Sotol’s history is as long as it is rich, tracing its lineage back hundreds of years to Mayan agave beer. When the Spanish introduced liquor stills to Mexico, farmers started upping the proof of their offerings. In the south, those who harvested the country’s nearly 200 species of agave made mezcal. Tequila splintered off as the region around the eponymous town of Tequila built a reputation for a distinct style of the spirit made only from blue agave.
In the north, meanwhile, near the U.S. border, the sotol plant, known informally as the desert spoon, was harvested to create a unique spirit that was popular during U.S. Prohibition. After legal alcohol production returned stateside, however, sotol’s popularity dropped off. Now, tequila exports total more than a whopping 100 million liters per year, while mezcaleros send about one million liters abroad. Sotol sales, on the other hand, are on the order of a few tens of thousands of liters per year, and so it has tended to stay on back roads and in village kitchens.
While we ate breakfast with Reulas’ kids, a neighbor walked in to gossip and drink. Ruelas’ middle-school aged son filled a water glass full of Elixir, eliciting only mild protest from the neighbor before he settled into the cup of 96-proof alcohol.
Blindness is not an unreasonable concern when drinking moonshine
“Lots of people, when you offer them sotol, they say, ‘No, I’ll go blind. It’s for ranchers,’” says Armando Marin, an architect who opened a sotol bar, La Sotoleria, in 2014 in Chihuahua City as a sort of cultural heritage center.
Blindness is not an unreasonable concern when drinking moonshine: methanol poisoning from poorly processed liquor is no joke, and you should definitely know your distiller (and let them drink their hooch first). The sotol at the bar, however, is established enough that, like top-shelf booze around the world, it’s entirely safe … in moderation.
La Sotoloria is tucked into an alley full of chic clubs. Just around the corner, the 18th-century Catedral Metropolitana de Chihuahua dominates the historic city center, where old couples dance into the evening. Shops spread out in all directions, watched over by a colorful mural of a Pop Art Chihuahua dog. In the bar, bottles, lit from below by multicolored lights, sparkle on the walls.
Marin gets a lot of tourists looking for an authentic if comfortably familiar experience, but also draws in some Chihuahueños curious about their grandparents’ liquor. Most of what’s on Marin’s menu is not traditional—hamburgers and mojitos both made with sotol, for instance—but he’s making an effort to educate his clients about the traditional spirit. Sotol facts are scattered on the ceiling between abstract paintings.
“We are so Americanized with our drinks, drinking Budweiser and whatever,” interjects a waiter, inexplicably dressed in a red bathrobe and oversized sunglasses. Many city dwellers stick to the international standards: Johnnie Walker and cheap beer.
“I think it’s probably a tiny impact, but we put more people in touch with sotol,” says Marin. He carries a variety of liquors but features Ruela’s prominently.
The waiter, whom I now notice is wearing bath slippers to match his robe, sets a tasting flight in front of me with six shots of sotol in as many earth-tone shades. “If you want to shoot it, as you like, but I don’t suggest it,” he says, flip-flopping back to the bar.
I opt to sip through the range. The anejo is lightly fruity and finished with sweet smoke. A version blended with almond is rich with cinnamon and tropical flavors. Another blended with walnut flavoring is cloyingly sweet.