Just like necessity is the mother of invention, sometimes scarcity is the mother of discovery.
Over the last two years, did anyone else become a master bread baker, aerobics instructor, or seamstress? Or did the closure of your favorite cocktail bar have you stocking up on ice and fancy liquers?
I fell into the latter category.
It was November, and I just had just received a birthday gift of some basic bartending tools. The evening called for margs. I had my limes, my homemade simple syrup, and a bottle of Cointreau. All I needed was a solid, mid-range tequila. That was when I learned, as I faced sparse shelves at my local liquor store, that the pandemic had caused both a surge in tequila sales AND an agave shortage. The mezcal was similarly sold out. Fortunately, my flavor-obsessed chef partner had an excellent backup plan: “See if they have sotol,” he texted me.
I scanned the shelves back and forth until I found two options sitting dustily in the corner. While I’d describe myself as open to unfamiliar spirits, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I chose the more reasonably priced option, the $25 Hacienda Chihuahua Crema Sotol, as I was intrigued by the unfamiliar spirit, the region of its origin, and the idea of a creamy cousin of tequila.
Before tasting, I read a few articles describing the process of growing and distilling sotol, as well as the difficulties surrounding its Mexican producers.
I was first surprised to learn that, unlike tequila or mezcal, sotol is made not with the Blue Weber Agave plant, but rather varieties of the Dasylirion plant (also called “desert spoon). The wild-growing succulent is found mainly in Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahila, and some parts of Texas. The plant ages for eight to fifteen years before it can be harvested. Much like the process of producing tequila, the piña, or center core of the plant is shredded and roasted slowly before fermentation, resulting in a uniquely earthy, grassier taste than what you’d expect from tequila, but with that hint of smokiness that is the signature of mezcal.
For the environmentally-minded drinker, the Dasylirion plant is as fascinating and complex as the spirit it produces. One plant makes one bottle, as opposed to blue agave’s higher yield. And yet, unlike agave, whose root system is destroyed during harvest, with great care, the root system of the Dasylirion is able to remain intact and regrow. Some Soloteros are going one step further and cultivating new plants, ensuring its sustainability as not just a source of the spirit, but used also for food, clothing and shelter for centuries. (More info here.)
At first taste, I detected the bright scent of fresh-cut grass, followed by a slightly citrusy, wet earth note that finished remarkably into savory vanilla. The smokiness presented itself in the mouth, and emitted through my nose as I breathed out. For its creaminess, the mouthfeel was light and not overly-sweet, which was perfect for my palate. The overall effect was head-clearing and fresh, despite the warm smokiness and the smooth creaminess. I poured myself another ounce to sip, and soon wound up ditching my other ingredients to enjoy the complexity of this spirit on its own.
Why don’t we all know more about this exceptional spirit? It may have something to do with Prohibition-era crackdowns on sotol and its producers. In the 1920s, the U.S. mafia and a few ruling-class Juarez families set up their own facilities to produce cheap whisky and brandy in Mexico. Around that time, sotol production came to a standstill. The inability of sotoleros to keep up with the rock-bottom prices of the other spirits (as the production process is so labor-intensive), combined with a smear campaign that labeled the spirit as an inferior drink fit only for the lowest class, and a campaign of violence and persecution against the soloteros themselves, nearly wiped out the practice altogether.
When I sip sotol now, I drink to the souls of these early soloteros and their families. When I purchase sotol, I know I am supporting a proud tradition, the well-being of the families who can now produce it freely, and the beauty of the landscape in which it was born.