In late January, holding a sandwich board and a bullhorn, Sandro Canovas stationed himself outside the Marfa Spirit Co. “Sotol es mexicano! Boycott these culture vultures! Don’t support the ladrones,” he shouted.
Some passersby chatted with Canovas before getting a drink at the distillery; others voiced support for one side or the other. Over the course of the weekend, residents and visitors politely accepted flyers from Canovas. Most of the glossy one-sheets ended up in a nearby trash bin.
Two months later, Canovas was in the Mexico City chambers of the Mexican Senate declaring that sotol, a traditional Mexican spirit, should not be distilled in Marfa or anywhere in the U.S.
But it has been—and Texas has led the way, with companies like the Marfa Spirit Co. and Desert Door producing and popularizing sotol in the state. The Marfa Spirit Co. producers argue their efforts boost the economy on both sides of the border. Mexican distillers’ trade unions and the country’s government prefer the term “sotol” to only be used by Mexican producers.
Sotol is made from dasylirion cactus (sometimes known as desert spoon or sotol in the States) that proliferates in the Chihuahuan Desert, which stretches from the northern tip of Zacatecas, Mexico, through West Texas and into parts of southern New Mexico.
“Back to pre-Columbian era, the plants were a big part of the culture,” says Jeffrey Keeling, lecturer in biology and natural resource management at Sul Ross State University in Alpine. “The genus Dasylirion dominated the ecosystem and were traditionally used as an anesthetic, in religious ceremonies, to eat, and to make drinks.”
During the sixteenth century, Spanish colonists refined the process by introducing distillation. In the ensuing centuries, sotol was mostly made in small batches by rural distillers.
Often compared to moonshine, the beverage initially drew the ire of the Mexican government. For fifty years, sotol was even illegal in the country. In 1994, the Mexican government legalized sotol, and eight years later, it granted the spirit a denomination of origin (DO).
The DO from Instituto Mexicano de la Propiedad Industrial mandates that sotol only be produced in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango. Similar measures dictate Scotch whiskey must be made in Scotland and Champagne must be produced in Champagne, France.
The U.S. began honoring other Mexican DOs protecting tequila and mezcal after signing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. But at the time, sotol was still illegal in Mexico, so the spirit was not included.
In 2020, President Trump replaced NAFTA with the United States–Mexico-Canada Agreement. Initial drafts of the updated trade deal included U.S. recognition of sotol’s DO. However, a group led by Senator John Cornyn successfully intervened at the last minute, threatening to delay congressional approval of the deal unless protections for Mexican sotol were removed, warning it could hurt Texas producers. The final agreement promised only future discussion of the DO recognition.
“Sotol experienced a fairly massive growth in U.S. sales between 2018 and the present, riding the wave of newfound interest in Mexican spirits and distillates,” explained importer and consultant Dave O’Brien.
Marfa, the far West Texas town known for attracting artists and ex–city folk, accounted for part of that wave.
“Until about seven years ago, tequila was king here,” says Jerram Rojo, a lifelong Marfa resident and proprietor of local bar Rojo’s at the Capri. “Now, [sotol] is like a signature drink for the region.”
Recognizing the spirit’s regional ascent, Houston-based restaurateur Morgan Weber cofounded the Marfa Spirit Co. in town in October 2021.
The distillery is in Marfa’s old Godbold feed factory adjacent to the railroad tracks. The former grain floor is now filled with stills, casks, and vats. One side of the space has been partitioned into a tasting room and bar. Live-music acts regularly perform, and pop-up kitchens are a frequent attraction. While the company produces rum, vodka, gin, and liqueurs, sotol is the heart of the enterprise.
Canovas, who lives a block away, described a “feeling of rage” upon learning that the distillery planned to label its product as “Texas sotol.” Harnessing his experience as a housing rights activist, he launched his protest in Marfa.
Canovas believes that Mexican producers are losing business due to the expansion. (There’s limited sales data to support the claim.) “I just want people to understand that these gringos are stealing my people’s heritage to make a profit off tourists,” he says. “They are taking business from Mexican sotoleros who have done this for generations.”
Weber admits he initially brushed off the first wave of condemnation. When the debate continued online for weeks after the protest, he acknowledged the importance of discussion but maintained his right to distill and label his product as sotol.
“For starters, I think the subject of where sotol should and should not be produced is very complicated and nuanced, as evidenced by the differing opinions of sotol producers in Mexico,” Weber says, referencing the support of his collaborator, master sotolero Jacobo Jacquez of Sotol Don Celso.
Marfa is part of the Chihuahuan Desert and was once part of Mexico, Weber stresses, noting the cactus grows in his own backyard. He also points to a positive economic impact for the area.
“As the distillery grows, it is safe to say that Marfa Spirit Co.’s ability to create valuable job opportunities for a wide cross section of the demographic is undeniable,” Weber says. “As a start, we’ve created about a dozen jobs and are currently hiring more people now for work in the distillery, harvesting crews, and tasting room.”
Sixth-generation distiller and master sotolero Salvador Derma, who lives about 45 miles northwest of Chihuahua City, Mexico, wasn’t paying attention to the sotol scene stateside. However, Canovas says when a friend showed Derma a video of Canovas protesting, he began to take notice. Shortly thereafter, Canovas visited Derma and other sotoleros.
After learning about the booming business in Texas, Derma grew concerned. His father and grandfather were instrumental players in the push for the creation of the DO.
“The Americans can make what they want, but they cannot call it sotol,” Derma says. “Sotol belongs to us.”
In response, Derma reignited the latent Grupo de Sotoleros El Potrero del Llano, a confederation of Mexican sotol producers, in early 2022. In a statement, the group condemned not just the Marfa Spirit Co. but all Texas distillers.
“We issue a statement and raise our voices expressing our disagreement against the theft of our cultural heritage and we strongly oppose businesses such as Marfa Spirit Co, Desert Door Distillery, and Genius Liquids for not respecting the Denomination of Origin for Sotol that belongs to Mexico as of 2002 and using the name ‘Sotol’ in their products,” the group stated in a public letter.
Then, in early February, the Chihuahuan government took notice and subsequently held town hall meetings about sotol protection in the state. The forums revealed public support and raised mainstream awareness. Chihuahua newspaper Hechos ran a headline in the February 17 issue that translates to: “Without Respecting the Denomination of Origin, Texas Produces Sotol.”
Despite its growth, sotol is still a relatively small market—not even large enough to warrant its own category on impact reports. The numbers are not likely sufficient to spark a renegotiation of the USMCA.
But some Mexican sotoleros say the wider interest in sotol, no matter where it comes from, has benefited them. Jacquez, who works with the Marfa Spirit Co., believes the increased enthusiasm for sotol will help sell the Mexican spirit in the U.S. market. It’s “a heritage that we share,” Jacquez says.
Derma and his group remain opposed to U.S. marketing of sotol, emphasizing that the “Texas sotol” phrasing is unacceptable. However, Derma is willing to compromise in some areas, noting he is fine with U.S. distillation of the dasylirion plant provided the spirit is labeled with a new, unique name.
Mike Groener of Austin’s Genius Liquids—also named in the Grupo de Sotoleros statement—says he is amenable to changing the labeling of his dasylirion-based spirit. “I will call the spirit anything people want,” he says. “To me, working with the plant is a privilege and an experience that has changed my life forever. My goal is simply to be able to create.” Desert Door, the country’s largest producer of sotol, which is based in Driftwood, about a half hour from Austin, declined to comment.
Weber says his company is “actively working to get everyone in the same room and have real, productive discussion.”
Canovas spent April in Mexico City advocating for stronger sotol protections at a series of talks and appearances. For him, the issue remains binary: “I want that the three [Mexican] states where sotol is historically produced will enforce the DO of sotol, and these posers will refrain from using the name ‘Texas sotol’ in their dasylirion products.”