One Texas Distillery Is Singlehandedly Bringing a Storied Mexican Spirit to the US
Driftwood-based Desert Door is funding research on the native Desert Spoon plant and the delicious product it yields: sotol
When Desert Door co-founder and former Marine fighter pilot Brent Looby first pitched a booze brand during a business school group project, he could never have imagined what would come next.
It involved a lot of (possibly illegal) at-home moonshining, sweat, tears and bottles of less-than-drinkable booze. It all paid off, though, as Looby and his fellow partners Judson Kauffman and Ryan Campbell eventually built something special: the first, and currently only, sotol distillery in the United States.
For the unindoctrinated, sotol can be considered the distant cousin to the much more widely known tequila and mezcal. It’s a complex spirit distilled from a desert succulent that delivers a bonafide taste of its environment.
At the heart of the spirit is the Dasylirion wheeleri, or desert spoon plant, a spiny-leafed plant that indigenous Texans and northern Mexicans have been turning into moonshine for centuries. Now the earthy spirit is finally finding its spotlight in the commercial spirit world thanks to Desert Door.
From the bathtub to the distillery
Today, the sotol created by Desert Door finds its way from the Texas earth into a 6,500-square-foot bespoke production facility dreamt up and built by the three entrepreneurs, who followed through on ambitious plans to create a spirit that was distinctly Texan. An enormous custom steamer sits at the center of the operation, a major departure from the earthen ovens used to create the spirit in Mexico.
In fact, Looby and Campbell tell us that they’ve never even made the journey south to visit a more traditional sotol distillery — a business choice rather than an overlook. The distillers insist that they wanted the final product of Desert Door to sing its own tune, and that visiting (and ultimately comparing) processes at other distilleries could hamper the originality they sought.
Instead, the journey to create Desert Door’s signature sotol was an arduous one that began in the bathtubs, on the lawns and in the kitchens of the founders, whose wives were supportive, yet not surprisingly displeased by the growing amount of homemade liquor that was stinking up their homes, and the plant fibers that continued to overload their food processors.
“We decided, well, if we’re going to make sotol, we probably should know how to make alcohol,” says Looby. “So we invested in a small 15-gallon still that we continue to experiment with to this day.”
Over the next several months, the three would hop into a truck and head over to West Texas to harvest sotol plants, bringing them back to ferment the mash in Campbell’s bathtub before distilling the moonshined product in Looby’s garage on weekends. Out on the front lawn, a wood chipper purchased off Craigslist would whir away, breaking down the enormous plants when the food processors ultimately broke.
Campbell recalls a time when his daughter came home one weekend, walking in wide-eyed to witness the at-home operation. She compared it to a scene from Breaking Bad.
“We pretty much went from making one bottle to being able to make a thousand bottles,” says Looby. “Ryan and I sat down and started sketching things on paper. You know, because largely we were ignorant, and to be honest, if we had known how hard this was at the get-go I don’t know if we would have even done it. You eventually get in so deep that you’re beyond the point of no return, you can’t come back, but if you saw everything that you had to do to get to this point, I just don’t know that anybody in their right mind would do it.”
Luckily, the three founders don’t seem to be in their right minds, because they continue to find new ways to grow the company regardless.
While the journey to create sotol wasn’t exactly smooth for Desert Door, they take pride in the fact that their finished product is. Looby asserts that their sotol tastes like “everything tequila wishes it could be.” A bold claim, but one that isn’t necessarily untrue.
Much like bourbon evokes the notes of its geographical origin, Desert Door’s sotol is representative of the West Texas landscape where it originates, balancing the smoothness of a quality blanco tequila with the earthy flavors one might find in mezcal. Besides tapping into the distinct dryness of the desert, sotol also brings fresh flavors to the palate that surprise: an herbaceousness and notes of citrus that keep things interesting.
Always keen on highlighting the uniqueness of the spirit, Looby also points out that the process by which Desert Door creates their sotol is distinctly more sustainable than that of tequila.
Whereas both tequila and mezcal are sourced from the agave plant, which is hacked from the earth and its tender heart harvested to create the elixir, Desert Door has concocted a way to distill sotol without having to uproot the plant entirely. This means that the plant gets to stay in the dry earth, where it awaits another harvest in a decade or two.
“We kind of need them,” the founders joke. “Developing processes that allow for sustainability has been huge. We only harvest mature plants, we only take about 20 percent of plants per acre and we harvest above the root system. All these things are vitally important to not destroy something that we love. We love West Texas — it’s in our blood, and we certainly don’t want to be the source of the problem.”
Not wanting to be the source of the problem is one thing, but the distillers say they also want to be a part of the solution. Next up on the docket is the second addition to what they call their Conservation Series, just one part of the efforts they impart into the environmental organization the team has brought to life, called Wild Spirit Wild Places.
Available for purchase later this summer, Spoke Hollow is a collaboration between the distillery and a local ranch where Wild Spirit Wild Places performed a cedar removal.
“In the spirit of the project, we’ve done a botanical take on our original, infusing it through the distillation process with juniper that’s been wild harvested off the ranch, and about six or seven other botanicals like grapefruit, orange peel, rose hip and coriander,” says Looby. “It’s effectively a gin, but instead of using a vodka base we’ve used our sotol.”
You can keep an eye on their website for more info on how to get your hands on one of the small-batch bottles, but for now Looby and Campbell say the best way to enjoy their original is in the form of a Desert Paloma.
“It’s the most insane cocktail I’ve had in my life,” says Looby.
Insane? Coming from the guy who shared a bathtub with fermenting plant matter for the better part of the year, that’s really saying something.
The Desert Paloma
1.5 oz Desert Door Original Texas Sotol
1.5 oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice
0.5 oz Fresh Lime Juice
0.5 oz Agave Nectar
Combine all your ingredients in a shaker. Add ice. Shake vigorously. Strain into rocks glass. Add fresh ice and garnish with a grapefruit wheel.
The Secret to Great Cocktails? Find Out in The Spill.
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