Tequila is probably the best-known Mexican spirit among American libations lovers and mezcal has been making its mark outside of its country of origin, too. There's another Mexican spirit, though, that you may not know about, even though it's been made for more than 1,000 years: sotol.
Often called tequila's and mezcal's cousin, sotol is made from the desert spoon plant. The “cousin” comparison isn't exactly accurate; the desert spoon, frequently mistaken as a relative of the agave (used to make both tequila and mezcal) is actually a member of the lily family. And unlike tequila, which is made in the state of Jalisco, and mezcal, whose denominación de orígen (D.O.) includes six states in central and southern Mexico, sotol's D.O. includes the northern states of Coahuila, Chihuahua, and Durango.
Despite its long history, the millennium-old spirit remains relatively obscure in the United States and that's not likely to change significantly anytime soon. Even if sotol gained the visibility and popularity of tequila and mezcal, the supply wouldn't be able to keep up with demand. In fact, supply is already an issue-- sotol makers can barely keep up with the limited demand that exists right now in the market outside Mexico.
There are a few reasons sotol can only be found on a limited number of shelves in the U.S., says Steven Traina, beverage director at Richard Sandoval's Zengo NY and La Biblioteca de Tequila, a restaurant and bar in New York City. First, says Traina, the desert spoon plant can take as long as 15 years to mature before it can be harvested for sotol. Second, an entire plant is needed for a single bottle of sotol. Scaling beyond small-batch levels is sotol producers' biggest challenge.
But the other reason why finding and tasting sotol may take on the proportions of an epic quest, explains Traina, is that the alcohol per volume (APV) tends to vary by batch. In New York, at least, a state with some of the most stringent liquor laws, variation in APV is a significant problem.
“According to the New York State State Liquor Authority,” says Traina, “any change in the packaging, labeling or product itself–including the APV– must go through the State Liquor Authority for reapproval. This process may take up to three months. If a distillery changes its APV due to differences in their batches, it can slow down the distribution process and delay the product from getting to consumers.”
Next, where you can find sotol...