Tequila Lovers, Meet Your Mistress: Sotol

Tequila buffs are always on the hunt for the next, best artisanal producer. In this era of premium bottlings, elaborately packaged and aggressively advertised, the search for "true" tequila can be, ahem, dispiriting. Enter sotol. This extremely small-batch distilled spirit is so new to the American market that only a couple producers are currently imported. It's wild and aromatic, and just might tempt tequila lovers to give it a try.

Derived from the plant dasylirion wheeleri, known in English as Desert Spoon, it may look like agave, but it's an entirely different variety of desert plant. It grows wild in places like southern Texas and New Mexico and, of course, in Chihuahua, Mexico — the capital of sotol. Like agave, the plants require little water, but they grow much smaller than agave, which can swell to more than 100 lbs. (not counting the leaves, which are removed for tequila production). Because sotol is made largely from wild plants, harvesting it is highly labor-intensive, and overall production is far less mechanized or modern than that of tequila.

"Tequila is such a big business now. They grow the agave in rows, like wine vines," says Jason Lerner, a self-proclaimed tequila geek and owner of Masa Azul, a brand new tequila bar in Chicago. "With Sotol, it was always a wild plant. I'm really hoping it takes off because it's one of the only truly small-batch spirits out there."

The production of sotol can be more like that of tequila or more like that of mezcal, depending on the producer. In the case of Hacienda Chihuahua, perhaps the best-known sotol in the U.S. at the moment, the piñas (the heart of the plant that is left after the leaves are removed) are steam-cooked, the way tequila is, resulting in an herbaceous, slightly piquant spirit. Don Cuco, a smaller, family-owned operation, instead opts for roasting in an underground pit, like mezcal makers do, which imparts a smoky quality to the sotol.

"The process can be similar to tequila or mezcal, but the finished product is substantially different," says Lerner, who has several sotol cocktails on his menu. "This is such a terroir product that you end up with really desert flavors when you're sipping an artisanal sotol. The aromas are crazy."

Lerner plans to introduce sotol to his patrons via his signature cocktails. Then, he says, he can start to offer them a little sip on the side, neat. He believes that the potential for sotol is great, in part because few people even know about it yet.

"Tequila has gotten mostly past this, but a lot of people still remember it as the stuff they drank on spring break and got sick on," he says. "But people have no preconceived notions about sotol. It can create its own destiny."

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