I sat around a backyard campfire a few weeks ago – well before Dry January set in, during which I’ve given up booze – sipping something new with a few friends.
Desert Door Distillery in Driftwood had sent over a bottle of sotol, and we poured out a few shots. I expected the amber-colored liquid, made from the sotol plant, a distant relative of asparagus, to taste like its cousin tequila, which is made from the agave. Both plants are spiky and native to Mexico, after all, and in my mind I assumed any liquor distilled from either would taste roughly the same.
Not so. The sotol tasted more like smoky bourbon than something I’d mix into a margarita. (I also wondered if it would make my pee smell funny, the same way asparagus does, after I drank it. The answer is no.)
It seemed to pair well with the log burning in my fire pit.
Eager to learn more, I read an article in a 2017 issue of Esquire about a group of entrepreneurs in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua who were working to popularize the spirit around Mexico and beyond. Which explains, sort of, why suddenly it’s popping up in bars and backyards all around Texas.
Three entrepreneurs here in Austin, who met at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, founded Desert Door that same year. Today the distillery, at 211 Darden Hill Road in Driftwood, has a large outdoor patio and a desert-themed tasting room where you can sample the stuff.
The company uses sotol plants harvested in West Texas to make its spirit, which the company describes as having a sweet citrusy and herbal flavor, like a desert gin crossed with smooth sipping tequila. “Versatile as vodka!” they said, suggesting it as a substitute for tequila in a ranch water, paloma or margarita.
I don’t have a sophisticated palate, but I know what I like. I didn’t taste the citrus, but I did catch a breath of that bourbon-esque combo of toffee, vanilla and spice, with a smoky overtone. (Or maybe that was the firepit?)
I like the idea that it tastes a little like earth, too, since the distillery, the only producer of sotol in the United States, just introduced Back Burn, the first offering in its new “conservation” series. The variant is made with Texas sotol plants charred during prescribed burns at the sprawling 7 Oaks Ranch in West Texas.
According to a press release, Back Burn features hints of mint and eucalyptus, plus an undertone of wet earth and smoke. It sells for a suggested retail price of $49.99, and a portion of proceeds will fund the distillery’s next conservation project – and sotol variant.
“When we started Desert Door, we fell in love with how the sotol plant represents West Texas and the land itself. Whether through our harvesting techniques, conservation efforts, or educational content, we look at all of these components as opportunities to increase the conservation of the plant and the land it thrives on,” partner Ryan Campbell said.
Also worth noting: When the pandemic first hit, the company added hand sanitizer to its regular operations and donated more than 70,000 8-ounce bottles to first responders, police departments and restaurants, and contributed 3,000 gallons to supply hand-sanitizing stations at the University of Texas in Austin.
All of which makes me want a little more, perhaps to go. And just my luck. Besides more traditional containers, you can get a 200-ml container of Desert Door sotol packaged in a special metal flask, making it perfect for that next Big Bend camping trip.