In search of sotol: on the hunt for the spirit made from the Desert Spoon

Madera. Photo: Phil Bayly

I had left Marfa, Texas in the dark, the sun was still low but rising fast, bringing the heat of the day. It would be another two hours at least before I reach my destination, Chihuahua City, Mexico. My mission was to see, first-hand, sotol production and I was in good hands. Ricardo Pico, the local and all-round legend is my guide driving a F150 pickup across the Rio Bravo at Ojinaga heading south into the Chihuahuan desert. 

I was in sotol country, a hot, barren wasteland of yucca, creosote and mesquite with horizons broken by dramatic mountainous rocky outcrops cutting across the landscape, home to the Desert Spoon or dasylirion plant. Ivan Saldaña was riding shotgun in the front seat and four of us squeezed in the back. 

The Mexican Appellation of Origin for Sotol is restricted to the states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango. Sotol is not made from an agave but from the genus, dasylirion, a succulent member of the asparagus family commonly known as Desert Spoon.

The dasylirion flowers several times in its lifetime, creating a ‘cabeza’ or head with multiple stems and takes between 10 and 20 years to mature. Approximately seven kilos of raw material is required to produce a litre of alcoholic spirit — that’s approximately one bottle per plant. 

The Dasyliron. Photo: Phil Bayly

When a sotol harvester or tumbadores cuts the cabeza above ground level leaving enough of the stem, the plant will regenerate and grow back. The cabeza of the dasylirion is not as dense as an agave piña and in fact is similar to the artichoke in its structure. There are up to 16 varieties of dasylirion identified including cedrosanum, texano, berlandieri and leiophyllum;  the dasylirion wheeliri is one of the most common species used in sotol production.

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We have now reached Chihuahua, the capital city of the state of Chihuahua, without incident. After checking into my hotel, I went about exploring the several ‘sotolerias’ frequented by locals to get a feel for this desert city.

Chihuahua city, with a population of less than a million people, has a colourful past. It was once used as an operational base by Pancho Villa to attack the USA during the Mexican revolution.

The next day Ricardo and I set off on a four hour drive west of Chihuahua city to visit third generation maestro sotolero, Bienvenido Fernandez Vega at Casa Sotol Fernandez in Madera. It was the beginning of the wet season and as we drove across the high plateau huge rain storms rolled over us, at times obscuring our vision of the road ahead. 

Mina San Antonio. Photo: Phil Bayly

As we climbed into the Sierra Madre Occidental, the vegetation began to change from desert to pine forest. We were around 2200 metres above sea level in a region that usually has snow in the winter months. The visuals were surreal with the Desert Spoon plants growing amongst pine trees right out of volcanic rock. 

Madera is a sotol-producing town close to the border of the state of Sonora and the vinata (distillery) of Casa Sotol Fernandez is located on its outskirts. 

The Sotol here tasted of pine, eucalyptus, mint and moss. Bienvenido offered me one of his sotols distilled with deer meat; at 55% ABV it was warming and savoury with hints of pine nuts, orange, caramel and cacao — I asked for more.

He explained that it was also common in this region to use a combination of agave lechuguilla and dasylirion when making some spirits. 

Bienvenido Fernandez has been producing sotol here for more than 40 years and is a local hero. Coincidentally, after our short tour of the vinata, a crew from Radio Madera 96.1FM arrived to interview him.

As the sun went down, the temperature dropped rapidly from the pleasant 27 degrees of the day, to a shocking 12 degrees, ouch! It was time to get back to the desert.

Two days later I was in Juan Aldama, a small town east of Chihuahua and a centre for sotol production in the area. My guide is third generation maestro sotolero, Gerardo Ruelas, producer of Oro de Coyame, Sotol Coyote and other brands. He is a warm, bigger than life character with a smile to match. 

Gerado has been well-known for his focus on producing artisanal sotol. After a tour of his vinata he drove me to see the source of his sotol cabezas. We left the desert plains at around 1300 metres above sea level, then climbed a further 800 or so metres into the mountains, driving past Santa Eulalia and Santo Domingo towards the silver mine of San Antonio. We were on the search for wild dasylirion plants.

Gerardo explained how easy it was to identify the male from the female dasylirion plants by looking at the colour of the stems. Male dasylirion flowering stems are white and the female’s are red. 

The climate is harsh, with dry washes and rocky hillsides, the soil is porous and thoroughly well drained with vistas of the Chihuahuan desert stretching across the landscape far away below us. 

The taste of the sotol from this region tends to have earthy, herbal, mineral and leathery notes but was soft and delicate on the approach despite being 48% ABV. It was delicious and went down easily.

Processing sotol is very similar to mezcal, the cabezas are roasted in underground pit ovens. The cooked cabezas are then shredded or crushed, then fermented in open tanks using wild, airborne yeast, then double distilled in small copper or stainless stills pots or sometimes more traditional Filipino style stills to produce the final product, sotol.

At present sotol has different classes, they are Sotol Blanco, Sotol Joven, Sotol Reposado or Sotol Añejo; you may find sotol infused with fruits, nuts and spices or rattlesnake including venom or even cannabis ‘marijuana’, better known as oro verde (green gold).

Sotol is still in its early stages of competing on a world stage but it has an amazing history and brands are appearing with a strong connection to heritage and the land, bringing the influence of terroir back into the spirit stronger than ever. 

Some recommended brands if you can find them are Clande, Oro de Coyame, Flor del Desierto, Sotol Coyote and Por Siempre. 

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