Sotol Is the Mexican Spirit You Likely Haven’t Heard Of—Yet
Tequila is synonymous with Mexico, and mezcal is on the rise. Spirits such as sotol, pox and tecuí, however, are gaining in popularity among people in the know. Here’s what you need to know about these trending spirits.
“For a long time, it was persecuted by the Mexican government. People claim that the Mexican government was doing that to protect large producers of tequila and cognac. It’s making a comeback because people, especially bartenders and a new generation of drinkers, like to sip on something authentic, artisanal and different than they have tried before. A recent shortage of agave helped as well.”
– Marko Milunovic, Beverage Director, La Mejikãna in Chicago
Once a working-class spirit, sotol is making its way to high-end bars. The agave-based spirit is a cousin to tequila (but can’t call itself such because it is not made in Jalisco, nor does it contain blue agave, which would allow it to be classified as such) and mezcal.
“It is known as aguardiente,” says Hugo Cesar Damian Ramirez, beverage manager and head mixologist at Royal Hideaway Playacar in Quintana Roo. It’s a term that translates to “fire water,” which is aptly given to liquors that cause a burning sensation on their way down. The drink is seeing a rise in popularity, thanks to interest in small-batch, artisanal products.
“For a long time, it was persecuted by the Mexican government,” says Marko Milunovic, beverage director at La Mejikãna in Chicago. “People claim that the Mexican government was doing that to protect large producers of tequila and cognac. It’s making a comeback because people, especially bartenders and a new generation of drinkers, like to sip on something authentic, artisanal and different than they have tried before. A recent shortage of agave helped as well.”
Up until recently, sotol was a regional beverage with limited distribution. Today, interest in the product has led to a wider availability, including in the U.S. market.
The process of making sotol includes harvesting the hearts of the desert spoon plant—which takes 20 years to grow—and cooking it in underground lava rock-lined ovens. Only spirits made in the deserts of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua can carry the name of “sotol.”
Ramirez recommends consuming the beverage straight or paired with an orange slice dipped in salt containing crushed agave worms. If you prefer to mix it with a chaser, the Mexican native recommends acidic juices to bring out the spirit’s flavor: Pineapple, orange, passion fruit and tangerine are the ideal companions.
Milunovic says carne asada tacos or steak pair best. But if you’re not much of a meat lover, then try it with creamy goat cheese or manchego cheese.
“The ones infused with fruits and spices are really tasty,” he adds.
Sotol isn’t the only Mexican spirit seeing a surge in popularity.
Because of an interest in small-batch, artisanal products, these regional liquors are catching the interest of consumers looking for a more homegrown product. Below is a cheat sheet of additional rising spirits south of the border.
This type of rum is made of distilled sugar cane and can only be produced in the state of Michoacán, within the city of Uruapan. It is still not well known in the United States, but it is gaining popularity. It faced extinction when the main distilleries closed, yet saw a revival through artisanal makers. Marko Milunovic, beverage director at La Mejikãna in Chicago, suggests using it as a mixer in cocktails like the classic daiquiri. He says it pairs best with seafood.
The spirit native to Chiapas was used in Mayan ritual ceremonies to talk to the dead. The grain alcohol has a smooth, smoky corn flavor. Katsuji Tanabe, executive chef of Barrio in Chicago, recommends drinking it straight or over ice with a splash of water.
A white, foamy concoction that looks like thin milk is the best way to describe this regional beverage found in the states east of Mexico City. The drink is the result of a fermented maguey, better known as the agave plant. Its popularity was in decline for some time, but has since made a comeback. It spoils quickly, so the best way of getting a high-quality product is to consume it while in Mexico.
Served warm, this boozy beverage is made from sugar cane and oranges. Its name is a Nahuatl word that translates to “the one that moves or makes the heart happy.” It is most commonly consumed during the holiday season, which begins with Dia de los Muertos and ends with the New Year. Its flavor can be enhanced by adding pineapple, apples, cinnamon, guavas, nuts and sugar cane.
Made from fermented pineapple and sweetened with piloncillo, this fruity, boozy drink has a low ABV percentage. That means it’s easy to sip on its own or mix it with a stronger liquor like mezcal or bourbon. Pair it with al pastor tacos.