When it comes to agave-based spirits, most people are familiar with the most famous and popular — tequila. For years, this liquor has enjoyed little competition in its class. However, in recent years, other agave-based spirits have found their way onto our radar. In some cases, these are beginning to make people sit up and take note.
The first tequila competitor is mezcal. While mezcal is gaining in name recognition, there’s still one agave-based liquor that we bet you’ve never heard of. This new bottle on the scene is sotol.
What is sotol? And how is sotol different than tequila?
Sotol is made from the desert plants Dasylirion wheeleri and Dasylirion texanum (known as sotol in Spanish), which are harvested in the wild. While these plants look like agave and are sometimes classified that way, they are actually part of the asparagus family of plants. This liquor is most closely associated with the Mexican states Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuil, although there are now distillers in Texas producing sotol. Sotol captures the unique desert terroir of the region, and it’s known for its sweet and smoky flavors, whereas tequila has more notes of citrus.
Tequila, mezcal and sotol are all different from one another. While tequila itself is technically a mezcal, different distillation processes and agave plant types create a distinction between the two. On the other hand, sotol uses different plants and production methods altogether, which is why a basic understanding of its production is required if you really want to understand the difference.
Let’s begin with tequila. Tequila is exclusively produced in the Jalisco region of Mexico and contains only one kind of agave, namely the blue weber agave. This plant matures and is farmed once it’s six to eight years old. It is then prepared and roasted to extract the sugars from inside. These sugars undergo fermentation to produce alcohol before being distilled in pot stills. At that point, the newly-produced tequila can be aged in bourbon barrels for a different flavor or bottled right away, depending on the distiller’s preference.
As mentioned before, by definition, tequila is mezcal. You can think of it as similar to bourbon and whiskey. All bourbons are whiskeys in the same way that all tequilas are mezcal. However, mezcal, which has a broader definition than tequila, can be made from any number of agave plants, including the species found inside tequila. Most mezcal producers have a very specific recipe of various agave plants to create a unique flavor profile, which is usually smokier than tequila. In addition, mezcal is generally produced in and around the city of Oaxaca.
Then there’s sotol. Sotol may take up the smallest sliver of the market share, but it’s becoming more and more popular thanks to craft cocktail connoisseurs raving about sotol’s smoky taste. Sotol also happens to be free from the sharp citrus flavor of tequila. The production process is similar to tequila but uses only wild agave. These agave plants mature at around 12 to 15 years and are naturally organic. Used in sotol, the plants yield far less product than other methods. Only around one liter can be extracted from a single plant compared to the six liters extracted from a single plant during the tequila making process. Furthermore, sotol distillation takes place in a column still instead of a pot.
These subtle differences in production deliver notable differences in the drinkable product. Aside from a smokier taste, sotol is known for its impressively smooth and silky drinking experience. Sotol is hard to find, for now, but we’ve rounded up some of the best options below.
1. Desert Door Texas Sotol
The Desert Door Texas Sotol is a great choice for anyone trying sotol for the first time. It’s a versatile spirit that tastes as good mixed in cocktails as it does neat. On a scale of liquors, this sotol can be found somewhere between a desert gin and a smooth sipping tequila. Taste-wise, it delivers a mix of flavors, including herbaceous, vegetal and creamy notes alongside bursts of toffee, mint, cinnamon, clove and citrus. Desert Door Texas Sotol is an experience your taste buds won’t forget anytime soon.
2. Hacienda Chihuahua Crema Sotol
When it comes to sotol, there’s no low-level, cheap option because each sotol bottle requires care and commitment in its production. That being said, the Hacienda Chihuahua Crema Sotol is perhaps the most budget-friendly way to drink this Mexican liquor. This elegant liquor is ideal as a mixer or by itself on the rocks, and at 35% alcohol, this drink will quickly put you in the right kind of mood. Interestingly, the production process of this sotol uses the same yeast found in the champagne fermentation process.
3. Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Reposado
BEST SMALL BATCH
Tequila is often associated with shots and wild nights, but this premium liquor from the Mexican state of Chihuahua isn’t that type of liquor. Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol Oro Puro comes from master distiller José Daumas Gil de Partearroyo. This liquor is aged in white oak barrels, which gives it a light vanilla flavor. Because this liquor is derived from wild plants, it is both USDA organic and Kosher.
4. Sotol Coyote Durango Sotol
Not all sotol is aged after distilling. While this may result in a lesser product in some spirits, it simply changes the tasting experience for sotol. As soon as you open this bottle of Sotol Coyote Durango Sotol, your nose wakes up, excited by the beefy character of this moderately smoky spirit. On the palate, you’ll enjoy a softness surrounded by a noticeable salinity akin to green olive which is certainly evident but not overpowering. On the back end of a sip, your tastebuds will be hit by hints of pepper and lemon before the silk-like liquid is gone.
5. Fabriquero Durango Sotol
The Fabriquero Durango Sotol is another unaged sotol option that proves aged spirits aren’t always better. The unique flavor sits right between tequila and mezcal with a smokiness to tease your senses. Add hints of lemon peel, honeydew and evergreen, and you start to see why this spirit has people coming back for more. The semi-sweet, semi-sour experience is a strange but not unpleasant sensation which is further developed by notes of ripe bananas, menthol and more melon. In short, you really have to try this drink to understand what an experience in a bottle it really is.