Serious Eats: Drinks
Meet Sotol, Tequila's Northern Cousin
Not that long ago, tequila and mezcal were déclassé, the spirits that you were likely to reach for only if you were vacationing in Mexico (or the backup option, sitting in a Mexican restaurant), or looking to venture into the "Damn, did I really do that?" realm of inebriation, or possibly both. Today, of course, tequila's reputation has changed into one with a lot more gleam and glitter, and artisanal mezcal's 15 minutes in the spirituous spotlight has turned into two-plus years. But as delicious as these agave spirits can be, it's worth taking a few minutes to explore another of Mexico's distilled spirits: sotol.
Distilled primarily in the region of Chihuahua, sotol is a northern relative of the more familiar tequila and mezcal. The spirit is made from a wild-growing agavacea variety commonly known as Desert Spoon (or, in Spanish, sotol), which can be found in the arid Chihuahua desert and north into the desert and grasslands of New Mexico and Texas. The prickly evergreen plant can take between 12 and 15 years to mature, at which point the plant is harvested, the heart is cooked and the juice is fermented and distilled, with some sotol going into oak barrels for aging. Like tequila, young plata sotol is clear, while the golden reposado is aged several months, and the light amber anejo may have up to two years of age.
Flavorwise, there's a distinct family resemblance between tequila and sotol: both have an herbaceous brightness and a gentle, fruity sweetness. But while tequila (especially younger styles) has a distinctive peppery snap, sotol is more grassy, with gentle layers of nuanced floral notes in lieu of tequila's spicy bang.
Trying sotol for yourself may take a little searching. The most prominent brand exported to the U.S. is from Hacienda de Chihuahua, which sells an intriguing plata along with well-made reposado and anejo. Other brands (some of which I haven't had a chance to taste myself, so chime in if you have feedback on them) include Don Cuco, Leyenda and 219.
In a cocktail, you'd likely be hard pressed to tell the difference between tequila and sotol; when sipped on its own, sotol may call its more familiar cousin to mind, but its gentle, savory vegetal flavor makes clear it deserves to be tasted on its own merits.
Sotol has a ways to go before it can be considered commonplace in the U.S., but the tap is definitely trickling. Have you tried sotol, either a brand imported into the U.S. or one sampled while visiting Mexico? What's your favorite brand, and which brand do you think would serve as a good introduction for sotol newbies?