighty dollar), the government began cracking down on sotol production under the guise of anti-liquor enforcement. In northern Mexico they waged an all-out smear campaign against sotol and other moonshine-like spirits, labeling them as unsavory “peasant” drinks. The government’s scorched earth policy resulted in many family vinatas being burned to the ground.

“You’ll talk to sotol producers whose families have been making it for decades, and so many of them remember their parents saying [in the 1930s], ‘Go grab a gun, and stand at the top of that hill on lookout,’” says Pico. “These kids were nine years old then, but they remember.”

Sotol’s role in Mexican history throughout the 20th century remains largely untold, relegated to a kind of rural obscurity. But advocates like Pico are attempting to shift the narrative, using the spirit as a catalyst to help build a brighter future for the region.

“There are these gaps in history with sotol, especially in Chihuahua, and we’re really looking to fill those in,” says Pico, who has become one of the premier advocates for the spirit’s small producers.

The big secret is that sotol was being made north of the border, too, long before Prohibition and throughout it as well. “Making sotol has a rich history in Texas, especially if you go into the Big Bend region. Just as distillation techniques…spread through colonial Mexico, that know-how also spread into what is now West Texas, New Mexico and parts of Arizona,” says Bobby Heugel, owner of Houston’s Anvil, and one of the country’s most dedicated advocates for traditional agave spirits. “I’ve had people bring me sotol that their relatives made. It’s like West Texas moonshine, [and] people still to this day kind of bootleg-create sotol—it’s not a tradition that’s ever fully expired.”

When it comes to finding a more widespread national audience, though, the curiosity might be there, but the spirit is still largely an esoteric find. Hacienda de Chihuahua remains the big dog on the scene, but a number of smaller producers—especially several from the village of Janos in Chihuahua—are gaining a small-but-mighty following.

In New York, sotol now appears on the menu at upscale Mexican spots like Cosme (where it lives in an “other agaves” spirit category) and Mayahuel, which boasts an entire list of sotol-based cocktails. From the Diablo de Chihuahua (sotol, ginger, framboise, lemon) to the Chance Seeding (sotol, fino sherry, Granny Smith apple, velvet falernum, lime, salt), the menu captures the versatility and complexity of the spirit.

Inquisitiveness about sotol is, unsurprisingly, also particularly strong across the Southwest. In 2015, Austin-based Genius Gin produced the first mass-marketed, American-distilled sotol featuring a local Texas varietal of the Dasylirion. The inaugural run of the spirit sold out within two weeks.

“I’ve [started] to see many cocktail programs latching onto the category, but it is still a bit of a slow trot,” says Jason Asher, co-owner of Counter Intuitive in Scottsdale. “However, sotol is a spirit that embraces tradition, terroir and truly deserves the attention it is finally receiving.”

Across town, bartender Travis Nass of Last Drop Bar has been making a concerted push to make the spirit a desert cocktail staple, with drinks like the El Ultimo (sotol, aloe vera liqueur, green Chartreuse, lime juice), a house specialty. And Katie Schnurr of La Hacienda often includes sotol in her signature “rattlesnake flight” of mezcal—a setup which features three varieties of agave spirits with a rattlesnake head and tail on either side, because why not?

“People sip it, then are really curious about it,” says Schnurr.

More than just a novelty or an adventurous drinker’s next conquest, sotol has the potential to reflect the deeply interconnected nature of the United States and Mexico, especially throughout the Southwest. It’s a spirit that, above all else, speaks to the past, present and future of cross-border drinking culture.