New Mexico. Like agave, sotol has a piña, or heart, that is either roasted or steamed then fermented by wild yeasts to create the juice for distillation. Though steaming was common for a couple of decades, many sotoleros (producers of sotol) are returning to the older practice of roasting below ground in large pits. Sotol has a fascinating and dramatic history. From the days that it was once used in religious ceremonies, medical procedures, and as a common household item, sotol eventually developed into the base of a drink that the regional elite considered to be a sort of “moonshine,” especially compared to the fine European spirits that they enjoyed. During the time of Prohibition, sotol became a steadfast border spirit, being smuggled into states in the Southwest on a regular basis. The Mexican government eventually decided to crack down on the production of sotol. They called it a drink for “peasants” and attempted to besmirch its reputation. When Mexican police officials found a sotol distillery, it’s said that they would open fire
upon the stills and equipment to ensure that they were no longer functional. The reasons for their newfound distaste of the regional beverage — and hostility towards its producers — are usually attributed to America’s ongoing mission for Prohibition and a desire to protect the economic interests of rival spirits like rum and tequila. America’s relationship with sotol is no simple matter. There are copious records during the 19th and 20th century that mention sotol, though I cannot find mention of the distillation of sotol in the effort to make a potable beverage. Instead, sotol was used either to create denatured alcohol for fuel or as a rich food source for livestock. In a 1917 edition of the El Paso Herald, a story was run that details the formation of a new company called “the Sotol Products company,” which had plans to build a manufacturing plant to make use of native sotol in El Paso. “The Sotol Products company owns a patented process by which all the starches and gums of the plant are inverted into
a digestible sugar,” the Herald reads. Sounds like an excellent start to sotol distillation, but that was not the company’s stated intention; instead, they planned to create feed for livestock. “The resultant sotol molasses produced by this process, combined with the pith and a small amount of alfalfa meal is said to produce one of the best and most nutritious molasses’ known.” Texas natives have lore of local moonshine, and like the homemade spirits of northern Mexico, theirs comes from sotol (of a locally grown species different from the ones used in Mexican sotols). Desert Door distillery, opened in Driftwood, Texas, in December of 2017, produces sotol and has expressed an interest in making it the state spirit of Texas. “We’re 100% ranchto-bottle Texas,” says Brent Looby, one of the cofounders of Desert Door and native Texan. Looby informs me their production keeps efficiency and sustainability in mind. “It’s all wild harvested, we don’t cultivate. We attempt to shear the plant off and leave the structure intact so that it
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