With the booming craft distillery scene here in Texas, the vast majority of the distilleries are turning out some combination of vodka, rum, gin, and whiskey — all spirits that originated overseas and have been brought to the States. Others are turning out an “agave spirit” that’s similar to the traditional mezcal or tequila, but not quite the same. However, one distillery decided to do something completely local and regionally authentic, which I’d never even heard of before: sotol.
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 then feeds into a small column still. The spirit leaves the still at 155 proof or about 77.5% alcohol by volume.
For this expression of sotol, the distillery doesn’t do any post distillation maturation. Instead, they simply proof down the spirit with some local water and bottle it at 40% alcohol by volume.
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. The bottle is capped off with a rubber stopper that is held in place by a metal bracket (which my wife is hilariously incapable of understanding how to operate).
The bottle is completely opaque, with a shiny deep blue paint on the exterior of the bottle. The necessary markings are on the front written in silver metallic paint, the required legal stuff as a sticker, and on the back is the Desert Door logo molded into the bottle itself.
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, 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.
Just like with a traditional tequila, this spirit is as crystal clear as a fresh mountain stream — but with a significantly stronger aroma than said stream. It doesn’t have any of the sweetness you’d get in an agave based spirit, instead it’s a much more herbal and earthy aroma profile. It’s honestly like sticking your head in a cedar chest and taking a big whiff: cedar wood leading the charge, a little fresh morning grass, and maybe just a hint of mint or menthol.
Surprisingly, though, there are way more flavors in the actual spirit than there are aromas in the glass. There’s a hint of black licorice or star anise up front, some cloves, a bit of nutmeg, and then the cedar kicks in and ties it all together with that wood-y and herbal profile. That cedar and clove flavor is what lingers in the aftertaste, which is a surprisingly pleasant combination.
It’s a smooth and level-headed experience, not at all what you’d expect from an un-aged white spirit.
Lighter spirits tend to be negatively impacted when you add a touch of ice to the glass. This is because their lighter and sweeter flavors usually aren’t strong enough to stand up to the dilution and the cold. Here, there are definitely some flavors rearranging themselves in the glass here, but overall the darker flavors that we saw before are still present even with added ice.
Specifically, the cedar and hint of star anise is really what’s remaining behind. It’s like the finish when taken neat, just for the entire experience. I’m a pretty big fan actually — it almost reminds me of a glass of pastis once you’ve watered it down a bit.
There’s something interesting and different going on here, and I’m a huge fan.
With a tequila, a margarita is usually a sweet and sour ball of deliciousness that tends to be a little unbalanced towards the bright and shiny side of the spectrum. But with the sotol replacing the tequila, this takes a darker and richer tone that provides some complexity. It’s no longer just a bright, lime-y drink — it’s interesting in a whole new way and I’m here for it.
I think this is great. There are some really great and truly unique flavors going on here, and the spirit really adds some interesting character to cocktails when you give it a try. I’d group it in with other spirits like a mezcal, something that also typically has a bit of an earthy vibe going on, but I think that cedar note from the raw materials is really much more interesting than I get with many agave based products.
I can’t wait to see what this looks like with a bit of age on it.
|Desert Door Texas Sotol|
Produced By: Desert DoorProduction Location: Texas, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 50% ABV
Price: $39.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 5/5
An authentic Texas spirit that does its own thing with a delicious result.