Monday, November 20, 2017

Moonshine? A History of Sotol in the U.S.

"More than 75% of the population of Mexico may be illiterate. Educational methods in Mexico follow more closely cock-fighting, sotol drinking, and the bull ring rather than the "three R's."
--Omaha Daily Bee, March 26, 1914: A letter to the editor written by Wood B. Wright

This racist comment is interesting for one aspect, that it mentions Sotol drinking rather than Mezcal or Tequila. Today, when discussing Mexico, most people would first mention Tequila and then maybe Mezcal. Very few people though would mention or even know about Sotol. However, back in the early 20th century, Sotol was apparently much more dominant in the northern region of Mexico and Americans on the borders were more familiar with it. Sotol has since been eclipsed by Tequila and Mezcal, but it is starting to make a bit of a comeback and you should learn more about it.

The Sotol plant (Dasylirion wheeleri), also known as the Desert Spoon, derives its name from the Nahuatl word “Tzotolin,” which basically translates as “palm with long and thin leaves.” It was once thought to be a type of Agave but it was eventually discovered that it actually is a succulent that belongs in the Nolinaceae family. Both the Agave and Nolinaceae families fall under the same plant order, Asparagales, so they are related to a degree. Sotol grows in northern Mexico and ranges into the U.S., primarily in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Indigenous peoples have been using the Sotol plant for thousands of years, for a number of different purposes. They use the strong fibers of the leaves to make cords and weave baskets. The base of the leaf has been used to make a spoon-like utensil, which led to the Sotol being called the Desert Spoon. The core of the plant has been used as a food source, and some peoples also fermented the plant to make alcohol.

Once distillation was introduced to Mexico, then some people began to distill the Sotol plant, creating an alcoholic spirit that also was named Sotol. Sotol is primarily produced in the northern Mexican regions of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango, though it can be found in other Mexican regions as well. In 2004, Mexico granted Sotol a Designation of Origin (DO) and formed a Consejo Mexicano de Sotol to regulate its production. Legally, Sotol can only be produced in the states of ChihuahuaCoahuila and Durango.  Generally the producers uses wild Sotol plants, which commonly take about fifteen years to mature, and it is said that one plant can produce a single bottle of Sotol.

In Texas, a new Sotol distillery, Desert Door, has recently opened to the public, raising the issue of whether there is a history of Sotol distillation in the U.S. There appears to be some anecdotal evidence, stories passed down from family members, that Sotol might have been illegally distilled, a form of moonshine, in Texas. It certainly seems plausible that it might have occurred but it would be good if we could find some documentary evidence to support the belief.

I decided to conduct some preliminary research on the issue and based on this initial work, I couldn't find any documents to directly support the allegation of Texans distilling Sotol. What I found tends to lend more support to the possibility that such distillation didn't occur on any significant basis in Texas, and was essentially limited to Mexico. However, I did find a single reference mentioning Sotol distillation by some of the indigenous peoples of Texas region. Further research into that area is definitely warranted.

One of the earliest documents I found, with substantial information on Sotol, was in The American Naturalist Vol. 15, No. 11, Nov., 1881, an article titled "Sotol" by Dr. V. Harvard, a U.S. Army Surgeon who was stationed at Fort Abraham Lincoln in North Dakota. Dr. Harvard noted that the production of Sotol "... is carried on mostly in the Mexican States of Chihuahua, Cohuihuila and Sonora, and sotol mescal is the ordinary alcoholic beverage of the native population. It is precluded in Texas by the high duties laid on this class of industry." Dr. Harvard doesn't indicate that any "sotol mescal" is produced in Texas, or elsewhere in the U.S.

Dr. Harvard then goes into a detailed explanation of "sotol mescal," from its harvest to a description of the heads, noting harvesting is suspended only during the rainy reason, from June to September. He also notes how the heads are baked in circular pits, which are about ten feet deep, before they are pounded into a pulp. This sounds similar in some respects to the production of Mezcal. However, the pulp is then thrown into vats for fermentation, and for a few days, men tread upon the pulp with their feet. That foot-treading generally doesn't occur when making Mezcal. Once fermentation is complete, it is then placed into a still. "The first liquor obtained, being richer in alcohol and possessing to a higher degree the peculiar aroma of sotol mescal, is considered of better quality."

Dr. Harvard provides some information on the pricing of "sotol mescal" too. "A vinata in good running order will turn out a Mexican barrel a day (about twenty-eight gallons), sold at an average price of fifteen dollars, and retailing for thirty or forty centsaquart." He also is appreciative of its taste, "Sotol mescal is a pure, wholesome alcoholic drink; if the best brand be kept long enough to lose its sharp edge, it compares favorably with good whisky;.." And another benefit is "On account of its cheapness and characteristic taste, mescal is very seldom adulterated." This is a fascinating article and you should read it for even more information on Sotol.

In some subsequent written references, Sotol in Texas and New Mexico is mentioned as animal feed, with no reference to distillation. A Colorado newspaper, Walsenburg World, June 12, 1892 wrote that in the Pacos river valley of Texas, they are using a "peculiar" sheep feed called Sotol, noting that men with axes must first cut open the Sotol heads and that the sheep are quite fond of the Sotol.

The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican, April 02, 1895, in an article titled "Live Stock Interests," wrote "Attention is now being directed to the nutritive and fattening qualities of sotol, a vegetable growth of the cacti species. Sotol is said by stockmen, who have closely studied its virtues as a stock food, to furnish both feed and water, as it contains sufficient moisture supply stock for long periods without water. Sheep readily fatten on it while cattle and horses take to it as they do to grain. It is not available for sheep unless burst open with an ax." So we see Sotol being used as feed for sheep, cattle and horses, but there isn't any mention that anyone locally is distilling it into alcohol.

There are a number of other newspaper articles during this time frame which discuss feeding sotol to animals, especially sheep, and I haven't added many of them as the information would be duplicative of what I've already mentioned. In none of those articles will you find references to Texans distilling Sotol alcohol.

One of the first references to Sotol being used to distill alcohol isn't quite what you think as no one will be drinking that alcohol. The Brownsville Daily Herald, October 12, 1906, in an article titled "And Ozona Is Advertised," reports that: "Another gold mine has been discovered in Texas, namely, the vast quantities of alcohol contained in the sotol bush. At Ozone, in Crockett county, the light and ice company is making its own fuel from the sotol and this same company proposes to supply fuel for power to all the surrounding country from its distilling plant." Again, there is no mention that anyone in Texas is distilling Sotol for alcohol consumption. You would have thought this article might have mentioned it if it were occurring.

There are additional references to the plans to use Sotol for fuel. The Jimplecute, October 13, 1906 mentions "San Antonio: John Young of Ozona, who is at the head of the company that proposes to distill denatured alcohol known at (sic) "sotol," is in this city and has shed some new light on the proposed enterprise. He says that sotol plant has somewhat the appearance of a cabbage and grows in great abundance all over West Texas. For many years the Mexicans have manufactured mescal from the plant, producing a good grade of alcohol." Though it mentions Mexicans making alcohol from Sotol, there continues to be a lack of mention of any Texans doing the same.

The San Angelo Press, October 18, 1906 adds more detail, stating that the denatured alcohol will replace fuel oil in machinery plants, also stating that: "Other good uses have been made of sotol, however. Sheepmen in the sotol section have long utilized it as the chief food during the winter for their flocks." And once again, despite refereeing other uses for Sotol, there isn't any mention of Texans making alcohol from Sotol.

As for the use of Sotol as feed, the Albuquerque Evening Citizen, July 03, 1907 published an article, Alfalfa versus Sotol for Cattle, discussing a report prepared by a New Mexico agricultural experiment station that conducted a study of the use of Alfalfa vs Sotol. Though they found that Sotol was generally cheaper than Alfalfa, commonly by as much as half, they also concluded that Alfalfa was generally better nutritionally for the animals unless additional ingredients were added to the Sotol feed. In the end, it came down to how inexpensive a farmer could obtain Sotol and the other ingredients as compared to Alfalfa.

In an intriguing article titled, Useful Desert PlantThe Florida Star, October 09, 1908 mentions that at the last session of Congress, permission was granted so a company could produce denatured alcohol from Sotol and a distillery was subsequently constructed at El Paso. The article also provides some more general and historical information about Sotol. First, there is a fascinating mention of the Spaniard's first contact with Sotol alcohol near the Rio Grande. "When the early Spanish explorers first penetrated the region along the Rio Grande river below Alpine more than two centuries ago they found that the Pueblo and other Indian tribes had a knowledge of the alcoholic properties of the sotol plant. Primitive stills were in operation, from which a fiery white liquor was obtained." This is documentary evidence of Sotol distillation, conducted by Pueblos, in the U.S. More research into this area is needed to determine how prevalent Sotol distillation might have been among the indigenous peoples of America.

The article then discusses the current status of Sotol, reporting that: "The sotol liquor still is a favorite beverage along the Mexicans of the border. The American cowboy of this region has an intimate knowledge of the "fighting" qualities of this liquor. It is one of the phases of initiation which the tenderfoot is always put through upon the border ranches." However, there isn't any mention that anyone in Texas is distilling Sotol.

Smuggling Sotol across the border, from Mexico into the U.S. was a problem and there are multiple references in various newspapers about people being caught smuggling. For example, in the El Paso Herald, August 04, 1910, there is a report of a Mexican smuggler trying to discard his contraband Sotol, "the Mexican booze," before he is apprehended by the border authorities. In none of these references is there any indication that Americans were distilling their own Sotol.

In the Bryan Daily Eagle And Pilot, May 08, 1911 there is a brief mention of Sotol: "Then there are the sotol and the maguey and other desert plants, which the Mexican well knows how to convert into either food or drink." Once again, Sotol distillation seems restricted to Mexico and there is no mention of it occurring in the U.S.

The use of Sotol for animal feed took a technological step forward as reported in El Paso Herald, July 04, 1917. A new company was formed in El Paso, Sotol Products, to produce feed for livestock derived form the Sotol plant. The company has a new patented process which produces a nutritious Sotol molasses. This molasses is then combined with the pith of the Sotol as well as some Alfalfa or other vegetable material. This livestock feed could be sold at "an extraordinary low price."

In a follow-up, in El Paso Herald, July 27, 1918, there is an advertisement for this new Sotol animal feed. The "Sotol Molasses Mixed Feed" contains a blend of 25% Alfalfa Meal, 25% Ground Sotol Plant, and 40% Sotol Molasses. There is then a breakdown touching on the feed's Fats, Protein, Nitrogen Free Extract & Crude Fiber and comparing them to beet pulp, showing that the molasses mixed feed was better for livestock. And the advertisement also stresses the low cost of this product.

In my preliminary researches, it seems there is some evidence of Sotol distillation by the indigenous people of the southwestern U.S. though more research should be done. However, I haven't find any documentary evidence that any Texans were involved in the distillation of Sotol, no Sotol "moonshine." And with all of these articles, it seems likely at least one of them would have mentioned distillation in Texas if it had occurred. The printed references seem to restrict such distillation to Mexico.

As more Mexican Sotol becomes available in the U.S. market, I recommend you seek it out. Last night, I enjoyed a glass of Sotol at the new Bodega Canal, near TD Garden. You'll find some other local Mexican restaurants too that may carry one or two Sotol. Be adventurous and enjoy a new spirit!

"There is some resemblance between the cabbage and sotol, but there is no reason to conclude that cabbage beer is anything like mescal, one drop of which, it has been said, will make a rabbit go out and hunt a fight with a bulldog."
--Bryan Daily Eagle And Pilot, August 26, 1911

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