Ricardo Pico’s story makes for a good backdrop for understanding sotol in Chihuahua. It’s not because he comes from generations of sotol makers, but rather it parallels the beverages resurgence in Chihuahua and its appreciation in the rest of the world.
Sotol – what’s in a name?
To understand why Ricardo Pico’s work in bringing sotol to national and international attention is so important, you must understand the spirit’s history, which has some unique twists,
The word “sotol” comes from Nahuatl tzotollin. Not uncommon for translations from this central Mexican Indigenous language, there are more than one translation – “sweet head” (the more accepted) and “desert palm.” The name already indicates history as Nahuatl names appear in northern Mexico where the Spanish brought north the already-conquered Mesoamericans to “civilize” nomadic peoples there.
The name has been used to refer to the plant, a low-alcoholic fermented beverage that had been consumed for many centuries before conquest, and then finally to the distilled spirit that is important now.
As the spirit returns from obscurity, just what can be called “sotol” has become something of an issue both in Mexico and abroad. At the turn of the 21st century, interested parties in Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila formed a coalition that eventually succeeded in getting a Denominacion de Origen (DO) in 2002 from the Mexican government based officially on geography, history and the processing of specific variety of the Dasylirion or “desert spoon” plant that provides the raw materials. But because of politics and international relations, it may not be the last word on the matter. The plant’s natural range is far greater than these states. Most notably it is abundant in northern Zacatecas, which was not included primarily in the DO because the state did not participate in the process, says Roberto Palacios of Excéntrico Sotol. So far, the state’s efforts to change this have not paid off.
The DO has legal status in Mexico, but only limited effect outside. In general, DO’s and similar protective arrangements are honored in foreign jurisdictions only if there is some kind of agreement or there is social and/or political pressure. The making of a Dasylirioin-based spirit in Texas, and in particular using the word “sotol” in any way is controversial. It is not a question of Dasylirion being native to parts of Texas (it is), but issues of history. First is the lingering resentment over Mexico’s loss of Texas, and the second is that there isn’t the history of making sotol in the state – certainly not with the drama that it has had in Mexico.
The Dasylirion plant has played a strong role in the economic and cultural development of areas in which it grows since ancient times.
Its nutritive qualities were known for millennia, a lifesaver especially in times of drought. The sugars stored in the heads provided sustenance, and the thin, spiny leaves are still woven into strong baskets by the Tarahumara/Raramuri people. Its English common name, desert spoon, alludes to the fact that the base of the leaf was used for this purpose.
That the juices from the cooked heads would ferment and produce alcohol was probably discovered quite early as well. The Paquimé or Casa Grandes site in the north of the state has several pits which were used for the cooking of Dasylirion, even though the plant grows in the mountains and not in the immediate vicinity. Given the lack of wheels and pack animals, bringing back heavy heads to the center of that society’s elite was probably to create alcohol for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.
When the Spanish took over this region, they took advantage of the plant to make distilled spirits just as they did with the agave in many other of New Spain’s provinces.
Persecution of alcohol production
Pico did not grow up drinking sotol, nor did many in more urbanized areas of Chihuahua for at least four generations. Despite the fact that Dasylirion is found quite abundantly in the state, sotol was only marginally known, either considered something from the state’s past, or something only the very rural poor drink illegally.
The answer as to why is found partly in the colonial era, when the making of alcohol was highly restricted to protect wine makers in the mother country. More important was the suppression (sotoleros prefer the word “persecution”) of not only the consumption of alcoholic beverages but also the making of them in northwest Mexico in the first decades of the 20th century.
As is usually the case, such efforts to eradicate the “scourge” of alcohol consumption had a greater effect on the poor. While those with means continued to drink their imported beers and whiskeys, sotoleros needed to redouble their efforts to survive.
During the Mexican Revolution, several important generals began their operations against the Porfirio Díaz regime from Sonora and Chihuahua.They were most certainly aware of temperance movements in the US and Canada, they were not moved by their religious basis, as Catholicism has never had a problem with the consumption of alcohol.
But Pancho Villa in particular was convinced that its consumption undermined his army’s discipline and was a detriment to society in general. He executed soldiers simply for being drunk, and worked to eliminate distilleries in areas where he had direct control.
One of Pico’s current business partners is Eduardo Arrieta or “Don Lalo,” a fourth-generation sotolero from the desert areas outside of Chihuahua city. He told the BBC how his grandfather made sotol. Villa confronted him personally, demanding his viñata (still) be dismantled. When the grandfather did not comply, he was beaten with the blunt side of a saber.
Villa wound up on one of the losing sides of the civil war, but two northwestern generals, Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón managed to become presidents in the 1920s. But they never tried to impose prohibitions on the making and drinking of alcoholic beverages on a national level, likely because the years after the Revolution officially ended were still politically unstable.
Prohibitions, formal and informal, did continue in Sonora and Chihuahua, but its enforcement was selective. Sotol makers were targeted in large part because they were vulnerable and sold to the most marginalized segments of society, not to mention there was money to be made making and smuggling whiskey into the US. Interestingly, Cd. Juárez had a thriving whiskey business, which began by bootlegging into the US during Prohibition. It was not targeted the way sotol was.
This history drove sotol (and bacanora in Sonora) well underground and out of the consciousness of most Chihuahuans, except for whispered stories. This history has been compared to that of moonshine in the US, which has its merits.
These prohibitions continued for most of the 20th century even as attitudes toward alcohol consumption changed. Sotol missed being exported to the US and gaining the worldwide fame that tequila did. It is even a latecomer compared to mezcal, but neither of these beverages suffered the suppression that sotol did.
All laws against the production and consumption of sotol were finally lifted in 1998, but even today small producers are wary of outsiders, very hesitant to share information about who is making the spirit and where. The lifting of these laws is celebrated in places like Ciudad Madera, by sotoleros like Bienvenido Fernández and others who worked to make that happen.
Pico is philosophical about the past persecution “The persecution perhaps acted in our favor because who knows? – otherwise we might have done away with the plant or we might have become another Tequila, Jalisco, an industry completely developed and multi-million dollar.”
What it most likely did was to save the drink for the current popularity of “authentic,” “hyperlocal” and “ethically-sourced” spirits as well as a backlash against the industrialization of tequila. It has opened opportunities for conscientious promoters like Pico to research his state’s production (an ongoing process) and work to make it a responsible industry. “People want to know where [sotol] comes from, who is producing it and whether [their purchase] will benefit another corporate power or allow a man to build a roof for his family.”
Process of making sotol
Sotol gets confused with mezcal because both are recent on national and international markets; both have similarly high alcohol contents; both are traditionally taken in very small sips (often with something sweet or salty), and both have a very wide range of flavor profiles.
They are also made similarly. Plants are harvested after at least a decade or more, leaves cut, sugar-laden bulbous bodies are cooked in pits for days, mashed and fermented. The resulting liquid is distilled at least twice to get the high alcohol content, generally between 38-45%, but it can be higher. Artisanal producers like Don Bienvenido and Don Lalo estimate alcohol content by pouring liquid between dried cow horns and checking the “pearls” (bubbles) produced – the more bubbles, the higher the alcohol.
Although Chihuahua has one major industrial producer of sotol, Hacienda de Sotol, most is still made in small, rural distilleries. Like with mezcal, processing the Dasylirion is back breaking labor, especially harvesting tons of plant material, cooking it and then mashing it. Those who use industrial methods claim their product is just as authentic and sometimes even superior, but Pico states “No amount of money is more valuable than preserving tradition.”
It would be inaccurate to say that mezcal and sotol “taste the same.” Both vary widely in flavor profiles, and generally, if you like mezcal, you will likely like sotol (and vice versa).
Sotol varieties and Chihuahua’s environments
Pico began his sotol career with Hacienda de Sotol as a brand ambassador over a decade ago. After studying business and economics in both Chihuahua and the US, his resumé indicates a long history of marketing and entrepreneurship, including founding Chihuahua’s first craft beer brewery and bringing in fine coffees for Chihuahua city’s growing gastronomic scene.
Marketing work (and his proficient English), took him multiple times to the United States, where he witnessed the initial boom of mezcal there. Despite its antiquity, sotol is an emerging drink in the international commercial market. “Commercially, sotol is where mezcal was 12 years ago.” Pico says, meaning it is catching on and the market is growing but is not yet a household name.
To take advantage of this market, Pico had to research traditional sotol. That proved to be a challenge. So in 2016, Pico’s first order of business was “to ranchear,” meaning to drive out to isolated areas to find traditional sotoleros. “My first visit was to Coyame del Sotol. I asked about small scale traditional producers and they sent me back to the highway. One gentleman I met said ‘I am too old. I no longer do this [as] it is a very physical activity.On the way back, I saw a small shop and asked if there was any. The lady was startled and doubtful [but] she told me there was and gave me a full bottle. I tried it and said “Ah, wow, what is this? Who made it? It’s wonderful.”
It was Pico’s first experience with traditional sotol. But he could not get the maker’s name from her and had to settle for leaving his contact information. But persistence has paid off and “ranchear” remains a pillar of Pico’s professional activities, making him an expert in Chihuahuan sotol and curating important relationships with traditional and isolated sotoleros. This is impressive considering sotoleros’ (and mountain people’s) general distrust of outsiders as well as known narco activities in isolated areas.
But his work is essential even to Mexican sotol in general. Chihuahua is Mexico’s main producer of sotol, accounting for 80% of the half million liters produced each year, with the rest (officially) produced in Durango and Coahuila.
The state has a wide range of environments and varieties of Dasylirion to take advantage of. The center of the plant’s range is the Chihuahuan desert and areas bordering this desert also have Dasylirion varieties. D. wheeleri is the most common plant, but there are between 16-22 Dasylirion varieties that have been used, each with its own flavor profile. Microclimates and soil variations have great impact even on the same Dasylirion variety. More factors in the mix come in with how the plant is cooked, mashed and distilled, often creating flavors found in only one viñata.
Chihuahua state roughly divides into high sierra in the west, arid grasslands in the center, and the Chihuahua Desert in the east. Sotol divides similarly although the sierra and desert versions are the best known by far. Most sotol come from the desert, which subdivides into Oyame (Oinaga, Coyame, Chihuahua), Jiménez (Jiménez, Camargo), Valle Zaragoza (Valle Zaragoza,Satevó). Most Sierra sotol is produced in and around Cuidad Madera, Janos, Casas Grandes, and Buenaventura.
The different regional flavors affect how the spirit is consumed. That made in the desert is often paired with carne seca (jerky) and that from the high mountains with something sweet, such as quince or green apple.
“Sotols that grow in forested areas tend to have a greener flavor,” says Pico, “Sierra sotol tends to have notes of pine, eucalyptus, menthol, a “fresher” taste because of the colder temperatures and varieties that grow here.” He adds, “Those that grow in the more desert areas of northern Mexico have a mineral flavor.” Pico says that desert sotol tends to be brash (recio) and dry (reseco) although the alcohol content is slightly less because of the high temperatures that the plants experience in their climate.
One important figure in Sierra sotol is Bienvenido Fernández, who has been one of Pico’s main partners since the Sotoleros brand/project back in 2016. The Dasylirion varieties here on the Chihuahua/Sonora border are smaller, with ranges that overlap those of the agave used to make bacanora. When Pico graciously drove me the 3.5 hours needed to get to the viñata, we were treated to a sotol/”bacanora” mix (per DO, Chihuahua cannot market “bacanora.”), a strong drink with a highly complex flavor, both sweet and mineraly at the same time (to my uneducated palate). For Fernández, the alcohol content of his spirits has to be at least 45%, “If I make it lower than that, my neighbors complain that it is “water.” he says smiling.
One misconception I was disabused of here, by both maestro Bienvenido and Pico was that “if it comes in a plastic bottle, it is not good.” Because this is hyperlocal sotol, meant for a very local consumer base, the packaging is not important. Reusing soda bottles is the norm, though I’m still leery of alcohol in plastic bottles in stores.
Another important sotol tradition in the high mountains is with the Rarámuri (Tarahumara) people, who call the plant and the drink sereque. While the drink is made and sold, perhaps this people’s more famous use of the plant is the marvelous baskets they make with Dasylirion’s leaves.
Grassland sotol is still very much unknown, but one such maker, Juan Pablo Carvajal of Los Magos hopes it will be the next phase in sotol’s trajectory.
How the sotol is made and experimented with has a huge impact as well. Dasyliron leiophyllum and Dasylirion wheeleri are by far two most common varieties but mixtures, other varieties, different cooking methods and even additives make for a whirl of different experiences.
Like the chicken breast infused pechuga mezcal of Oaxaca, Chihuahua has carney, which is a sotol traditionally prepared with meat from a hunt, generally deer endemic to the state. One example is Flor del Desierto’s Carnei made from Dasylirion wheeleri from the Madera region. Perhaps easier to try initially are those that infuse local herbs, apple and other fruits as well as nuts.
When I visited La Sotoleria sotol bar, in the historic center of Chihuahua city, I was treated to seeing a jar of sotol with a rattlesnake in it. I had seen mezcals with snakes, scorpions and worms and initially dismissed it as a marketing ploy for tourists. The Heraldo de Chihuahua newspaper claims that is not the case, that the animal gives the spirit “strength” and “character” and is good for one’s health. Flor de Desierto sotol boasts a spirit that is a mix of desert and sierra sotol, with 3ml of snake venom added to every 20 liters of sotol and left to age. However, Pico agrees with me and believes the snakes are added for marketing purposes.
Selling sotol to the world responsibly
With the fall of formal and informal prohibitions and a rise in international interest, the question shifts from how to save sotol from extinction to how to commercialize it responsibly. The ever-increasing interest in Mexican distillates is providing opportunities for modern businessmen like Ricardo Pico to pair up with traditional makers and others to bring sotol to markets that were way out of reach before. Such work requires an ability to juggle three things: the conservation of traditional sotol making, modern promotional and commercialization and efforts to keep the plant from over-exploitation.
Calling himself a “global sotol educator,” Pico’ main talent is bringing together people from different walks of life, with one common interest – sotol. His background and talents make him uniquely qualified to do this, a native Chihuahuan with international connections since his youth.
“The best market for sotol in Mexico is, curiously, where they produce other distillates because they value this type of product: in Oaxaca, Jalisco and of course, Mexico City.” says Pico “In the United States, it is sold in Texas and California mostly, and there are consistently growing, emerging markets in Arizona, New York, Colorado and Illinois.”
Pico’s first entrepreneurial ventures with sotol began with co-founding Sotoleros and Clande. Although Hacienda de Chihuahua already had some international recognition, Pico’s interest has been to document and conserve traditional sotol making, supporting the maestros who still do this work, by making such beverages economically viable.
Sotoleros promoted various artisanal sotols using the makers name, and Clande (for “clandestine”), his first brand, paid homage to the risk sotol makers took in the past to not let the beverage die.
This work is his greatest pride. “My oldest producer is 65 years old.” Says Pico “His father and grandfather produced sotol and for that reason we speak of at least 100 years of tradition. When we first started the Clande project, we wanted to rebuild the story of sotol,”
Few if anyone has the range of contacts with sotoleros that Pico does (not even the government). “They are artists more than distillers. They are making irreplaceable batches based on centuries of knowledge. That is what consumers want.”
In 2021, Pico put together his current venture under the name of Nocheluna. Here he has brought together 4th generation sotolero Eduardo Arrieta (Don Lalo), with Mexican spirit powerhouse Casa Lumbre Spirits and international singer-songwriter Lenny Kravitz to create sotol’s version of the international success enjoyed by tequila and mezcal.
The aim of the project is to introduce traditional sotol to a very wide audience, assuming no experience or knowledge of the beverage. The making of the sotol is traditional. Pico and Don Lalo have established themselves at a former pool and recreational park in Aldama, a traditional sotol-producing area outside of Chihuahua city. The site is a little surreal, pits for cooking, stills and huge barrels share space with rusting playgrounds and empty swimming pools. The grounds and the main house are a work-in-progress with the eventual aim of regularly entertaining visitors. The interior of the main house is an impressive mix of high ceilings, Tarahumara craft inspired furniture and huge blow up photographs of sotol making taken by Kravitz’s promotional team. Although the name may not resonate with its target market, it refers to heritage and comes from a line in a corrido (narrative song) that goes “lindas las noches de luna alegradas con sotol” (pretty are the moonlit nights made happy with sotol).
Pico worked hard to bring his Mexican and foreign partners into the venture, but it was Kravitz’s meeting in 2021 with Don Lalo that cinched it, he says.
Kravitz told Rolling Stone that “There’s enough tequilas and gins and vodkas and things, but what intrigued me about [sotol] was that no one knows about it. I wanted to introduce this on a global level.”
Nocheluna launched in 2022 to much fanfare in Mexico City and New York. It launched in Paris the following year after Pernod Ricard jumped on board, who also sees sotol as the “next big thing.”
But it has not been easy. Sales fell after the initial hoopla, and Nocheluna received strong criticism from sotol purists. It is true it was developed exactly for the audience it is marketed to, the flavor perhaps not as “unique” as many multi-generational sotol drinkers are used to.
But there is nothing new in developing alcohol varieties for the mass market. There have been multiple levels of whisky for generations, as well as different grades of tequila. Pico sells Nocheluna as a first taste of both sotol and Chihuahua, but that does mean a smoother or less traditional experience.
Pico has not abandoned the promotion of small-batch historical sotol. He happily takes anyone in the media, including this humble reporter, out to visit viñatas even though this does not directly help Nocheluna. He is also starting a documentary with filmmaker Mark Locki, who was impressed when he was escorted out “to ranchear” way back in 2019.
Locki told me, “What I found fascinating about Ricardo’s work was his approach and thought process behind what he does. He doesn’t treat it solely as a business/money making opportunity, he thinks of it more like a social/rural economic development activity. The producers he works with are mostly rural and poor, and from what I’ve seen, he treats his work as a way to help better the lives of the producers and their families by providing them with access to markets they wouldn’t have by themselves. “
In Chihuahua city, Pico opened a bar called El Mágico with partner Alberto Pedroza, located in a mid-19th century historic building in the historic center. It not only promotes sotol from Chihuahua, but all of the alcoholic beverages that are produced in the country, including bacanora, raicilla, comiteco and much more. Both mezcal and sotol require very knowledgeable mixologists to create cocktails as their flavors vary so much, but such mixtures make for very “gentle” introductions to the flavors without the hard punch of drinking either straight. The bar provides a comfortable setting to educate his fellow Chihuahuenses as well as tourists.
The purpose of all these efforts is to increase production of sotol, which raises two important questions. The first is whether or not sotol will follow the path that tequila has traveled, significantly altering the how the beverage is made to meet the outrageous global demand and raising prices to levels that many Mexicans cannot afford. Most lower priced “tequilas” in common Mexican supermarkets are not legally such, but rather a low grade agave-flavored liquor.
The second is the environmental sustainability of using a plant that takes up to a decade or more to be ready for production, the same issue that plagues agave. Like agave, Dasylirion species are slow-growing taking at least seven years (but usually longer) to mature depending on the variety. Some, like Roberto Palacios of Excéntrico insist that plants need to live multiple decades to be viable for good sotol, but Pico disagrees, noting that older plants tend to have a high percentage of woody base that does not yield the sugars needed for fermentation.
All or almost all sotol in Chihuahua is still made from wild plants. Universidad Autonoma de Chihuahua researcher Jesús Miguel Olivas believes that there is about only 10 years’ left of wild plants for the industry before they are exhausted. Many traditional sotoleros see that there is still sufficient wild stock to work with, but do understand it will not last forever.
Adriana de León of Cinco Tragos near Juárez worries that the use of cultivated dasylirion will change the flavor and culture of sotol, but she realizes that it is the only way forward in the future.
Don Lalo says, “There are still enough plants. The important thing is that whoever works with them knows to plant new ones in the mountains for the future. Ranches where they harvested plants before need to be left alone so that [the dasylirion] can grow thick again.”
Bienviendo Fernández takes a practical view, “[We] are working with [plants] from more and more remote areas, which involves more costs. For now, wild plants are what we have and there are enough.”
Paco Chagoya of Chorreras sums the issue up well. “Working with wild plants is a unique experience every time.. It is a new story to harvest, especially when working in an authentic way. [But] cultivating the plant is the best option so that we take care of our culture through reforestation.”
The cultivation of Dasylirion is still in the experimental stages. Much can be learned from tequila’s experience with cultivating the blue agave, and with any luck, Olivas’s efforts to develop strategies to cultivate the plant will avoid many of the errors the tequila industry has made. But the underlying issue is still the same, growing Dasylirion requires a much longer time frame from investment to profit, longer than many are willing to tolerate. But there is one major benefit to cultivated Dasylirion, the harvest of such avoids many of the expensive permissions needed to harvest this protected species in the wild.
Despite the challenges, Pico still sees sotol as far more environmentally-friendly and a sustainable industry for rural Chihuahua. He, and others, decry current cash crops like pecans as using too much of the state’s most precious resource – water, while Dasylirion has evolved to use very little and withstand the area’ common droughts. Cultivation would bring work to farmers that might need to give up other crops, but there also needs to be a shift in the mind set among sotol makers. Many see the many Dasyliron on the local landscape and believe it will last forever.
It may be that now is the best time to try Chihuahua’s signature spirit as in a generation or so, “wild sotol” will be as rare as “wild tequila.”