For ages, sotol has been the regional vaquero drink in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila while merely a popular style of moonshine in west Texas. Desert Door Distillery in Driftwood, TX, aims to change that by putting a U.S. twist on this ancient, under-appreciated spirit.
The evergreen sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri, of the family Asparagaceae) or “desert spoon” typically grows on rocky slopes in the desert grassland at 3,000-6,500 feet elevation in the Chihuahuan desert of Mexico and parts of New Mexico and west Texas. Texas also has a variation (Dasylirion texanum, Asparagaceae) that is related more to edible asparagus than to agaves and so is less useful for distilling.
Traditionally, desert spoon is never cultivated but wild-harvested, fermented then distilled. One mature (12–15-year-old) plant will yield approximately one 750 ml bottle of sotol at 80 proof. Sotol’s exclusivity to and accessibility within its native Mexico has also prevented its rising in volume and quality as compared to its internationally recognized cousins of tequila and mezcal. With the opening of Texas’s Desert Door Distillery, this may change.
In 2016, pursuing executive MBAs at University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, native Texans and retired military Ryan Campbell, Brent Looby and Judson Kauffman became interested in the annual Shark Tank-style pitch competition held by Texas Venture Labs. At first, they didn’t have an actual business to pitch, so they ran through several options. First, they researched then dismissed Campbell’s idea of developing pilotless cargo planes. Kauffman argued they should shoot for something easier. They spitballed the idea of getting into the alcohol industry by, as Kauffman put it, “testing the market at bars over the summer in Austin!” They wondered if they could create a spirit from something grown on his grandfather’s west Texas ranch.
“We looked at the craft brewery industry’s focus on innovative, unique products with no rules in creating new products,” said Campbell, “but the craft distilling industry was rehashing or only flavoring already existing products without an innovative component to what, for example, Jim Beam was doing.” Sotol offered the unique niche they were looking for. Out of 50 entries at the competition, their shared concept to create an authentic Texas rendition of the cross-border drink came in third.
Sotol’s complexity, history and richness of story is what kept them on this path. Campbell described how native cultures in northern Mexico and west Texas have used the sotol plant for food and its leaves for weaving hats, mats and baskets dating back hundreds of years. He cited cave drawings at Big Bend’s Fate Bell Shelter that show people having mind-altering experiences drinking sotol.
Kauffman claims fermented sotol as the first alcoholic beverage likely to have been consumed in this part of the Americas. “We were looking at the Texas history first, then Mexican, wanting a clear distinction between the two sides of the border, wanting this to be our rendition without copying our neighbors. We experimented on our own without learning from the Mexicans.”
“It was naivety that partly brought us here—along with hope,” affirmed Looby. “Our business plan had us taking the abstract to the marketplace; what we did in school constitutes 90% of our current reality, though the brand identity vision has grown some. We had artistic license to do what we wanted but along the way we had some tremendous failures.”
Construction at the Driftwood site (near the famous The Salt Lick BBQ and a handful of Hill Country’s finest vineyards and wineries and about 25 miles from Austin) began July 1, 2017, and full production commenced November 1. Desert Door began selling spirits to the public on November 16. They currently only distribute in Texas, but Kauffman says word is getting out: “We’ve gotten phone calls from all over the country.” He adds, “We’ve been successful generating awareness in our core central Texas market via social media with the hippest stores, restaurants and bars in Austin and San Antonio.” When pressed about introducing consumers to a wholly unique product he admitted that “99% of consumers don’t notice batch variation, though bartenders working with us have. Creating overall awareness and pushing it through with sales to consumers has been a significant difficulty.” I asked about the opaque, blue ceramic, flip-top vessel that contains their main product, and he confirmed the intention was “having the bottle seem as if it was something you’d find a century ago.”
People in Mexico, let alone the USA, aren’t screaming for sotol. So why do the work creating something from nothing—especially without an existing consumer or even trade demand? “We fell in love with the plant despite Judson’s early west Texas experiences being horrible,” exclaimed Campbell. “We hopped in the car and harvested sotol, cooking it in my kitchen—if you walked into my house over [those] eight months [of research] you’d notice an odd smell fermenting from my bathroom—then [we distilled it] in Brent’s garage. When everyone else was out on a Friday night we’d be at Brent’s running it all night. There was a lot of pride of ownership thinking it tasted amazing before taking it to Judson, telling us it tasted like old socks.”
The trio sent the sotol plant through a wood chipper, then put the chips into a cheesecloth bag “because we couldn’t find a pressure cooker large enough to cook it whole. We’d even wrap it in foil to smoke it, working on flavor profiles with little success; if you’d made a list of the work begun two years ago getting us to this point we’d have thought it unfeasible and walked away… It’s a Texas interpretation of what’s long been done in Mexico and not cultural appropriation since, as you rightly point out, no one’s screaming for sotol! We didn’t swipe recipes nor knowledge from anyone since nothing has been written of sotol,” Looby reminded me. They spent a full year just finding an equipment maker able to fashion something they’d care to use. They also hired as distiller Ken Kobrin, whose previous experience was restricted to cider. Kobrin basically learned alongside his bosses.
Desert Door contracts with ranchers who have access to over 200,000 acres in the western Texas Ozona-Iraan area. Their hired crews wild-harvest 400–500 sotol plants of varying sizes twice weekly, trimming off the spiky leaves before transporting them to the Driftwood production site. Plants weighing an average of 25 lbs. are first split then shredded roughly before being pressure-steamed three days at 200°F. They are then sent through a screw press, which extracts approximately 700 gallons of liquid laden with fructose, glucose and inulin (a variant of fructose). Fermentation occurs over 5–6 days, arriving at an ABV between 4–4.5%. At this stage, about three degrees Brix of sugars are left remaining in the sotol, and although no enzymes are used to unlock the remaining sugars, a laboratory advised Kobrin to consider adding a second yeast for a two-step pitch to finish it out. Kobrin explains that “we can squeeze another 1% if we can unlock those last three Brix.”
“We’re improving the quality as we increase efficiency of the production,” said Campbell. They started with a 15-gallon Brewhaus when moonshining and now have a 400-gallon custom-built, dual-head copper column still. They treat their column still as if it were a pot still by running the original distillate at varying configurations thrice more to get to their final product. By the time this goes to print they will have moved over to a custom-designed 1,000-gallon copper pot still with a rectifying column.
Working five days a week, they currently produce 2,200 bottles a month and expect to triple that when the new still is running. Distillations range between 60 and 160 proof, with the final spirit resting a couple of days before being cut to 80 proof, resting again to allow the exothermic process to take hold before bottling. The oak-aged version spends another year or so (“it’s done when it’s done”) in new American oak, then reduced to 100 proof.
Each handmade, swing-top blue bottle sells for $55. Backlit, the painted and glazed white gold labels are difficult to read but are dramatic when front-lit. Desert Door’s website was their own conception which they hired talented designers to make a reality.
The marketing of Desert Door is a textbook success story. Its unmistakable packaging helped it to land distribution right out of the gate with Austin-based Serendipity Wines. The half-hour scenic drive from Austin has proved no impediment to the curious, and its attention to establishing conviviality amongst the community of wineries, food purveyors and fellow distilleries in the Hill Country has laid the foundation of its partners’ efforts in building the market for this tasty, regional desert treat.