Sotol is something that has been around in Mexico for a while, but it’s just starting to gain some traction here in the United States. In its normal state sotol is a clear liquid that isn’t usually aged, but the folks at Desert Door wanted to find out what would happen if they used a couple different maturation techniques from around the world. Their first version is a port cask finished sotol, which is the first entry in their Explorer Series.
The Desert Door distillery is the story of what happens when you encourage scope creep for your college class assignment… and then it takes on a life of its own.
Back in 2016, three classmates at the University of Texas at Austin — Judson Kauffman, Brent Looby, and Ryan Campbell — were enrolled in a “New Venture Creation” course as part of their education. As part of the course, they needed to create a fictional company to present to the class as a part of a competition. The rest of their peers were focusing on high tech and internet based companies, but these three decided to do something a little different and a little more old school. Judson Kauffman’s uncle had told him stories about Texans moonshining using the locally abundant sotol plants in West Texas and the trio decided to try and come up with a distillery business based on that authentically local history.
They won first place in the competition. And then they decided to try and do it for real.
With no experience in the spirits industry, they decided to get their hands dirty and start figuring it out for themselves by experimenting with a fifteen gallon pot still and driving out to West Texas to harvest wild sotol plants. While sotol is a well-established spirit in Mexico, they made a conscious decision to not visit any of those distilleries, instead wanting to come up with a process and a flavor profile that was uniquely Texan.
Two years later, in 2018, the trio completed their distillery in Dripping Springs, which is along the heavily traveled “290 wine road” between Austin and the town of Fredericksburg. In the years since, they have started experimenting with barrel aged sotol, different finishes, and numerous craft cocktails.
This might be one of the more unique and sustainable production processes I’ve seen.
Sotol is a plant (technically an “evergreen shrub”) that grows wild in West Texas and Mexico. Similar to an agave plant, the sotol plant features a central core with spiky leaves coming out of it, but there’s also a large stalk that protrudes from the top of the plant and makes it look like a spiky cake pop. It’s also been called a “desert spoon”.
Rather than farming their sotol plants, the folks at Desert Door harvest their plants from the wild Texas desert. Even then though they don’t take everything — only taking less than 20% of the plants per acre — they still make sure to leave the root structure in place so the plants can continue to grow and reproduce.
Once the sotol plants are collected, the leaves are shaved from the central core, which is where the plant stores its extra energy as complex carbohydrates. The core is steamed to cook those carbohydrates into sugars and to make the core soft enough to be pressed to extract the new sugary liquid.
That newly extracted sugary liquid is fermented for a period of about five days using a proprietary strain of yeast before it is fed into the distillery’s custom hybrid still — a large steam-jacketed copper pot still which feeds into a small column still. The spirit leaves the still at 155 proof or about 77.5% alcohol by volume.
Desert Door is using their Explorer Series to experiment with different techniques and styles from around the world. In this case, the distillery got their hands on a port wine cask from Spain and used that to age some of their sotol for an undisclosed period of time before proofing down and bottling it.
The vast and overwhelming majority of distilleries, even those producing things as mundane as vodka, use glass bottles and jars for their packaging. It’s relatively cheap, readily available, and is less of a headache to put into the distribution chain. Desert Door went a completely different route with this bottle and I have to applaud their style.
Desert Door uses a ceramic bottle for their packaging, but with an overall form factor that is very similar to a traditional liquor bottle. There’s a cylindrical body, a nice round shoulder, and a medium length neck that sports a slight flare in the middle. For this edition there’s also a leather wrap around the neck. The bottle is capped off with a rubber stopper that is held in place by a metal bracket that my wife is perpetually incapable of understanding how to operate (I’m fairly certain that’s just her, though. I have no issues opening this, so your results may vary.)
The bottle is completely opaque, with a shiny deep blue paint on the exterior of the bottle. There’s the necessary markings on the front written in golden metallic paint (their unaged spirit uses silver paint, and the aged stuff is in gold), the required legal stuff as a sticker, and on the back is the Desert Door logo molded into the bottle itself.
Since this is such a limited release of their spirit, I wouldn’t expect much difference between this and their normal bottle — and, in fact, the only real change is that there’s a tag affixed to the bottle that goes into more detail about the contents and the process.
In general, I really like the “outside the box” thinking here. It reminds me of the ceramic bottles from Clase Azul, which I also appreciate. But similarly to Clase Azul, I have to take them to task a little bit for hiding the spirit inside (so you can’t see what you are getting) and for making it more difficult to determine how much spirit is actually left in the bottle.
While the regular version of sotol is clear as water, the time in a port cask has added some nice rich amber to this liquid. It looks like a nice bourbon at this point, but it definitely doesn’t smell that way.
For the aroma, it’s a little lighter than the regular version, but I still get that cedar note loud and clear. As you’d expect from a port cask finished spirit, there’s a little bit of candied fruit or fruitcake in the background, but it’s more of a supporting character than a main cast member.
In general, the flavor profile is still pretty dark, but the notes are more muted. Instead of the independent components being loud and clear on their own, it’s more of a well rounded mixture. I still get some of the spices on the front, specifically some cinnamon and nutmeg — but the star anise seems to be gone from the picture. I do get the clove as well, but as the flavors move toward the finish, some of the candied fruit or fruitcake notes from the port start popping in and making themselves known.
It’s still got the components of the sotol that I liked from the OG version, but it’s just better composed and with some added complexity.
There are some interesting things going on here, and I’m not mad.
Essentially, what we find is that the order of the flavors are flipped compared to when taken neat. I get a lot more caramel in here than I did before, followed shortly by the fruity notes from the port finishing. And that cedar note I usually get from sotol is relegated almost completely to the finish, just adding some complexity and depth to the profile.
It’s almost like a well-aged cognac with the level of fruit in here. That is, until that cedar note brings it back down to earth (in a good way).
This is legitimately awesome.
I love how much fruit and sweetness is coming through here, even though I don’t add any simple syrup or sour mix to my margaritas (just the Cointreau, which does have some sugar). It’s a delicious combination that really balances out what is otherwise a typically bitter or bright cocktail. In fact, it does such a good job that I really have to ask myself if this is still a margarita or if we’ve created something new.
I’d say it’s absolutely worth a try. Sweet and fruity, delicious and complex.
I love experimentation, and I love trying new things. I think this bottle is an excellent example of the fantastic results you can get when you successfully marry some old-world-traditional with some new-world-ingenuity.
If there’s one thing I had to say against it, it’s that I still don’t think this has really reached the pinnacle of what barrel aging can do for this spirit. I’d love to see what a couple years in an oak barrel can do here, and it doesn’t even need to be a charred barrel — something this expressive should be fine going the scotch whisky route and using only lightly toasted barrels. I just think it needs a little more time to really extract those sweet and caramel flavors from the wood.
That said, this is still an absolute banger of a spirit. To pull back the curtain a little bit: this bottle is actually on loan from a buddy of mine. And I do mean loan — he made it abundantly clear he wants it back. And now I can absolutely see why.
|Desert Door Texas Sotol Explorer Series Casco Porto|
Produced By: Desert DoorProduction Location: Texas, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $49.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
I love a good mashup, and that’s exactly what we have here. Old world meets new world, with a fantastic result.