Sotol, spirit of the North American desert


In Seminole Canyon State Park, just west of Comstock, Texas, ghostly red figures, painted on rough cave walls in ancient times, silently watch over pits where indigenous people cooked desert spoon, a wild plant that grows abundantly in the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

In November 2017, Judson Kauffman, with friends and fellow veterans Ryan Campbell and Brent Looby, started offering Desert Door Texas Sotol, a distillate of desert spoon.

“Native Americans started using this plant 8,000 years ago,” says Kauffman, “and they provide the earliest record of sotol being used by humans. They made bread with it, they made baskets, and even buried people with it in the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s not a Texas or Mexican spirit: It has a shared history.

In Mexico, sotol, like tequila and mezcal, is a protected name, like France’s Champagne or Italy’s Parmigiano-Reggiano. In Mexico, sotol may be produced only in specific ways and regions of Mexico. The U.S., however, doesn’t always abide by laws protecting the names of foreign products.

Sarah Bowen, a professor at North Carolina State University, is the author of “Divided Spirits” (2015, University of California Press), a book about the politics of tequila and mezcal production. Bowen explains, “No one in other parts of Mexico is allowed to make sotol. But because the United States doesn't recognize denominations of origin, distillers in Texas can do whatever they want.”

Larry Olmsted, author of “Real Food, Fake Food” (2016, Algonquin) believes that calling the spirit sotol “fools consumers. If someone tried to make Mexico's more famous spirit, tequila, in Nebraska, consumers would raise an eyebrow, but because they don’t know that sotol is an indigenous, geographically protected name, they buy the story.”

The men behind Desert Door Texas Sotol, however, make the case that the desert spoon plant has been growing in their part of the world for thousands of years. As kids, they knew neighborhood guys who moonshined the spirit known as sotol, made from the desert spoon. It’s understandable to contend that both spirit and plant are as much Texan as they are Mexican.

Whether Americans ultimately accept Desert Door Texas Sotol probably depends less on politics and more on the palate. Kauffman compares his spirit to tequila and mezcal. There’s an earthiness to Desert Door sotol, a grassy herbaceousness, a touch of mint on the nose, which Kauffman compares to aromas that hit you “when you’re driving through the desert with the windows rolled down.”

We like it straight, with a squeeze of lime. And there’s no denying, the plant from which sotol is made has grown in North American deserts for millennia, long before there were places called Texas or Mexico.

David Hammond is a freelance writer.

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