Sotol’s Cultural Appropriation

sotolFor over the past seven years, I’ve been a huge supporter of the Mexican spirit known as sotol.  You can read what I had to say about it in Tom Barry’s excellent article, A Sotol Story.

In case you’re unaware, sotol is made from the Desert Spoon plant (Dasylirion wheeleri) that grows in Northern Mexico, as well as Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas, and what is known as the Texas Hill Country, and all the way south to Oaxaca.

Sotol has its own Denomination of Origin, and can only be produced in the Mexican states of Durango, Chihuahua, and Coahuila.

In the latter part of 2017, there has been a good bit of positive press like this one in Forbes, for three gentlemen from Austin, Texas who have produced their version called Desert Door.  They’ve even opened a distillery in Austin and are giving tours of their facility.

Claiming historical evidence that it has always been smuggled across Texas borders as moonshine, the owners of Desert Door have been quoted in the Forbes article as “…We want to make sotol to Texas what bourbon is to Kentucky.”

In other words, they propose that their version of sotol be adopted as Texas’ official spirit.

Caution:  Rant Ahead

The above statement prompted the following late night Facebook Live rant on one of our final days of the Wild Wild West 2017 Tour.

It was brought to our attention that the above rant was considered “strained,” “weak,” and “petty” after it aired on Facebook.

While the reader had some valid points for his argument, here’s what we do know–

The Facts on Sotol

–Sotol does have a Denomination of Origin (DO), as mentioned above, since 2001-2002.  It is recognized by 27 countries, except the USA.

–Under the original North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1993-94, only Tequila and Mezcal were recognized by both the US and Canada, while Bourbon Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, and Canadian Whiskey were all recognized by Mexico.

–However, the 1997 agreement between the European Union and Mexico recognized the intellectual property of Tequila, Mezcal, Sotol and Charanda.

–At this writing, we have solicited samples of Desert Door Texas sotol for our Sipping Off he Cuff(c) series, but have yet to receive any.

–We have tasted Genius Liquids’ version of Texas sotol made from the Dasylirion texanum, a variety of the plant that grows in Texas.  You can read all about it in our article A Sotol By Any Other Name.

Pay close attention to the owner, Mike Groener, as he explained the lengths he took to distill an authentic product by conferring with several sotol producing families in Mexico.

–It is true that Mexico has been less-than-stellar in protecting and maintaining its DOs, especially lately when it comes to amending the Mezcal normas (regulations) and admitting additional states into the producing and growing regions.

It seems that whenever the transnational corporations that heavily lobby for such changes in order to line their pockets (remember NOM 199 ?), the Tequila or Mezcal Regulatory Councils see fit to do so.

The Denominations of Origin in Mexico have failed small agave spirits producers.  The fact that the US has randomly recognized only a few of these DOs, doesn’t help, either.

–Our sources point out that the Sotol Regulatory Council is not as well financed as the other two major councils.  Their efforts to police and protect its DO are hindered by disorganization and (shocker, here), corruption.

Those sotol producers with pedigree find this fact a source of frustration and disappointment.

–In Sotol’s defense, the original petition for its Denomination of Origin clearly states the archaeological and historical evidence of its existence south of the border, as well as north of it.

The indigenous people who inhabited what is now considered the Borderlands, have a centuries old cultural tie to the sereque (sotol) plant.  Its everyday uses were discovered and exclusively utilized by them.

–The oldest permit to distill sotol commercially on both sides of the border belongs to the famed Jacquez family of Janos, Chihuahua, makers of the Don Cuco and Por Siempre brands.

–And, yes, sotol has been smuggled into the US since before Prohibition.

Probably, the most famous of these smugglers was Pancho Villa, who at one time maintained a “stash house” in El Paso, Texas.

Ironically, he was a teetotaler.   He did, however, partake of sotol for medicinal purposes.  After all, he was born in the Mexican state of Durango, part of the Sotol Denomination of Origin.

Sotol Smugglers’ Blues

Lastly, we salute the partners of Desert Door and their well funded efforts.  Texas has a long entrepreneurial history of Empresarios.

What it does not have is a history of distilling this particular spirit as part of its culture in order to support whole families and communities.  This, in fact, is what Appellations of Origin were designed for.

As Sarah Bowen , a member of our Women In The Tequila Industry gallery discussed in this Facebook thread–

…what is really needed is a more rigorous and thoughtful legal system that recognizes DOs across borders.

Failure to do so could result in a reverse effect for Bourbon Whiskey, Tennessee Whiskey, and Canadian Whiskey within its own borders.

Tit for Tat

The obvious question is–

Why doesn’t Mexico just make their own version of Whiskey and call it Bourbon?

As Ricardo Pico of Sotol Clande so eloquently put it in his response to this Facebook thread…

“…out of respect for an existing category and because we don’t have a tradition or heritage…on Bourbon production.”

Open Doors

Showing respect–a true Texas tradition–especially for an existing spirits category, was successfully accomplished by Genuis Liquids.

Perhaps, someday, like the Karakasevic family when they produced their Charbay Tequila at the renowned La Altena distillery with the blessing of Tapatio’s Carlos Camarena, someone on this side of the border will distill a true sotol at a proper vinata (sotol distillery) on the other side?

It could–and should–happen.

Por Siempre Sotol Review

Mike and Alex taste and discuss our first Sotol of 2016, Por Siempre Sotol.

sotol, por siempreAbout SOTOL POR SIEMPRE

From the high desert slopes of the Sierra Madres Mountains, in the heart of Chihuahua, Mexico, comes Sotol Por Siempre. A unique spirit distilled from the hearts of wild-harvested sotol, the vital desert plant that has sustained the peoples of this region for thousands of years. Two distillations in an alembic copper pot still preserves subtle smoke and earth flavors which are imparted by pit roasting and open-air fermentation. Six generations of the Perez Family bring you Sotol Por Siempre.

Compania Elaboradora de Sotol, a 6th generation distillery, is proud to introduce Sotol Por Siempre to the United States. An authentic spirit of Mexico, not distilled from agave, but from the native Sotol or desert spoon it shares characteristic similarities to its cousins in spirit, Tequila and Mezcal.

VOLUME: 750 mL
ABV: 45%
NOSE: Opens with bright citrus and white flowers quickly growing herbal and vegetal with an intense note of damp, freshly turned earth and whispers of wood smoke and black pepper.
PALATE: Black pepper spice, earth, mineral, wet stone, rich and chewy texture with a long, dry and mildly smoky finish.

Enjoy Sotol Por Siempre neat, in classic drinks that call for agave spirits like the Margarita and El Diablo or in creative, contemporary cocktails.

La ofrenda…#sotolporsiempre #sotol

A photo posted by Tequila Aficionado (@tequilaaficionado) on

Find Por Siempre Sotol Online

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A Sotol By Any Other Name

[On a sweltering August afternoon, Tequila Aficionado Media was invited by Mike Groener, CEO and President of Genius Liquids to sip and savor the latest addition to their Desert Spirit line, Texas Sotol, at their distillery in Austin, TX .]

Here Comes the Rain Again

MonsoonDay

Ask anyone who has spent any significant amount of time living in the Desert Southwest during Monsoon Season, and they will tell you that they can smell rain.  At those times, your part of town may be sunny and bone dry, but a strong breeze will carry the scent of falling raindrops for miles.  Sooner or later, the skies darken, thunder rolls, lightning strikes and the floodgates open.

Similarly, those who have sampled significant amounts of tequila or mezcal wet-cement-signduring their lifetimes will admit to the elusive “wet cement” flavor profile evocative of rain hitting a hot, dry sidewalk.

The latter is so rare these days with tequilas attempting to become smoother and more neutralized, and mezcals being distilled at the more accepting entry level 80 proof (40% ABV) than traditional higher strengths.

But try to describe true sotol such as Don Cuco as I meekly attempted to in Tom Barry’s insightful article, A Sotol Story , and you can fumble to find the words.

“To me, Don Cuco Sotol carries the best of all worlds.  It opens up — blooms — so much that it demands to be treated like a fine wine.  It has the smokiness of some of the best mezcals, but the flavor is simultaneously reminiscent of the best tequilas and then, not at all.”

Tumbando_sotolThe best descriptor that one can come up with is that sotol made in Chihuahua, Mexico smells and tastes like desert rain falling in that region.  It is arguably the truest illustration of the term terroir.

But what does Texas Sotol represent?  That’s what we came to Genius Liquids’ headquarters to find out.

Humble Beginnings

Mike Groener describes Genius Liquids’ humble beginnings and explains the process and challenges in producing Genius Gins and their new Texas Sotol.

The use of champagne yeast was at the suggestion of tequila Siembra Azul’s maker, David Suro, whom Mike met through John Garrett, a friend and spirits supervisor at distributor Victory Wine Group based in Dallas.

Here, Mike discusses more about the inspiration to use champagne yeast in his spirits.

Conscientious Objector to Vodka

Genius Liquids distills three types of gin (standard strength, navy strength, oaked), and Texas sotol, but no vodka.  Distilling something “odorless and tasteless doesn’t represent any piece of art” according to Groener.

Why Sotol?

2015-08-15 13.05.20To learn more about Chihuahua’s native spirit, Groener did his homework.  Through his relationship with Garrett, he has met Judah Kuper, co-founder of Mezcal Vago and spent time at Judah’s family mezcal palenque.

He has also sought advice on his Texas Sotol from Jacob Jacquez, fifth generation distiller of the legendary Don Cuco Sotol, and creator of newcomers, Ocho Cientos and Por Siempre sotol brands.  He has also communicated with representatives of the globally available Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol.

Groener admits that Genius Liquids is a bit egotistical when it comes to deciding what to distill, and prefers a challenge instead of the easy way out.

Sotol By Any Other Name

das_texanum(3)
Dasylirion texanum.

This lovely spirit of Mexico is not without its controversy.

Sotol from Chihuahua, Mexico is distilled using the dasylirion wheeleri plant, more commonly known as desert spoon or sereque in Spanish.

Genius Gin’s Desert Spirit Texas Sotol, however, uses North American sotol or Dasylirion texanum grown, wild harvested, cooked, fermented, and distilled in Texas.  This variety has evolved into a more compacted and hardier plant, designed to survive the harsh Texas summers.

All dasylirions were at one time considered distant relatives of the agave (agavaceae), but it is actually more akin to asparagus.

Mike furthers the debate and recounts the labeling issues concerning the word sotol, and why Genius Liquids prefers to brand it through their Desert Spirit line.

Texas Hill Country in A Bottle

Mike Groener pours a sample of Texas Sotol into my three types of glassware.  Unlike tequila, and to some degree, mezcal, sotol still does not have an official tasting glass.  Lisa Pietsch, Tequila Aficionado Media’s COO, describes it as “Texas Hill Country in a bottle.”

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Like Master Distiller,  German González elaborating on how he came to create his opus, Tears of Llorona, Mike expounds on how, through their process, Genius Liquids has composed a transportive spirit in a “non-Auto-Tune way.”

 Tails of The Funk

Much like Montelobo’s Dr. Ivan Saldaña’s love affair with mezcal’s funkiness, Mike demonstrates how he carefully uses the colas (tails) after distillation to enhance Genius Liquids’ Desert Spirit Sotol.

The Magic Ingredient

Careful not to get too technical with his method of distillation, but with the same umph of Carlos Camarena’s (Tequila Tapatío) passion, Groener breaks down the love involved in producing a Genius Liquids spirit.

The Future

The first batch of Desert Spirit Texas Sotol was so well received that it sold out within two weeks of being launched.  The plan is to move Genius Liquids to larger digs due to the oppressive heat that prevents them from fermenting properly.

Groener spells out what the future holds for Genius Liquids and its expansion.

Off camera, Mike divulged that he’d like to wrestle with the challenge of producing a traditionally made Texas mezcal agave spirit, and has already sourced maguey for that project.  There are also plans for a blended agricole rum.

2015-08-15 13.06.27

In whatever direction Groener takes Genius Liquids, one can be sure that it will continue to seek, define and express the true meaning of Texas terroir–one small batch at a time.