Taste of the Desert

Sotol plant.

Sotol plant.

Sotol, El Paso's regional spirit, is made for sipping.

By Ashley M. Biggers

Think of a Mexican and Southwestern spirit, and tequila, or more generally mezcal, often springs to mind. However, sotol — a drink native to this region — best captures the local flavors.

Indigenous peoples began distilling sotol, a drink that takes its name from the plant it comes from, more than a thousand years ago in what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The weak, fermented beverage was more akin to beer until the Spanish arrived and introduced the distillation techniques that make the drink what it is today.

The sotol plant takes up to 15 years to mature, which infuses it with the flavors of the Chihuahuan deserts and highlands where it grows. So much so, in fact, that sotol is known to have terroir, just as wine does. In general, the drink is made for sipping not shooting. It also has an earthier, fresher flavor than its mezcal cousin. The region and the individual sotoleros (spirit makers) can create great variation in taste, from sweet to smoky.

Clande Sotol. Flor del Desierto.

Clande Sotol. Flor del Desierto.

Sotoleros almost lost the craft. Mexican laws treated them like moonshiners when they outlawed distilling around the time of U.S. Prohibition.

The craft, however, has survived thanks to the likes of Por Siempre, a brand now in the hands of sixth generation makers. Other labels like Clande Sotol and Flor del Desierto are also leading the way in Chihuahua, Mexico, where many say sotol must be from to earn the name, much as Champagne must be from that region of France to earn that title.

"There is a great connection between sotol and El Paso," says Juan Quintero, a self-made sotol aficionado. "Even though no one makes sotol in El Paso, these families live on the border. For the people who are commercializing sotol, the closest biggest city in the United States is El Paso. They go back and forth. People have the opportunity to see them at the bar and to enjoy their products. It's a regional spirit, and I want a lot of people to know about it."