The Battle Over Sotol in Marfa, Texas

Sandro Canovas slumps in the passenger seat, dozing as we pass through a large expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert in northern Mexico. His straw hat bounces up and down with the rough road. Deep in slumber, Canovas is not fuming anymore, not offering a “pinche cabrón” (“fucking bastard”) at every turn in his stories. 

A native of Mexico City and a naturalized citizen of the United States, Canovas has spent several years exploring how sotol distillers (sotoleros) hone their craft. Along the way, he has become a persistent barb in the sides of his adversaries, who take issue with his devotion to the culture of sotol—a spirit that has ignited a controversy on the West Texas border over who should be able to distill the liquor, and who has the right to call it “sotol.”

He finally awakens, strokes his wiry black beard, and glares from behind his thick glasses. “It’s really simple,” he says. “You can’t make sotol in Texas and call it sotol.” That’s his gospel, and a visit to Chihuahua gives him the spiritual energy to keep that religion and bolster his role as the defender of sotol culture.

Sandro Canovas

Sotol (pronounced so-TOLL) is a spirit distilled from the spiny sotol plant (Dasylirion) that grows in the Chihuahuan Desert. For simplicity, sotol producers often liken it to agave-based spirits, such as tequila and mezcal, with which it shares similar production methods. But a key difference, they say, is that it carries more of the essence of where it grows, giving it flavors often described as wet earth, leather or pine. 

Sixty miles north of the border, Marfa, Texas, is where Canovas calls home, and where he’s become a self-described troublemaker. Back in February, Canovas grabbed his bullhorn and parked himself outside the Marfa Spirit Co. distillery, which opened in 2021 as only the second company to make sotol outside of Mexico. Canovas squawked that Texas distillers were “impostors,” guilty of cultural appropriation. His flyers read: Don’t buy anything from the Cultural Vultures. What they do in Marfa is damaging the tradition and culture of sotol.

“I decided I had to do something because I live here,” Canovas says. “I can be the voice for the sotoleros and their families in Mexico who will be hurt by these posers.” His passion for defending the ancestral Mexican spirit surfaced when he moved to West Texas in 2006 and began his work as an adobero—a craftsman who builds houses and other structures from mud bricks. “I make a living from a tradition that is also being passed down from generations, you know? I’m the fourth generation in my family that makes bricks,” says Canovas. It is not uncommon for adoberos to share sotol after work, and before long he began traveling to northern Mexico, seeking out sotoleros to explore how their craft became tradition in small communities throughout Chihuahua, often with generations of family members making the spirit.  

Canovas asserts that the Texas distilleries are defying Mexico’s denomination of origin (DO) for sotol, which was enacted in 2004. The DO mandates that only sotol made in the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila can be labeled “sotol.” The United States, which currently acknowledges the DOs of tequila and mezcal, was prepared to recognize the DO of sotol in the latest trade treaty with Mexico. However, the only other active U.S. sotol distiller—Desert Door in Driftwood, Texas—reportedly lobbied Texas Sen. John Cornyn against it, and the DO remains unrecognized.

Sandro Canovas

For Morgan Weber, cofounder of Marfa Spirit Co., part of the problem is that sotol is both the name of the plant and the name of the spirit. “So, how do you avoid labeling your product with ‘sotol’ if you’re telling the consumer that it’s made from the plant?” He believes he’s been diplomatic by labeling his bottles “Chihuahuan Desert Sotol” rather than Texas sotol, noting that his distillery imports the base of his distillate from a Mexican sotolero and finishes it with a third distillation and bottling in Texas. (Desert Door distillery, which uses the label “Texas Sotol,” says it is too busy with a recent product expansion to comment on the DO issue.)

One morning after his protests, Canovas stands outside his house, only a block from the Marfa Spirit Co. distillery, speckled in mud from hat to shoes from adobe work. “Did you hear they assaulted me?” he asks. “It’s all on video.” Indeed, social media posts show the wife of one of Marfa Spirit Co.’s owners confronting Canovas outside the distillery and eventually knocking his phone out of his hand.

It’s not the first time Canovas has faced outright hostility for his views. In June, Marfa hosted its third Agave Festival; Canovas was there, flyers in hand, to educate visitors. The Marfa Spirit Co. distillery manager confronted Canovas, telling him to “find a tree with your name on it.” (The racist remark led to the manager being fired.)

By way of explanation, Weber, who is also a restaurateur in Houston, noted, “It’s been a tough year. We haven’t shown our best mental fortitude in certain areas.” He says they’ve learned a lot from the criticism and recent meetings with sotoleros in Chihuahua. “Our whole approach was to figure out how to do this in a way that honors the tradition.” Weber believes something positive can come out of what has been a frustrating experience. “The best thing that Sandro did was to get everybody focused on the future of how the sotol industry is going to go,” he says.

Sandro Canovas

On our recent road trip, Canovas leads us to Salvador Derma’s tiny tasting room in the Chihuahua city of Aldama. Derma helps head a cooperative of five sotoleros branded Sotol Lazadores. He stands behind the bar and serves a plata (silver) sotol and a couple of cremas flavored with chocolate and nuts. His view on Texas sotol is simple. “They shouldn’t be able to make sotol, because they know nothing about sotol,” Derma says. “It’s an artisanal drink and people shouldn’t be changing the flavor or tradition. I’m afraid they will scare people away from trying what true sotol is.”

Not too long ago, many Mexicans scoffed at sotol as a cheap liquor for getting drunk, in part because it was often homemade or distilled in small batches by poor communities. At one point, the government had even made it illegal. Sotoleros became outlaws—much like American moonshiners—until Mexico finally legalized the spirit in 1994. Slowly, sotol began emerging beyond local consumption, and now it’s often served as a centerpiece of complex cocktails in upscale bars and restaurants throughout Mexico and the United States. 

As the spirit gains popularity, sotoleros, like mezcaleros, worry about overharvesting the plants, which typically require 15 years to mature. “Marfa Spirit claims that they have all these plans for sustainability, and they market them on their website and social media, but in reality, they are not doing anything,” says Canovas. Weber is adamant that they are making progress, with advisors observing their methods of seasonal and limited harvesting, along with “laying the groundwork” for cultivation instead of wild harvesting.

But the sotoleros are not unified behind Canovas, either. Jacobo Jacquez—a sotolero in Janos, Chihuahua, who supplies Marfa Spirit with distillate—thinks Canovas is damaging collaborative efforts. “I’m not saying I 100 percent agree with producers in Texas calling it sotol, but it’s something we need to look at carefully,” he says. “I think if we collaborate and promote the plant and the category, we can get something good out of this. We’re actually trying to help [small producers] by building them a category that no one currently knows anything about.” 

For Canovas, however, trying to expand the burgeoning sotol market won’t help small producers who already struggle with bottling, marketing and exportation. “It’s two very different realities—Mexico and Texas. I knew that none of my sotolero friends were gonna be able to fight what these guys were creating,” says Canovas. Investing in their products locally would be a better approach, one that doesn’t need Texas distilleries to exist, he says. 

We end our road trip with a late lunch at Macuilli in Chihuahua City. Canovas is ebullient. A friend has brought him several bottles of Omáwari lechuguilla, a liquor distilled from a species of agave found only in the Chihuahuan Desert. Like sotol, it carries the taste of the land where it is harvested. He opens a bottle to share shots with the restaurant owner and a large family sitting next to him, while they hold a lively conversation on sotol and its significance to their culture. “This is tradition,” Canovas says. “This is community.”

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