West Texas’s desert landscape, while breathtaking, seems barren, rugged, and void of anything life-giving. Yet this environment is home to some of the most intriguing spirits, including mezcal, tequila, raicilla, and sotol. From the beaches in southern Mexico’s Oaxaca to the rocky expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches up through southwest Texas, plant-based spirits have been enjoyed among locals since long before they found a foothold in the global market.
Many international entrepreneurs and celebrities have capitalized on the success of these traditional spirits. But, thankfully, a handful of Texas-based producers are less concerned with marketing opportunities and more interested in honoring the culture, history, and heritage of these drinks.
Real Spirits Distilling Totem
Pechuga is a ceremonial style of mezcal that uses family recipes often handed down for generations. It involves taking a finished mezcal and redistilling it with a sackcloth hung over the still containing regional fruits, grains, nuts, and a raw meat protein. Pechuga, which is Spanish for “breast,” has often used chicken or turkey, though any animal protein may be used, including ham, venison, or beef. Steam from the still heats the hanging package, forming a flavorful vapor that infuses into the final spirit.
Historically, pechuga was made to celebrate life events or rites of passage such as births, weddings, holidays, and other holy occasions, which is why local ingredients are so essential: to connect the experience of the spirit with the place.
Davin Topel, the head distiller at Real Spirits Distilling in Blanco, has long felt a connection to the sentiment of pechuga in regional communities in Mexico. Though his day job finds him making high-quality whiskies and gin for Real Spirits (the sister brand to Real Ale Brewing Co.), in his free time Topel works as a fly-fishing and hunting guide.
“I’m a big fan of ritual and ceremony,” Topel says. “When you approach hunting and fishing from this perspective, it gives you a deeper appreciation for the animal and the place.”
With this in mind, Topel started toying with making a Texas-style pechuga. He traveled to Oaxaca to experience the process of mezcal production and to understand the ritual behind pechuga. Topel felt that to capture the soul of his own version, he needed to make his spirit as local as possible. So he used ingredients he could find in Texas. The base for his fermented mash includes malted barley, wheat, and passion fruit. He foraged pecans, grapefruit, peaches, lavender, smoked chiles, dewberries, and other citrus and herbs for the distillation. And for the protein, he harvested a wild hog. Following the methods he learned in Mexico, he distilled a sort of moonshine gin with the essence of pechuga. Topel named it Totem, which represents a natural object, plant, or animal that serves as a spiritual emblem to Indigenous peoples.
The result is a complex spirit that is fruity, spicy, and savory. It has a rich viscosity that is silky and almost a touch oily. To get the full effect, Topel likes to serve it in lidded clay cups, or copitas, from Austin’s Brave Ceramics. The secret is to first rim the lid’s edge with local honey. Pour an ounce or so of Totem into the copita and light it with a match. Then cover the copita with the honey-rimmed lid and let the flame extinguish. Remove the lid, lick the liquified honey that has transferred to the rim of the cup, and sip the warm spirit.
“The whole experience together is meant to connect you with a place,” Topel says. “You could be in the outdoors in Texas, or anywhere really. But adding the local honey to the tasting and binding the spirit with it through fire is meant to bring it all together and to celebrate where you are in that moment.”
Of course, if you like to drink it on its own, that’s just fine too.
Because of its unique production process, pechuga isn’t the sort of thing you make in large commercial quantities, at least not in an authentic way. Thus, Totem is a very limited release.
“It takes time to collect all of the fruits, nuts, and botanicals throughout the seasons,” Topel says. This means Totem will likely be made only about once a year. And while many Mexican pechugas can cost $100 to $400, Totem will set you back only $85.
Founded by Eduardo “Lalo” González and David Carballido, LALO Tequila is made in the highlands of Jalisco, with its company headquarters in Austin. González and Carballido sought to create a pure blanco tequila good enough to sip on its own but approachable enough to be enjoyed every day.
“We didn’t want LALO to be a special-occasion spirit,” Carballido says. “Drinking it makes any occasion special. Tequila is the people’s spirit, after all.”
And no one understands that better than González, whose grandfather was Don Julio González, founder of Don Julio Tequila. In 1942, at the age of seventeen, Don Julio began distilling his tequila with a small loan from a local businessman who believed in his passion and commitment to quality. As tequila began to make its way to the U.S., gaining in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, Don Julio became synonymous with quality and authenticity, setting itself apart from other tequilas on the market that were more commonly used as beer chasers or for shots with a dash of salt and a squeeze of lime.
Technically, tequila is mezcal made from the core of a particular species of agave known as blue agave, or Agave tequilana. It can be bottled as an unaged blanco or plata, or it may be aged in barrels for a couple of months to a year as with reposado, or for one to three years for añejo. It’s also worth noting that the “tequila” designation is protected by the Mexican government and bottles may be labeled as such only if produced in five states: Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located, as well as Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
The path to good tequila is one of patience. According to González, it takes three years for the hijuelo, the shoots that grow up around the main plant, to be ready to replant. It will take another six to eight years for the plant to fully mature, depending on the area in which it is grown. The soils then need to rest for at least one year before the cycle can begin again.
After several years of development, the final recipe came down to three simple ingredients: blue agave, yeast (a conventional strain used in Champagne), and water sourced deep in the desert water table. Each fully mature agave plant has been hand-selected from the Jalisco highlands, cooked in stone ovens using a traditional process, and distilled only twice to maintain the agave’s flavor and integrity.
To date, LALO has released only a blanco tequila, and according to González, it’s the only style the brand will produce.
“We believe that the aging process of tequila happens naturally in the agave fields, and we honor that with LALO,” González says. “When you wait out the process for the agave to mature, then you have the most beautiful distillate, and to mask that flavor with barrels or additives just isn’t what we want to do.”
The result is a beautiful agave-forward spirit with tropical fruit notes, an herbaceous sweetness, and a silken finish.
Marfa Spirit Co. Chihuahuan Desert Sotol
In 2018, Marfa Spirit Co. launched under the partnership of Morgan Weber and Seth Siegel-Gardner—both restauranteurs from the Houston area—and Josh Shepard, an Austin-based entrepreneur. They purchased a century-old feed mill in Marfa to begin production, refurbishing the building to include a full-scale distillery and tasting room.
The three partners had visited the trendy West Texas outpost on vacation many times and were always intrigued by the stories of locals who would regularly go to the border to buy sotol, a practice that has been carried over from Prohibition.
Often dubbed the moonshine of northern Mexico, sotol is a spirit made from the Dasylirion, or desert spoon plant, commonly called sotol. The official drink of the northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango, sotol has been a cornerstone of the regional culture for centuries. It began as a fermented beverage made by the Indigenous people and was later distilled by Spanish settlers.
The sotol plant can be found dappling the landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert, and also extends north into the Hill Country of Texas and west to Arizona. Because of its expansive reach across terrain, soil types, and growing conditions, the plant can reveal a range of aromatic and flavor components unique to the area in which it is grown. Sotol is made in a similar way to mezcal and tequila. The plants are usually harvested when they are ten to fifteen years old, and the central bulb, the cabeza, is steamed, fermented, and distilled.
To Weber, a longtime student of heritage spirits, and his partners, creating a Texas sotol required showing respect to the generations of sotoleros. The three spent time in rural communities in Mexico, learning to harvest and process the plants. Before long, Weber had formed a relationship with Jacobo Jacquez, a sixth-generation sotolero with Sotol Don Celso who shared some of the secrets to making the traditional spirit.
Weber soon became aware of the apprehension producers from northern Mexico felt about Texans trying to reproduce their time-honored spirit.
“It has been important for us to be a part of their conversation, and we are very grateful for their openness and willingness to teach us, so we don’t screw it up,” Weber says.
In deference to these sotoleros, Marfa Spirit Co. collaborated with Jacquez, producing the spirit at his distillery with plants from Mexico and then finishing it in Marfa. The result, which launched in October 2021, appropriately bears the name Chihuahuan Desert Sotol.
The sotol comes in two iterations: one that has been filtered six times and is slightly fruitier and lighter with 40 percent alcohol; and one that has been filtered four times, revealing a more rustic character at a bolder 45 percent alcohol. The lighter style plays well in cocktails such as margaritas and Negronis, while the bolder style is excellent on its own. Sotol newcomers should expect a more herbaceous, earthy character than they find in agave spirits. There is a brightness and a hint of white pepper that keeps things interesting on the palate.
Marfa Spirit Co. also produces gin, rum, vodka, and grapefruit and orange liqueurs. The Chihuahuan Desert Sotol will always be available, but the company is also crafting special sotols from plants grown on ranches throughout the state, including Cibolo Creek Ranch near Marfa.
Marfa Spirit Co. isn’t the first to make a totally Texan sotol. Austin-based Genius Liquids and Driftwood-based Desert Door Distillery have ramped up sotol production within the past six years. The addition of Marfa Spirits Co. and its commitment to authenticity only strengthens the case for a trans-border spirit we can all get behind.