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Sotol 101

Tequila is probably the best-known Mexican spirit among American libations lovers and mezcal has been making its mark outside of its country of origin too. But there's another Mexican spirit that you may not know about, even though it's been made for more than a 1,000 years: sotol.

Often called tequila's and mezcal's cousin, sotol is made from the desert spoon plant. The “cousin” comparison isn't exactly accurate; the desert spoon, frequently mistaken as a relative of the agave (used to make both tequila and mezcal) is actually a member of the lily family. And unlike tequila, which is made in the state of Jalisco, and mezcal, whose denominación de orígen (D.O.) includes six states in central and southern Mexico, sotol's D.O. includes the northern states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Durango.

Despite its long history, the millennium-old spirit remains relatively obscure in the United States and that's not likely to change anytime soon. Even if sotol gained the visibility and popularity of tequila and mezcal, the supply wouldn't be able to keep up with demand. In fact, supply is already an issue; sotol makers can barely keep up with the limited demand that exists right now in the market outside of Mexico.

There are a few reasons sotol can only be found on a limited number of shelves in the U.S., says Steven Traina, beverage director at Richard Sandoval's Zengo NY and La Biblioteca de Tequila, a restaurant and bar in New York City. First, says Traina, the desert spoon plant can take as long as 15 years to mature before it can be harvested for sotol. Second, an entire plant is needed for a single bottle of sotol. Scaling beyond small-batch levels is sotol producers' biggest challenge. 

But the other reason why finding and tasting sotol may take on the proportions of an epic quest, explains Traina, is that the alcohol per volume (APV) tends to vary by batch. In New York, at least, a state with some of the most stringent liquor laws, variation in APV is a significant problem.

“According to the New York State State Liquor Authority,” says Traina, “any change in the packaging, labeling or product itself–including the APV– must go through the State Liquor Authority for reapproval. This process may take up to three months. If a distillery changes its APV due to differences in their batches, it can slow down the distribution process and delay the product from getting to consumers.”

Zengo NY and La Biblioteca de Tequila are one of the few places that stock and sell sotol, and Traina says that one of the reasons (besides those related to supply) is because smaller bars and restaurants simply don't have the resources to go through the reapproval process repeatedly.

Traina says very few guests at Zengo NY and La Biblioteca de Tequila have come looking for sotol and most have never heard of the spirit. But Traina and his staff enjoy introducing sotol to guests and often do so after learning that they are traditional tequila or whiskey drinkers. In that case, says Traina, he'll offer sotol reposado or añejo, either neat or on the rocks, as an alternative. “Guests are usually pleasantly surprised,” he says. Traina also offers sotol blanco in the bar-restaurant's Mexican spirits tasting flight, which also features a tequila, a mezcal, and a macanora, another liquor derived from agave. “When raicilla becomes available in our market, it will also be included in the flight,” he says.

When they're not serving sotol straight, the mixologists at Zengo NY and La Biblioteca de Tequila might include sotol in an old-fashioned or classic cocktail or a very contemporary cocktail. “The vegetal and herbaceous nature of the sotol blanco makes it great for a daisy or margarita,” says Traina, “or even a spiked agua fresca, using hibiscus or tamarind.” He also recommends adding fresh fruit–strawberries, cherries, raspberries—to sotol blanco or sotol reposado to make a smash. Sotol has a smooth flavor and a finish that lingers, Traina says.

Hacienda de Chihuahua is the primary producer of sotol and most of its bottles are destined to end up on bar and restaurant shelves rather than home liquor cabinets. While a number of liquor stores in California and Colorado carry sotol, it's much harder to find the spirit in other states. But if you're determined, says Traina, just ask your favorite liquor store to order a bottle just for you. “Sotol is available,” he says, “and from one of the largest distributors in the country,” so if you're desperate to taste sotol for yourself, just be persistent and patient.

As Zarela Martinez, Mexican chef and cookbook author says, it was once challenging to find tequila and mezcal here, too. Martinez, who grew up on a farm in Chihuahua where sotol was made, expects the spirit will–eventually–be as well-known in the States as tequila and mezcal.

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