We’re far from the first to predict that sotol is going to be the next big thing. In fact, both sotol and it's sister spirit, bacanora (a Sonoran spirit that, mind you, will likely become the new sotol), have been awaiting star treatment all summer. Agave-hounds with ears to the ground probably heard about both spirits a while ago, but chances are even hardcore cocktail enthusiasts haven't been able to locate a bottle. The distribution channels for both have been thin until very recently, stemming often from family-run operations and little regulation on sotol and bacarona production.
So what is sotol? Well, maybe you just started to get the hang of mezcal, tequila’s smokey, Oaxacan cousin. Any drink that’s good with tequila, bartenders seem to think, could be better off with a complex layer of smoke and fire. So over the last few years, mezcal has creeped its way into the local scene and became a near fixture for every spring and summer menu this year.
But ever since the New York Times noticed sotol popping up on high-profile menus like the one at Enrique Olivera’s Cosme, local bartenders looking at East Coast menus have become disenchanted with mezcal in favor of something new. They've begun looking for any way to get their hands on what might be the future of agave spirits.
There are some key differences between these agave cousins. Sotol is equally as unique compared to a standard tequila, just in a very different way than mezcal. While each of these spirits have certain geographical restrictions — bacanora must be made in in Sonora, mezcal in Oaxaca, sotol and in Chihuaha — it’s arguably the growing, harvesting and processing practices that lead to the greatest distinctions right now.
Mezcal gets the smokey hit its known for from the way its cooked, in a fire pit. What makes sotol unique, however, is that its distillers choose only a single variety of agave called Desert Spoon, cooked absent of smoke in a traditional agave oven. The plant, which grows all across Chihuahua and into the hills of Texas, exhibits a much more herbaceous profile than it’s family members.
Travis Nass, of the Last Drop at the Hermosa Inn in Paradise Valley, is one of the few people in town who's got his hands on a bottle of sotol.
For our research, Nass opens up the bottle of Por Siempre sotol, and we can immediately smell its bouquet before taking a closer whiff. Sometimes colors are the best, or at least a very simple way, to describe an aroma. “It has this huge green note,” Nass says of the sotol. It’s undeniably, vibrantly herbaceous. Not evergreen, in the way that a forest is damp and decaying, ancient and rich, but very fresh. “And it’s much more balanced than than the Ocho Cientos [another brand of sotol], which has a high note," Nass says. “It has a little sweetness to it that some of the others don’t.” We notice a tropical aroma. “I get guava,” Nass says.
“Sotol is my favorite spirit. Period," Nass says. “Or at least as of right now. There just aren’t a lot out there, but I haven’t tried one that I haven’t liked.”
And even though the spirit is just breaking into the mainstream, Nass is already worried about what will happen once it does. He fears that more regulation on scould push quality higher and availability — but might also edge out some of the family famers with very sotol small operations.
“Right now it’s basically only tradition regulating sotol and bacanora,” he says.
Meanwhile, mezcal has risen to tequila-heights as some of the most regulated spirits in the world.
“You can expect very little funny business [with mezcal],” Nass says.
He wishes the same for sotol.
As for bacanora, we haven't had the opportunity to try it. Nass describes it as being a little more smokey. Aside from its rugged production, it could be the wild harvesting and Sonoran climate that lend most to the flavor of bacanora. In addition to some more readily available brands, like Ocho Cientos' Cielo Rojo, Nass has been able to try some very, very small batches — some off the grid kind of stuff. “It was amazing,” he recalls of one batch that tasted like Pedro Ximénez, a desert sherry with a very nutty, raisin-y profile, mixed with mezcal flowers.
Sotol is, and bacanara too, in our opinion, versatile and interesting enough to be a star spirit. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen a bottle of sotol on anyone’s shelf other than Nass’s, though he thinks he might’ve seen one hanging out at Arcadia’s Crudo.
“If mezcal is the scotch of the agave world, sotol is the gin,” Nass says.
In other words, mezcal whether aged or not has caught on for many of the same reasons people are drawn the charred cask-imbued bourbons or the peatiness of scotch. And sotol, by contrast, does not have herbs and spices added to it, like gin does, but the green, herbaceous character of the of the desert spoon plant shines through to much of the same effect.
Nass thinks everything form a French 75 to a dirty martini would be great made with sotol.
“A clover club with this would be delicious... A martinez with this would be really delicious,” he says.