Throughout Tucson, flourishing in private and commercial landscapes, in roadway medians and parking lots, grows an evergreen plant with thin, serrated leaves. Some call it a yucca, but a yucca it is not, nor is it an agave. The plant, Dasylirion wheeleri, known as desert spoon in English and sereque in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, belongs to the lily family, or Liliaceae.
In the wild, desert spoon grows on rocky hillsides in places like southeastern Arizona and New Mexico, parts of Texas, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango, at altitudes of about 2,500 to 6,000 feet. It is primarily a grassland species that is extremely tolerant of cold, heat, and drought.
For thousands of years, native peoples have produced a fermented beverage from the cooked hearts of the plant. Pre-colonial, stone-lined baking pits can be found scattered through the mountainous areas of Chihuahua, including at the ruins of Paquimé, in Casas Grandes.
Unlike Mexico’s other distilled spirits—tequila, mescal, and bacanora—which are produced from agave plants, a distilled spirit called sotol is made from the desert spoon, which is a member of the lily family. Sotol has long been a favorite drink in mountain towns of Chihuahua, northern Durango, and Coahuila, as well as remote areas of eastern Sonora.
Incidentally, desert spoon is a very versatile plant that grows extremely well in virtually every part of southern Arizona and Sonora. Although sotol has traditionally been made in Chihuahua rather than in Baja Arizona, the desert spoon plant is an excellent candidate to grow and distill in Baja Arizona.
Keep in mind that in Mexico, sotol has domination of origin status, which means it can only be called sotol when it is produced in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Coahuila. So you can’t use the name sotol for any distilled spirit made from desert spoon produced outside of those areas—but you can still distill it.
The first step in getting to know a product is to taste it. Until recently, this was difficult, as sotol wasn’t made commercially until two companies, Don Cuco and Hacienda de Chihuahua, starting bottling sotol for export.
While both distilleries use wild-harvested plants to make their sotol, they both have conservation programs to ensure the continued survival of the plant in the wild. At Don Cuco, Celso Jacquez and his son, Jacob, are still using the same techniques to bake, ferment, and distill their sotol that have been traditionally used in the mountain towns of Chihuahua for centuries. In contrast, the makers of the Hacienda Sotol use more modern techniques that resemble those used by most producers of tequila.
The product lines from both companies can be found in Tucson—head to Plaza Liquors for a taste.
At the Rancho Guadalupana, in the town of Janos in northern Chihuahua, the Jacquez family is producing Sotol under the labels of Don Cuco Sotol and Ocho Cientos Sotol, with the latter sold primarily for export. Celso Jacquez’s grandfather, Don Refugio Perez, also known as Don Cuco, started the distillery in 1984. Since then, it has remained a family business that now spans five generations. Their artisanal sotol embodies centuries of culture, livelihood, and relationship to the environment by the local people of the region.
In some ways, their products are reminiscent of the smoky quality of Oaxacan mezcals and Sonora’s bacanora, but the taste is distinctly sotol, capturing the true flavor of the plant. Traditionally produced sotol has a marvelous complexity of flavors and aromas rarely found in tequilas.
I lack the vocabulary to describe distilled spirits as professionals do; I have little or no experience when it comes to recognizing the scents of dry river stones, ocean breezes, and hints of fruit or spice. However, much of my life has been spent sampling back-country mescals and bacanora in the Sonoran countryside and I think I can say that I recognize quality when I find it.
Should you like to visit the distillery, Celso and family are very hospitable and open to visitors. They offer rooms for rent and own a small motel nearby for overflow groups. There are several different ways to get to Janos, which is about 200 miles from Tucson; the shortest is via Douglas. Pueblo Partners of Tucson is the importer of their products. DonCucoSotol.com.
“Like Tequila? Love Sotol” is the slogan used by Vinomex, the producer of the sotol sold under the label Hacienda de Chihuahua. Using modern production methods, they produce a sotol that is more refined than the traditional sotol of the region.
The distillery, located in Delicias, Chihuahua, originally produced brandy under the guidance of a master distiller, Jose Daumas Gil, who holds a masters’ degree from the world-renowned École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique in Montpellier, France, and whose résumé includes a cast of well-respected brands such as Martell, Larsen & Moet. When brandy production stopped in Chihuahua, he began producing sotol.
Gil oversees a state of the art production process; the plants are cooked in steam-heated ovens, fermented with champagne yeast, and distilled in a reflux column still. All of their products are of very fine quality, smooth, flavorful, and despite their purity, are rich with sotol flavor.
Like the Don Cuco products, the Hacienda sotols are organic and kosher, but have the distinction of bearing the USDA organic seal. The beautifully packaged Hacienda line features seven sotol products.
Jose Daumas Gil recommends sipping sotol by itself rather than in a cocktail so as to fully appreciate its understated complexity. And if you must, he suggests chasing the sotol with a fruited beverage. VinoMex.com.mx. ✜
Bill Steen and his wife, Athena, are founders of The Canelo Project, a nonprofit organization in Santa Cruz County dedicated to “connecting people, culture, and nature.”