With sotol, Driftwood distillers unearth a distinctly Texas spirit

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 Austin360 Eats
American-Statesman Staff
Ryan Campbell, Brent Looby and Judson Kauffman founded Desert Door Texas Sotol following their respective stints in the military and a UT class on entrepreneurship. Contributed

The idea of a truly Texas spirit — a liquor made from a scrubby plant found all over the West Texas desert — began fermenting in a University of Texas business class, of all places.

Since then, three military veterans have transformed Desert Door Texas Sotol from a school project into a full-fledged distillery and tasting room in Driftwood that will open to visitors next week, on Nov. 16. Ryan Campbell, Judson Kauffman and Brent Looby never intended to get into the booze business following their years of service in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, respectively, but they realized they could offer something virtually no other distillery does.

“Our vision for this is to make sotol to Texas what bourbon is to Kentucky and what tequila is to Mexico,” Campbell said on a recent tour of the 6,500-square-foot facility at 211 Darden Hill Road. Here, a custom-built copper column still produces the rustic, vegetal spirit, and a bottling line delivers rows of striking blue ceramic bottles marked with the Desert Door logo.

Sotol derives from the spiky, heat-tolerant dasylirion plant known colloquially as “desert spoon.” The stocky bush dots the bone-dry landscape of northern Mexico and West Texas with its long green leaves and eye-catching flower stalks, the latter of which can reach up to 15 feet during the summer months when it blossoms.

About 7,000 years ago, Kauffman said, the wild sotol plant was consumed by Native Americans who figured out how to ferment it. More recently, it’s become the moonshine of West Texas, and a small contingent of more professional distillers in Mexico have been making it into Mexican sotol, a spirit that many assume comes from agave like tequila and mezcal. That’s inaccurate: The desert spoon and the agave plant are very distant relations.

“There’s this great rich history to sotol, but it’s this modern mystery because no one’s ever had it,” he said. “Or if they have, they don’t quite understand it.”

He remembers the stories his uncle used to tell when they would go hunting together about “the ‘soto’ bush you can drink,” he said. Kids at his uncle’s high school in West Texas would make moonshine from it.

The Desert Door operation is more professional, in part thanks to Campbell’s microbiology degree that he’s finally been able to put to good use. He, Kauffman and Looby harvest mature sotol plants themselves, with access to about 75,000 acres in West Texas “covered in this stuff,” he said; they can fill about 500 Desert Door bottles using just a tenth of an acre and aren’t worried about running out of supply. They also leave the roots intact so the plant will regrow.

From there, the trimmed desert spoon piñas are taken back to the distillery and placed in a massive, custom-made steam cooker that Looby jokes is Campbell’s magnum opus (but he’s not altogether kidding — it was meticulously designed and built over the course of 10 months, Campbell said). The steam is a crucial step and helps convert the plant into sugar to be fermented into a mash and then distilled.

American-Statesman Staff
Desert Door Texas Sotol, made in Driftwood, goes well in tequila cocktails like palomas, but the sotol doesn’t taste as similar to tequila as people might think. Arianna Auber / American-Statesman

The result is Original Desert Door Texas Sotol, a spirit that is hard to characterize because there isn’t really a predecessor to compare it to — sotol is not only unrelated to tequila but also, in this case at least, doesn’t taste much like it. It’s got a distinct, grounding earthiness livened by floral notes and a sweetness that keeps it palatable for a wide range of drinkers. (An Austin distillery made a one-off batch of Texas sotol in 2015, but I don’t recall it tasting similar to this one.)

As Looby describes Desert Door’s sotol: “It is a very honest plant. It tastes like where it’s from.”

Desert Door also makes a 100-proof oak-aged version that he said is “somewhere between a cognac and a bourbon,” albeit with a rustic edge that reminds you it was dug out of the desert.

Both of these will be available to try neat and in cocktails (the oak-aged one on a more limited basis) in the Desert Door tasting room, which the co-founders designed to have a “Marfa modern hacienda look, without going overkill,” Kauffman said. The homey room has stucco walls, a pecan wood bar top, plenty of seating and a fireplace. Works by regional artists adorn the walls, and a window carved out of one side provides glimpses of the distillers working.

Ceramic blue bottles of the unaged sotol will be available for purchase there — and eventually elsewhere in the Austin and San Antonio areas — at a retail price of $50. The bottles weren’t easy to get, but it was important to the Desert Door co-founders to have a packaged product that stands out.

“When we started this, we knew no one would go into the bar or into the liquor store and ask for a sotol bottle, right, because no one knows it exists,” Kauffman said. “So we wanted to create a bottle that was in line with this brand that we had built that was basically a work of art itself, so that when people would go into a bar, they’d look up and say, ‘Whoa, what’s that?’ And at least we’d get them talking.”

He met Campbell and Looby at UT during the summer class on entrepreneurship that changed their futures. The New Venture Creation class, which has also produced other lucrative enterprises like uShip, required them to come up with a new business concept, do extensive market research and try to bring it to fruition. Their backgrounds in the military gave them an easy shorthand — a return to the “esprit de corps” they missed as civilians.

In no time, they had unearthed a winning concept with Desert Door. They even received first place in a class competition because the professor was pleased they had found a market void in an industry that everyone had seemingly thoroughly tapped. After they received their MBAs through UT, they set about seriously developing the distillery.

“We want people to identify this as a uniquely Texas spirit,” Looby said. “Vodka, rum, whiskey, none of those are special to Texas, even though plenty of folks in Texas make them and do it well. Look at Tito (of Tito’s Vodka). But there isn’t anything we own.”

“We’re a huge state with a lot of pride. We should have something to call our own,” Kauffman added.

American-Statesman Staff
Wild sotol plants in West Texas are harvested and brought to the Desert Door distillery in the Hill Country to be cooked in steam, fermented with an organic yeast and then distilled in a copper column still. Contributed
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