Are Texas sotol makers helping or hurting their Mexican counterparts?

The spirit is heavily regulated in its native Mexico, but not in the U.S.

The desert spoon plant is the source of sotol, which has traditionally been made in Mexico. (Melosh via Flickr Creative Commons)

By Michael Marks, Texas Standard

Sotol isn’t nearly as popular in the United States as other Mexican spirits, such as tequila or mezcal.

That’s changing, though, in part because Texas distillers have started to make sotol themselves, and some Mexican sotoleros are worried about what it means for the future of their business.

B.E. Mintz, a reporter from Marfa, spoke to Texas Standard about his reporting on the sotol debate for Texas Monthly.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Producers in Mexico have been making sotol since time immemorial, but it’s new to the United States. How much of it is being made here, or is it still very much a niche product?

B.E. Mintz: It’s still relatively a niche product. To put it in perspective, it doesn’t even show up on official trackings. It will get grouped in with other Mexican distillates: mezcal and tequila, raicilla as well. There’s actually about nine different spirits that come out of Mexico.

Who’s upset about Texas getting involved in sotol production, and why are they bothered by it?

Sotol has traditionally been made in Mexico, primarily in the state of Chihuahua, also in Durango and Coahuila. It’s kind of a traditional spirit for them. It was sort of a moonshine for years. In fact, it was illegal for many years. And then the production kind of blew up late 90s, early 2000s. We began producing it in Texas. A lot of the Mexican producers made the Mexican sotoleros and some activists on our side of the border feel that this is part of Mexico’s cultural heritage and it’s codified as such, so that it should not be produced outside of Mexico, specifically outside those three states.

So, it’s being culturally appropriated or misappropriated by some of these Texas distillers?

Yeah, that is the argument. And it’s a little bit deeper because in Mexico they have what’s called a denomination of origin. You would probably know that from champagne, can only be made in Champagne. Otherwise, it’s sparkling white wine. More common over here in the states is whiskey. Whisky is made in Scotland. It is spelled w-h-i-s-k-y. No ‘e’. Whereas bourbon is a whiskey made in the states and we spell it — k-e-y at the end.

What are the barriers on marketing sotol right now?

Within Mexico, there are barriers. Mexico has this denomination of origin. So, you can only market as a sotol if you’re made in one of those three states within Mexico. It must be made from the sotol or dessert spoon plant. There’s regulations on how much it can be diluted, so on and so forth. However, those regulations are not recognized in USMCA, which is the treaty that replaced NAFTA — the Trump replacement for NAFTA. It recognizes denominations origin for mezcal and tequila; those must be made in Mexico. But at the 11th hour, they removed the protections for sotol and the six other denominated Mexican spirits.

On the United States side, there’s absolutely no regulation. It’s completely legal to call your product sotol and market it as such. On the Mexican side, you cannot call it sotol unless it comes from these geographic areas.

Would that run the risk of diluting the branding of sotol or how people come to the flavor and taste that people come to associate with that name?

That’s a $64,000 question. On the U.S. side of the border, Texas-based sotol producers will tell you that what they’re doing is actually beneficial for the category. They argue that by putting sotol out and distributing it more widely, they’re creating awareness of the category, and ultimately, a rising tide lifts all ships, that sotol producers on both sides will benefit from this.

The dissenting group on the Mexican side – which I need to stress, is not every Mexican producer; it’s a group of them – the trade union over there disagrees with that theory. They think there’s only so many people buying sotol and by putting U.S. sotol onto the market, it is cutting into their market share, and it is creating an unregulated product. They focus a lot on terroir, which is something you see in wine frequently, and this concept that anything growing in a certain place tastes of the land. They believe their terroir is different.

The U.S. producers counter that the border between Texas and Mexico has shifted over the years and that places like Marfa were historically part of Mexico and part of the Chihuahua desert and that our terroir is the same.

How big are the makers that are upset about these Texas distilleries? Are we talking about big corporate interests, or are we talking about small, mom-and-pop operations? How would you describe what’s at stake here?

Sotol, it’s very small now; there really are no big corporate interests involved in it. Everyone is sort of a mom and pop. Even the bigger guys are still sort of mom and pop. It tends to be a generational profession. Most of these sotoleros have been doing this for five to six generations. This is very much their tradition. It’s very small, and they’re concerned about it.

The flipside is looking at mezcal and tequila. Mezcal, about 10 years ago; tequila, about 30 years ago — those categories have seen explosive growth. They were not corporate at all 20 years ago. Now they’re extremely corporate. Tequila is very much big business. The concern is that the same thing is going to happen to sotol, and these mom and pops don’t want to be forced out of what they see as their birthright of an industry as it’s beginning to expand and larger corporate interests are starting to pay attention.

Do you see the possibility of American and Mexican sotol makers collaborating or coming to any sort of agreement over this in the not-too-distant future? Where is this headed?

Due to that USMCA treaty, there’s very, very limited enforcement that can happen. They’re not going to renegotiate the multitrillion dollar treaty that governs trade between all of the United States, all Mexico and all Canada to protect sotol. It took them almost 20 years to renegotiate NAFTA. They’re not going to do that again over sotol, is my knee-jerk on it.

However, the court of public opinion is a very powerful thing. We’ve seen lots of brands, especially over the last five years in the Internet age, make changes because there’s a public backlash. And I think sotol might be headed in that direction. I think at some point you are going to see U.S.-based producers and Mexican-based producers probably sit down and have a coffee or maybe a sotol together, kind of discuss it, and possibly you’ll see a tweak to the name on the U.S. side, is the most likely outcome.

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