Over the central plaza of Chihuahua City, the capital of the Mexican border state of Chihuahua, someone has painted a brightly coloured mural of—what else?—a chihuahua. The diminutive, skittish canine is somewhat the antithesis of the state it's named after; Chihuahua, you see, is a dry and rugged place, where cowboy culture developed amidst canyons, deserts, and the sierra. And perhaps nothing better represents this than the local spirit, sotol—the dangerously delicious cousin of tequila and mezcal.
"Understanding sotol is a way to understand the magical essence of Chihuahua," says Juan Pablo Carvajal, a young sotol entrepreneur whose brand's name—Los Magos, or "The Magicians"—encapsulates this idea. Carvajal is part of a young generation of sotol enthusiasts who are trying to bring the spirit from the rural Chihuahuan countryside to the rest of Mexico, and eventually, to the world.
Just blocks from the mural, the city's hippest bar, La Sotoleria, is leading the charge.
"I didn't want to open a normal American- or European-style bar, nor a typical Mexican cantina, the kind you see in the movies with cowboys and donkeys," says owner Armando Marin. "I wanted do something contemporary that also touched into Chihuahua's northern tradition."
When the conquistadors crossed the Atlantic to Mexico, they brought the process of distillation along with them, leading to the development of sotol. The spirit is named for the desert sotol plant from which it is made, unlike agave-based mezcal and tequila.
At La Sotoleria, Marin houses cured blends whose tastes range from sweet like liqueur to smooth, high-percentage distillations with no after-bite. He is especially proud of one exotic flavor that he sourced from the nearby distillery Oro de Coyame. Named Elixer, the sotol is made with 27 local herbs—two of which are marijuana and peyote.
"The marijuana is for relaxing the nerves, and the peyote, well, it's something wonderful. It's a medicine for everything," says Gerardo Ruelas, the owner of Oro de Coyame and its resident maestro sotolero. This distillery's blends are now one of the few sotols available internationally, sold under the name Fabriquero. Ruelas, who learned the craft here, takes a great deal of pride in being a modern-day sotolero.
"The peyote, well, it's something wonderful. It's a medicine for everything."
"They never thought it would get further than the cantinas in Chihuahua," says Ruelas, whose grandfather (pictured below) once sold the spirit to Al Capone's men. Although sotol boomed during Prohibition, in the decades that followed, the Mexican government nearly ended the industry when they emphasised the importation of foreign liquors and the consumption of national beers.
Eduardo Arrieta, also a maestro sotolero and the second cousin of Gerardo Ruelas, calls it the "sotol persecution."
"Back then, if you had a problem with the government, they'd just kill you," says Arrieta, who at 64 claims he is the oldest sotolero left standing in the state. As a child in the '60s, he says he lived through some of the worst times of the persecution. "It was very sad when they tried to get us to stop producing sotol; we couldn't afford food, we'd go days without eating sometimes. My family had to keep the tradition alive clandestinely."
Arrieta says he enjoys drinking Ruelas' sotol, but then laughingly adds that he thinks his own is the most chingón—a Mexican profanity that in this context can best be translated as "badass."
"I don't have the market, but I have a very good product," he says as we are joined in the Chihuahuan countryside by Jorge Caldera and Ricardo Pico, two sotol entrepreneurs who are trying to change that.
Caldera and Pico's brand, Clande, is widely available in Mexico, and they expect to send their first batch to the United States and Europe before the end of the year. In their tasting room in Chihuahua City, they keep a wide range of sotols curated from around the state—even varieties infused with beef and goat.
Caldera says each blend of sotol tells two stories.
"We couldn't afford food, we'd go days without eating sometimes. My family had to keep the tradition alive clandestinely."
"First, the plant's story, that grew wildly in the middle of nowhere. How much have you changed in 15 to 20 years? How much of the change was caused by the places you've lived, the people who were your friends? The plant will grab some of the characteristics of the little flower nearby, or perhaps a chile plant, so it will be a little spicy," he says. "The second is the story of the maestro sotolero, who, like the plant, has had a tough life, who's learned the craft from his parents, grandparents, who taught him to distill the products correctly. Sotol invites you into the heart of the plant and the person who made it."
The two young entrepreneurs give off a hipster-cowboy vibe, repeatedly stressing their goal of making Clande an environmentally conscious brand where a majority of the profits go back to the rural communities that produce the sotol. But their modern sensibilities are balanced by the spirit's rugged roots.
"We call it Clande to represent the people that persisted through the persecution," says Pico. "Sotol isn't for everyone. It's rough sometimes, it's for the outlaws, it's for the ones that live free, the ones who travel to unknown places."
It is, he says, "the Chihuahuan tradition."