Americans are in love with agave spirit. Not just on Cinco De Mayo, but on all days. Most of that love has been focused on tequila and mezcal, two of the fastest growing categories on shelves today. The Distilled Spirits Council reports that their total revenue climbed by $1.2 billion over the last year alone. Market analysis even suggests that tequila might soon overtake vodka to become the number one liquor in the US.
But a devoted band of tastemakers are seeking out other exciting liquid imports from Mexico. Their exploration is helping fuel an stream of sophisticated flavors familiar to many drinkers south of the border, but only just now becoming known to those north of it. Juan Pablo Carvajal is notable amongst these trendsetters. As co-founder and chief production officer of Los Magos, he is bottling a brilliant and complex spirit native to the state of Chihuahua. And if he has his way, sotol will soon be a household name.
Although it generally holds many of the same earthy, mineral-forward tonalities typical to mezcal, sotol is something altogether different. It is distilled from Dasylirion, which is a spiky shrub that grows prodigiously in the deserts of Northern Mexico. It does bear some resemblance to agave, but it’s actually part of the asparagus family. The towering stem that it blooms several yards towards the sky helps lend the vegetation its nickname: the desert spoon.
Since 2014, Carvajal has been sustainably harvesting the plants and triple distilling them into his Los Magos label. He’s been gaining mainstream traction here in the US ever since. Late last year he partnered with craft whiskey behemoth WhistlePig Rye to develop a one-of-a-kind release: Sasquatch Series 7 — Norte a Durango. The 6-year-old whiskey was finished in barrels that Carvajal seasoned with his own sotol. Now he sits down with Forbes for an exclusive interview, sharing his thoughts on why sotol is having its moment. And why it’s no passing trend.
Why has it taken so long for sotol to find footing in the Mexican spirits game?
Juan Pablo Carvajal: Sotol has a difficult history. It was banned [in Mexico] in the 1920s and many sotoleros [sotol makers] were persecuted, some killed. Distilleries were destroyed and the people who made it were thought of as outlaws. The ban lasted 18 years but the smear campaign for the drink did not end until the late 1980s. Only then did sotol actually have an opportunity to explore its place in the market. A blessing in disguise, I think that that 70-year period of sotol being hidden from the market allowed us today to have a very unique, authentic spirit with a great history and great people behind it, in a market that is looking for artisanal spirits, with elegance and great craftsmanship, originality, adventure and community.
Sotol is placed in a privileged position to give people a unique experience in taste and imagination of a land that is unexplored my many and that holds magic everywhere you look. People respond to the wild nature of sotol and appreciate the delicate and delicious taste.
Los Magos roughly translates to ‘magicians’ or ‘wizards’. What makes this spirit so tied up in mysticism?
JPC: Exploring the desert through Los Magos is an experience of diving deeply into an adventure of the “unknown.” An exploration that shows the richness of a land that, at plain sight, shows very little of itself but if we are willing to look closer a magical world appears. In Los Magos we like to look closely and understand the rhythms of the land, the life of the plants and become an active part of this world. We understand that we are part of a tradition that has served a community for centuries making magic potions for home remedies and beautiful experiences.
How did you first experience sotol?
JPC: My first experience with Sotol was thorough hearing about it in the legends of the wild west history of Chihuahua, stories of family and friends that had sotol and infused it with herbs, nuts and fruit to make potions for home remedies. Finally when I got the opportunity to taste it the experience was underwhelming, but only because it was not that artisanal sotol of the stories that I had heard. Then going to far off places inside the state of Chihuahua and talking to people I would ask them about sotol and more often then not they would sell or gift me a bottle of the sotol they personally had crafted. It changed my perception of sotol. Sotol became an exploration of flavor of the land, a way of understanding were I was and how the past had become the present for many of us. It allowed me to explore culture and tradition with the fun of having a delicious drink in my hand. I never looked back.
What is the biggest misconception about Sotol?
JPC: That it is an agave. Sotol is not an agave based spirit because the sotol plant is not an agave. It is a completely different plant that has its own varieties and brings a completely different flavor profile to the table.
Tell us more about some of those differences.
JPC: Because of its wild harvest, sotol plants bring a lot of the flavor from the land into the end product. Chihuahua can be divided into three areas: the desert to the east, the mountains to the west and the grasslands in the middle. All of these places are home to sotol plant, and in every environment different characteristics show through the spirit. From the desert you get minerality, from the mountains you get wet earth and pine tree freshness, from the grasslands you get herbaceousness; from the process you get sweetness and a little smoke. Sotol is a fine balance that lands right in between tequila and mezcal in people’s imaginations. A flavor rich spirit, with a smooth mouth feel and a long finish, great for sipping and in cocktails. Technique varies from corner to corner of the Chihuahuan Desert, but sotol should always reflect the flavor of the land.
Although its been a protected category in Mexico since 2002, there are American ‘sotol’ brands popping up on shelves today. Where do you stand on that recent phenomenon?
JPC: We believe that Sotol is a tradition that has been mostly present in the northern part of Mexico, specifically in Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, three states in Mexico that share the Denomination of Origin for this spirit. This Denomination of Origin arose because the production was here and has been here for hundreds of years. We believe that if people want to make spirits from the sotol plant in other areas that don’t belong to the Denomination of Origin, that they should respect the traditions that have existed here for so long and the efforts that the sotoleros have made to show its richness to the world.
Talk to us about regulation within the sotol denomination.
JPC: There is a certifying entity in Chihuahua for Sotol called Consejo Certificador del Sotol (CCS) and its main focus is to certify the production of Sotol, protect the DO [denomination of origin] and promote the category worldwide. This effort will only become significant if our market, the people who are drinking sotol, recognize and ask for sotol that is made in the DO and is certified. There is a long way to getting to where the CRM [mezcal regulation] and the CRT [tequila regulation] are today, but we are willing to walk that road and show the world that there is magic in the Chihuahuan Desert, and that that magic is called Los Magos Sotol!
What is the number one thing you want people to know and remember about sotol?
JPC: Sotol is a cultural asset of the Chihuahuan Desert. When you taste sotol what you are experiencing is the magic of the desert and its peoples. It is those traditions in liquid form.