Wearing a cowboy hat on the patio of a Manhattan hotel, Judson Kauffman, the co-founder of Desert Door Texas Sotol, is hard to miss.
Sotol, an earthy, clear spirit sometimes called tequila’s crazy little brother, is usually produced in Mexico. The desert spoon plant used to make it grows wild, notably in Mexico’s Chihuahua region. However, it also grows as far south as Oaxaca and as far north as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Desert Door isn’t the first to bottle sotol in Texas. That honor belongs to Genius Gin, an Austin producer, which introduced a groundbreaking experimental Texas sotol that it has since discontinued. But Desert Door may be the first to bring a Texas-made sotol mainstream, and Kauffman’s company lays claim to being the only producer of Texas sotol.
The project began as a business school project, while Kauffman was earning an MBA at the University of Texas. “The assignment was to come up with an idea for a business, develop a business plan and, at the end of the class, present it to the professor and a group of investors from Austin,” says Kauffman. After a few false starts, he recalled stories that an uncle in West Texas had shared with him as a boy, about moonshining sotol.
“I didn’t know what that was as a boy,” he says. “But it stuck in my brain for some reason.” He and his project group began researching desert spirits, such as racilla, bacanora and sotol. “We slowly fell more and more in love with the history of sotol and the romance of moonshining in the pre-Hispanic era of distillers and brewers,” he says.
While a number of sotol producers from Mexico have started to make inroads in the U.S. market (Don Cuco, Hacienda de Chihuahua and Por Siempre, to mention a few), they discovered that the plant grows in abundance in Texas, and that opportunity existed to sell a fully made-in-Texas sotol. In a state where consumers have embraced both tequila and Tito’s vodka, it seemed like a natural crossover.
“We won first place in the class,” says Kauffman. “And some of the investors pulled us aside afterward and said, This is a great idea, it’s a cool story; you guys should think about executing a real business plan.’ So we did.”
Desert Door is made in Driftwood, Texas, a tiny town about 45 minutes south of Austin, although the sotol is harvested further west, around West Stockton. “The plant does really well in the Chihuahuan Desert, which is half in Mexico and half in Texas, with a little piece of it in New Mexico,” says Kauffman. “The plant really thrives and expands from there.”
Of note, the plant that grows in Texas, called Dasylirion texanum, is a different strain than the one that grows farther south. It is smaller and has a different flavor, yielding a sotol that Kauffman describes as creamier and more approachable compared to traditional versions. When I tasted Desert Door, it struck me as earthy and relatively smooth, with a distinct lemongrass note on the nose and palate. Notably, it didn’t have the pungent, almost sweaty character I’ve come to associate with most sotols.
For now, Desert Door remains a relatively small, local operation, distributed solely in Texas. “We want to focus on our backyard right now,” says Kauffman. “But once we can get our stuff together, then we can look to expand.”
Desert Door is experimenting with a barrel-aged sotol, aged in American oak barrels with medium char and bottled at 100 proof. (The standard issue sotol is 80 proof.) A few hundred bottles were released in September 2018 and promptly sold out. “We’ll fill some more barrels,” says Kauffman.
Meanwhile, Desert Door may not be the only producer of Texas sotol for long. Kauffman notes that a number of potential competitors have filed paperwork to produce a similar spirit. But does a deep enough market exist for more Texas sotol?
While bartenders are enthusiastic about the spirit’s wild character, sotol can be a bit of a hard sell for mainstream consumers, acknowledges Kaufmann. “Not everyone falls in love with it,” he says with a shrug. “Some people are obsessed with it, and some people don’t want to drink it at all, which is fine. We’re not making a vodka with no flavor. We’re making something specific and unique and recognizable, and it’s OK that not everyone loves it.”