Nature Notes: Sotol

Photograph courtesy Al Braden, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Sotol is an emblematic Chihuahuan Desert plant, and its distilled spirit is a distinctively Chihuahuan Desert tradition.
Photograph courtesy Al Braden, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Sotol is an emblematic Chihuahuan Desert plant, and its distilled spirit is a distinctively Chihuahuan Desert tradition.

Sotol: A Chihuahuan Desert spirit whose time has come

By Andrew Stuart

West Texans can sample and learn about sotoles, at Marfa’s third annual Agave Festival, June 1-9.

Distilled agave spirits have long been a mainstay of Mexico and the borderlands. But they’ve gone global. Tequila exports from Mexico have doubled since 2000. Mezcal production has risen even more dramatically. And now, the spirit of another desert plant – sotol – is poised for a boom.

Every boom takes its toll. With agave, demand has outpaced supply. Wild populations are threatened, as are agave pollinators, like the endangered long-nosed bat.

Will sotol follow that pattern? Some producers hope to safeguard the ecology, and the deep cultural traditions, of this emblematic Chihuahuan Desert plant, even as they introduce it to a wider world.

Sotol is fundamental to the human story in the Chihuahuan Desert. Native peoples used it in myriad ways – for food, for fiber in sandals, baskets, ropes. Its stalks framed shelters; they were spear shafts and “fireplows,” rubbed in grooves to create fire.

Sotol’s distilled spirit is also a distinctively Chihuahuan Desert tradition.

Juan Pablo Carvajal is a Chihuahua City native. He witnessed the artisanal-mezcal boom during eight years in Mexico City. When he returned home, he sought out his native state’s distilling traditions.

He found those traditions robust. Sotoles are produced across Chihuahua, from desert ranches to mountain communities. But it’s small-scale – a diversity of very local products.

“It was a moment of pride,” Carvajal said, “that we also have these traditions, and we can help usher them in to a new era of putting them in the light and having people see them for what they are and maybe join in and appreciate those traditions with us.”

Carvajal founded Los Magos, a sotol company. He’s an advocate for sustainable production.

Like agave, sotol is a member of the asparagus family. While agaves flower once and die, sotols can flower dozens of times. The plant can live for a century, and its core or heart – the spirit’s raw material – typically regrows after proper harvesting.

Traditionally, distillers do their work in the landscape. Sotol hearts are slow-roasted in earthen pits. Juices ferment in the open air for a week or more. The spirit is distilled – in a copper still – where the sotol was harvested. Seven or eight years later, the distiller returns, to harvest the plant again.

Carvajal said sotol is unique for its “transparency.” Sotol takes 20 years to mature, and in that time “soaks up” the characteristics of its habitat – whether that’s desert, grassland or wooded mountainside.

“You can almost taste the rays on the grass that was growing around the plant,” Carvajal said, “you can taste the intensity of the sun. It’s very present, the desert landscape. It’s funny because, the master distiller we work with, when we go to the ranches and we look at where the sotol is, he always asks me, ‘What do you think it will taste like?’ And when I don’t answer – because I am not a master distiller, I’m not sure – he says, ‘Just look around – it will taste exactly of the environment in which it’s grown.’ And that’s very true.”

At present, wild sotol abounds. But as demand increases, so does the risk of overextraction. Carvajal and his colleagues want ranchers to view sotol as a potential revenue stream, a resource worth conserving and nourishing.

Carvajal said it’s also critical to cultivate sotol in greenhouses, so that wild plants can be replaced.

University of Chihuahua botanists are working to identify the fastest-growing, highest-yielding sotols. Ultimately, a domesticated plant may be most attractive to mass-market producers. That could threaten the diversity of plants, and of spirits. Carvajal said there’s an opportunity now, while the industry is young, to emphasize sotol as a cultural asset, that can bring prosperity to communities.

Sotol grows in much of arid North America. But in Mexico, the spirit has a “denomination of origin” – only spirits from Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango can be called sotoles.

Though the tradition is rooted in Mexico, there are new Texas producers. Carvajal said that new producers, himself included, must approach venerable traditions with reverence. But he said sotol also underscores a shared desert culture, that spans borders.

“In the end I think it represents how we live around the desert,” Carvajal said. “We work a lot, and the yield is little, but it’s great.”

Carvajal and others host a sotol tasting June 8. For more, visit agavemarfa.com.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.