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Sotol

Sotol has been produced for centuries by indigenous peoples and has recently gained recognition internationally as a distinct Mexican spirit.

But it is not – repeat, it is NOT – a form of mezcal or Tequila.

The latter two are made from agave. Sotol is a distillate made from a type of shrub, Dasylirion wheeleri, more commonly called desert spoon. It is known in Spanish as "Sotol", and one that Ray Mears likes to use to sew up damaged moccasins. It's native to Nothern Mexico (notably Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango) and parts of States like Texas and New Mexico and is a distinct plant with long spiny leaves. Think of a big, green sea urchin. If it was a plant. In a desert.

Dasylirion wheeleri is primarily harvested in the wild. Distinct from agave, which must be harvested by digging up the roots and then replanting the fields, harvesting dasylirion wheeleri can be done leaving the root intact. Environmental sustainability, yo. These plants can live up to 100 years, though to reach maturity it takes about 15 years, and they grow in the forest and the desert. There are more than a dozen species each with a unique profile that will contribute a different flavour to the sotol distilled from it. Forest dasylirion wheeleri, for example, can be more herbaceous and piney, thanks to the increase in rain and neighbouring varieties of vegetation. While desert varieties are more earthy and spicy. Terroir, yo.

While the mature plant used is very different to agave, once harvested the production process is quite similar to mezcal’s. Instead of a mezcalero at a palenque, it’s a sotolero (sotol distiller) at a vinata (sotol distillery) and the production is local, small-scale, and traditional in process, meaning there’s a lot of variation from vinata to vinata.

To start, the mature plant is harvested by cutting away the spiny leaves to reach the core, or piña. These piña’s mirror the ones harvested from agave as they need to be cooked to break down complex carbohydrates into fermentable sugars. This often involves roasting the piñas in underground pits lined with volcanic rock and heated by a wood fire. This step can impart a smoky flavour to the final product.

It cooks for three to four days, after which the softened piñas are crushed or milled to release the juices and fibres. This is often done using a mechanical shredder or a traditional tahona, a large stone wheel pulled by a donkey or horse. The mashed piñas are placed in open fermentation vats, typically wooden or stainless steel, and natural yeast ferments the sugars into alcohol over several days (longer in the forest than in the desert, typically). The resulting liquid is known as mosto. The sotolero is very hands-on, knowing the mosto is ready by listening and tasting.

The fermented liquid is then distilled to separate alcohol from impurities. Traditional methods use copper or clay pot stills, while modern producers may employ stainless steel stills. Sotol is often distilled twice and can be bottled immediately after distillation (as a joven or blanco) or aged in oak barrels to produce reposado (aged at least 2 months) or añejo (aged at least one year). In a very traditional process, the sotolero will pour some of the liquid into a cow horn, then into a second horn and back again to examine the size and position of “pearls,” or tiny bubbles, that appear. That will tell them if it has reached bottling strength.

Sotol infusions called curados are common, made by flavouring the drink with local herbs, spices, or fruits from wild-growing damiana to peyote. You even get sotols infused with snake venom (look for the rattlesnake image on the jug), sometimes sold as a health remedy, but really it’s a gimmick like putting a worm in mezcal.”

Every sotol is different, but generally, it’s a crisp, grassy, funky spirit from which you can expect a piney brightness, musky earthy qualities, and jalapeño greenness. They can vary from the smoky to the vegetal and their distinct profiles are a favourite of bartenders. Traditionally, it's consumed neat in small glasses, possibly with a beer on the side, but today you’re more likely to encounter it paired in a cocktail with its spirit cousin Tequila.

As a sustainable, intriguing, cult spirit, sotol is becoming increasingly popular. We have a few examples here that we heartily recommend you explore.

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