Sotol Maker Tries To Break Into U.S. Spirits Market

Americans drank more than 100 million liters of tequila in 2010. It's no wonder then, that a little-known spirit from Mexico is trying to make its name in the United States. Introducing Sotol — a smoky smooth liquor distilled in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

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Now, when you settle in on your back porch in the evening to watch the snakes go by, you may pour yourself a drink. It may even involve tequila. More than 100 million liters of tequila was consumed in 2010. Now, the makers of another Mexican spirit want to capture some of that market. Sotol – it's a smoky, smooth liquor distilled in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Sotol comes from the plant of the same name. It grows on the rocky slopes of the Chihuahua desert grassland. You see them throughout far west Texas, New Mexico, and northern Chihuahua. They look a bit like an agave or a yucca with slim, sawtoothed leaves; and a tall, flowering stalk every few years. Sotol, the liquor, is made in a complicated process from the heart of the plant.

CELSO JAQUEZ: We make sotol in this area here. I'll show you the process.

BURNETT: Celso Jaquez is the distiller at Don Cuco Sotol. The tiny factory sits beside the highway 135 miles south of El Paso, near the Mexican town of Janos. The brand is named for his grandfather, Don Cuco, who started this distillery 20 years ago.

Sotol is a regional drink, produced in Chihuahua for centuries. Unlike blue agave, which is grown in plantations to make tequila, sotol is wild-harvested. The serrated leaves are cut off, and the hearts - which look like pineapples - are carried here to the distillery.

CELSO JAQUEZ: We cook the plant; we take the plant out and we mash it. We put it in wood boxes; we let it ferment for five to seven days. And when we see that the foam starts declining, then we know it's ready to put into the distilling process.

BURNETT: Don Cuco makes four types: sotol traditional, smooth, cream and aged. The reposado took a gold medal at a recent tasting competition. At $30 to $45 a bottle, Jaquez says they're trying to win over connoisseurs of high-end tequila.

CELSO JAQUEZ: If you like tequila, you'll love sotol - that's what we're trying to tell 'em.

BURNETT: For most of the past two decades, the family was content to sell sotol to the regional Mexican market. In the past two years, Don Cuco has been trying to break into the highly competitive U.S. spirits market.

CELSO JAQUEZ: We want to be the cognac of sotol. We want to be able to sell 20,000 to 30,000 liters of good-quality sotol.

BURNETT: How do you introduce a completely unknown liquor to the drinking public? That challenge falls to Jacob Jaquez, Celso's 28-year-old son. He's a business marketing student at New Mexico State University. They've already succeeded in getting Don Cuco into a handful of bars and liquor stores in Southern New Mexico and Southern California. The next conquest is Texas.

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BURNETT: A couple of weeks ago, the bartender at Carlos & Mickey's in El Paso paused between making margaritas to hear a sales pitch from Jacob.

JACOB JAQUEZ: We are a family-owned business. We own the distillery; we own the brand, Don Cuco Sotol. And what we're trying to do is, we're trying to penetrate key accounts in the United States that are willing to share and explain what sotol is all about.

BURNETT: A customer at the cantina, a businesswoman named Lupe Jimenez, takes a sip from a shot glass.

LUPE JIMENEZ: You hear sotol, and you think back to your old Hispanic generation - that it was moonshine, and it used to have a really hard bite. Right now, when we're looking at it - and I was telling him, that's sotol; and I said, I haven't had sotol in quite a while, quite a few years. But this is really quite smooth, it's really good.

BURNETT: Sotol - like Mexican mescal, with a worm in the bottle - suffers from an image problem. As the taster pointed out, a lot of people remember it as rotgut. Victor Cruz is with Mission Valley Distribution in El Paso, which represents Don Cuco Sotol.

VICTOR CRUZ: It's a tough sell. It's the first time - it's very challenging. Sotol doesn't have a really positive reputation. I think it's just misunderstood.

BURNETT: American tastes in exotic liquor seem to know no bounds, evidenced by the success of bacon-infused vodka. Perhaps a sotol sunrise is just around the corner.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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