By Gregory Daurer | Jan 17, 2022
Covering the caps on unopened flip-top ceramic bottles of Desert Door Texas Sotol is a seal declaring the contents as "An earthly intoxicant for unearthly whims." Unsealing a bottle opens a doorway, so to speak, to a rediscovered style of spirit now being distilled in modern-day Texas, but one that remains accompanied by ancient mystical associations of the vast desert to the west.
Desert Door utilizes the sotol plant -- specifically, a variety native to the Lone Star State, appropriately named Dasylirion texanum (a.k.a. Texas sotol) -- in the distilling of their sotol beverage.
Looby points out the multitudinous ways indigenous people used the spiky sotol plant, which is also nicknamed the "desert spoon." They would eat the hearts at the base of the plant for food, they would employ the stalks (which, according to Looby, are "lightweight and extremely strong -- I mean, like, carbon-fiber strong") as weapons, and they would utilize the leaves as utensils.
They would also mix the long, thin leaves with water, allowing wild yeast to ferment them, creating one of the oldest intoxicants on the continent. When the Spaniards introduced distillation much later, Looby notes how the sotol plant -- varieties of which also grow in Mexico -- was turned into the oldest distilled spirit in the New World, predating mezcal and tequila.
"What we're trying to do is tell a history lesson about a part of the world and a plant that we believe has been largely overlooked to this point," says Looby, who cites a 10,000-year history between humans and sotol. He also points out how ancient cave paintings in West Texas pay homage to the plant, signifying the reverence native people had for it.
At the tail end of the 19th century, sotol was commercially distilled in El Paso, before Prohibition took hold in 1920. And although there have been one-offs in the century since, Desert Door is the first widely distributed producer of sotol in the United States. (In Mexico, sotol made from a separate plant variety only became legal to distill in 1994.)
In order to produce Desert Door's sotol, the large roundish pineapple-like hearts of the plant get laboriously harvested from the West Texas landscape. Conscious about the conservation of the species (and conservation, in general), Looby says the distillery only harvests a quarter of the plants on any acre of land they work, while leaving the root structure intact, in order to assist potential regeneration of the plant, as well as to prevent soil erosion. The plants all come from the wild, with no cultivation by humans involved.
At its distillery in Driftwood, 24 miles south of downtown Austin, the sotol hearts are steamed in autoclaves -- up to 12,000 pounds at a time. The steaming keeps the plants from drying out, Looby says, as well as providing "a really pure articulation of the plant's flavor profile."
Desert Door uses a large press, in addition to water, to "express the sugars" out of the plant, then adds a proprietary yeast strain to begin fermentation. Using a "hybrid pot column still," Looby says, "I strip and proof in a single run."
While similar to tequila in certain regards, sotol is its own animal. "On the nose it's very bright, herbaceous, it's floral," says Looby. "On the front palate, you're going to get bright grassy," as well as "eucalyptus or mint notes." And, finally, "the finish on it is very creamy, slightly sweet with some earthy undertones. But it's very, very clean and smooth -- and absolutely no burn."
One of the highest compliments Looby ever received came from a top chef in Dallas who told him, "Brent, your spirit tastes to me like Big Bend after a rain shower."
Desert Door's origin story involves a series of fateful circumstances. "It was very serendipitous how this all came together," says Looby. The company was founded by three military vets, Looby, Judson Kauffman and Ryan Campbell. (Looby, a retired marine, flew the EA-6B Prowler plane during his service.) They met while attending business school at the University of Texas in a class called "New Venture Creation."
As a class project, students had to form teams and then create their own theoretical companies, in order to solve a market problem. After fits and starts, Looby and company settled on starting a distillery -- or, perhaps, to find a small mom-and-pop distillery in Mexico to produce a spirit for them a la rocker Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo tequila brand, injecting capital into the venture.
After hashing over several contenders for a spirit, they heard about sotol. Kauffman asked himself, "I wonder if that's that 'soto' that my uncle and his friends used to moonshine when I was a kid out in West Texas."
Indeed, it was. After personally researching the plant in West Texas, Campbell decided he wanted the team to distill it right there in Texas from sotol plants growing in the state. Their class project was evaluated by several investors from the community who gave the team's business plan the highest marks. In fact, one woman suggested she and her husband would actually invest in the company. "That's when it got real," says Looby.
Their project's chief market challenge, as required to be articulated within the class? Appeal to Millennials, who research indicated "wanted something that was unique, sustainable, that was organic, locally-sourced, had a great backstory," says Looby. He learned how to distill in order to fulfill that need. "There's no YouTube videos on how to make sotol," he says, noting how the business didn't seek to imitate sotol manufacturing taking place in Mexico, but rather work from a "clear canvas."
Today, Desert Door Texas Sotol is sold in five states: Texas, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Colorado, with seven other markets on the horizon in 2022. "We've been blessed with some sustained growth," says Looby. The company will soon be adding a second still and a new bottling line at its facility in Driftwood. In 2018, they occupied 6,500 square feet of space and had three employees. Today, 55 employees work in 24,000 square feet of expanded space.
At its tasting room, visitors can sample sotol cocktails made from their original spirit, as well as their barrel-aged version. One cocktail called "Ranch Water" is sotol added to a bottle of freshly-opened Topo Chico with a lime wedge on top. Outside the distillery sits Sonya Cotê's farm-to-table food truck, Eden West, which marinates steaks in Desert Door's pre-fermented sotol juice.
Like the mythical phoenix, Desert Door's Texas-made sotol has risen from the ashes of the past. "We really believe this is a resurrection," says Looby.
Challenges: "As you grow a brand, how do you maintain the integrity?" says Looby. He states his goal as continuing to "build and sustain high-functioning teams to solve problems."
Opportunities: "We've been in business for four years and there's still tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people, that don't know we exist," says Looby, who's keen on sharing the distillery's story, far and wide. He adds about the partners' original goal, "We were looking to leverage the brand that is Texas, because it is a global brand."
Needs: Although the distillery gives away its leftover, crushed sotol hearts to ranchers for cattle feed, and to locals for compost, there is still a lot of waste material these days. "I'm in dire need of a strategic partnership, a good home for my byproduct," says Looby, who envisions industrial uses for the material within, for instance, the manufacturing of compostable plates and plastics.