Story at a glance
- Despite having an Indigenous-affiliated history that dates back thousands of years, the sotol plant remains relatively unknown to Americans.
- Independent Texas distillery Desert Door is dedicated to bringing the spirit the recognition it deserves, while also raising money for research on the plant for which the liquor is named.
- Wild Spirit Wild Places works with local learning institutions to fund research on regenerative farming practices and hopes to educate the community about the importance of prescribed burns.
While most Americans are well-acquainted with tequila — the popular spirit created from the desert-dwelling agave plant — we’d venture to guess that most are currently unaware of the lesser known sotol.
Named after the plant from which it is derived, sotol is a distillate made from a type of shrub called Dasylirion, or more commonly referred to as the desert spoon. Though it was once incorrectly lumped in with agave in the agavaceae family, DNA testing in the ‘90s proved it deserved its own classification.
Despite that, many aspects of the plant remain a mystery. Derived from the Nahuatl word “tzotolin” meaning “palm with long and thin leaves,” sotol is a plant that natively grows across Mexico and the Southwestern United States and thrives in hot and dry conditions, such as those in Texas.
It’s in these conditions that the owners of Desert Door Texas Sotol sustainably harvest the plant, leaving the roots intact to grow back once again, unlike the process by which agave plants are cut down before being distilled into mezcal or tequila.
The distillery grew from unlikely roots — a business school project that led to a moonshining obsession shared by its co-founders and a deep of love of Texas’s unique natural environment. Now a flourishing operation outside of Austin, Desert Door has launched a nonprofit arm of the business called Wild Spirit Wild Places, driven by the restoration and preservation of wild lands.
“The interesting thing about this plant is that it grows in very rocky, somewhat treacherous, untouched areas,” said Karen Looby, the CEO of Wild Spirit Wild Places. “We're learning about how to take care of this plant, because obviously we're wild-harvesting, so we can't afford to decimate the plant species.”
“When you look at the land it grows on and it’s so expansive and awesome — it just gives me chill bumps. Somehow there are not a lot of scientific studies about this particular plant and the lifecycle that sustains it, which is needed to engage in regenerative ranching, so to speak. So that’s part of the conversation where Wild Spirit Wild Spaces starting emerging, in that we want to know more about the plant.”
Looby tells us that education and preservation are the main goals of Wild Spirit Wild Places, which she says will hopefully be achieved through the funding of research, education and practice of land conservation for generations to come.
Additionally, the Wild Spirit Wild Places land conservation projects will provide opportunities for the public to participate in the cause, as well as serve to inspire future limited edition releases of Desert Door. A portion of the proceeds from these limited Desert Door variations will directly fund Wild Spirit Wild Places’ future land conservation projects.
Looby says that the educational aspects of the organization don’t just stop with research either, as part of her goal is to teach the public about important yet often misunderstood aspects of conservation work in the area, such as prescribed burns.
As a liquor company, Desert Door has started partnering up with local ranches and farmers to design a Conservation Series of limited batch bottles as a part of that education model. Last fall they released a spirit called “Back Burn,” which played a part in their first stewardship project involving the practice of carefully administered prescribed fire at a ranch conservancy in West Texas.
The fire-restored native grasses that prevent soil erosion and allow for proper water distribution on a mass of land where drought is recurring. Making use of what was left behind after the fire dimmed, Desert Door harvested the Texas sotol plants that had overtaken much of the ranch. These plants were selectively trimmed, steamed, juiced, fermented, and distilled to create the Back Burn variation.
“We are excited and honored to join the land conservation community. There is a lot of important work currently taking place, but the need is still great,” said Looby. “Wild Spirit Wild Places will provide direct support to landowners to protect and preserve their diminishing ranches and rangelands through education, research, and conservation practices.”
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