When the United States banned alcohol production in 1920, spirits from Mexico began illegally crossing the border. Alongside mass quantities of tequila was the lesser-known sotol: a north Mexican moonshine with a similar flavor profile.
“We exported 300,000 liters during prohibition,” said Ricardo Pico, of the Chihuahua-based distillery Sotol Clande, who has spent years studying the drink.
After prohibition, the Mexican government – protecting the interests of large alcohol companies – embarked on a campaign to paint sotol as an unrefined peasant drink. Mexico criminalized the production of sotol, destroyed distilleries and imprisoned maestro sotol makers.
While the tequila industry surged, clandestine sotol operations continued in Mexico, with ranchers and farmers harvesting the sotol plant, fire-roasting it, then fermenting, distilling and ageing the final product for local consumption. For decades, sotol remained a local specialty with little exposure to the outside world.
“For most,” Pico said, “it became a forgotten spirit.”
That may be changing. Nearly a century after prohibition began, sotol has re-emerged within the US market, growing steadily over the past decade. A few years ago, just one brand was available in the US; today there are 10. Like mezcal before it, sotol has capitalized on the growing interest in authentic, hyperlocal and ethically sourced spirits.
“Products with a story,” said Pico, whose company is a cooperative supporting five small producers in rural Mexico.
“They are artists more than distillers. They are making irreplaceable batches based of centuries of knowledge. That is what consumers want,” said Pico, noting that Mexico finally legalized the drink in the 1980s.
It’s “something that can only be made here,” said Ariana De León of Sotol Cinco Tragos, the only female-run sotol business located near Ciudad Juárez in northern Chihuahua. “This is Juárez in a bottle. A taste of our history.”
That history stretches back millennia. In pre-Columbian times, Native Americans in northern Mexico and the south-western US began making alcohol out of the sotol plant by harvesting and fermenting one of the 16 varietals of sotol (also known as desert spoon), which resembles a cross between agave and yucca.
When the Spanish introduced stills, this new technology was incorporated and the modern spirit was born, cementing itself in the culture of northern Mexico.
Legend has it was drunk heavily by Pancho Villa and his army as both an intoxicant and tonic. The drink was often aged with snake meat and venom to give the spirit medicinal properties. That tradition continues today at distilleries such as at Oro de Coyame, outside of Chihuahua city, which keeps a barrel full of live snakes on hand for milking. The drink is often bottled with a rattlesnake inside.
Sotol is a deeply complex and very transparent plant,” said Pico, explaining how the range of flavors in the sotol spirit directly reflects the land in which the plant is grown. “Desert sotol is very herbal, earthy and minerally. Forest sotol is greener, with flavors of moss, bark, truffle and pine.”
While sotol has seen a rise in popularity, with dozens of makers emerging in the past 10 years, it was long absent from the mainstream drinking culture in the US and Mexico. “Younger generations of Mexicans were only interested in scotch and tequila,” said Pico, who previously worked for Hacienda de Chihuahua, the largest sotol company in Mexico.
Today that is changing. On the busy Avenida Benito Juárez, just over the bridge from El Paso, Texas, a line of bars stretch south toward Juárez’s city plaza. Just a few years ago sotol was elusive here. Now it’s everywhere, with numerous bars and liquor stores catering to foreigners and locals.
“It’s buzzing,” said Ricardo Hatfield, the owner of La Esquina De Chihuas in Juárez. “Six months ago we had no sotols. Now we sell a variety. It’s got that hipster feel.”
“People are looking for something better than shit tequila,” said Mike Morales, the executive editor of TequilaAficionado.com and one of the most prominent tequila journalists in the US. “I have said that when tequila drops the ball, sotol will be next.”