Sotol, an Ancient Spirit Is Getting a New Run in the Sun
You probably haven’t yet had your first sip of sotol. Congrats. There’s a helluva barstool discovery left for you to make in this world.
The desert-derived spirit made from a spiny, agave-ish shrub has been running wild across Northern Mexico and the American Southwest for millennia. Third-wheeled as “tequila’s loco little brother” and “Northern Mexico’s answer to mezcal,” sotol is steeped in its own indigenous traditions dating to pre-Columbian times. But things are changing for this spirit now that a dedicated distillery in Texas Hill Country is putting sotol on the drinker’s map, one deep-blue bottle at a time.
“We’re the only sotol distillery in the country—and the reason for that is that it’s really hard to do,” says Brent Looby, co-founder of Desert Door Texas Sotol. He calls sotol “the first legitimate spirit to enter the game since mezcal broke through back in the Urban Cowboy days.” (That being the 1980 film starring John Travolta and Texas.)
Desert Door’s ambitious plan is to “make sotol the next household name.” The Driftwood, Texas–based operation was founded by three military vets who first presented the idea of launching a stateside sotol company during a faux Shark Tank–style MBA class project at the University of Texas in 2016.
“It was purely hypothetical. We were just trying to get a grade on it,” says Looby, a former Marine Corps pilot. “Then one of the guest investor panelists evaluating the viability of our presentation comes up to us afterward and says, ‘If you guys are actually serious about this, we can help you.’”
Desert Door’s distillery has graduated from batch-making trials in Looby’s garage to a bright, glassy enclosure in the Texas hills abutting wild sotol country. A tasting room serves sotol cocktails that include Desert Door’s take on the French 75—a sotol, grapefruit, lime, orange bitters and agave shake-up with a Prosecco topper called a Texas 211.
Looby describes sipping sotol neat as an “herbaceous, floral and custard-smooth” experience with pronounced Texas terroir. “You won’t find a tequila in our price range [about $40] with this much nuance and depth, and it’s not a polarizing spirit like mezcal,” Looby says. “The only thing I’d never have the heart to mix it with is Red Bull.”
Desert Door produces two sotols: original and oak-aged. Both have won gold medals at international competitions. They’ve been making enough to forge agreements with Texas ranchers to harvest over 50,000 acres of the short-trunked, flowering desert perennial. They say they’re forging the first-ever sotol renaissance.
“We think of it as a resurrection,” says Looby. “And a history lesson in a bottle, but with a bright future.”