Have you ever heard of sotol? I'm guessing probably not.
The word "sotol" comes from "tzotolin," a word in Náhuatl, the language of the ancient Aztec still spoken in many parts of Mexico. Sotol was once thought to be an agave, the plant used to produce tequila and mezcal, but in the 1990s, botanists concluded that sotol was technically not an agave but rather a dasilyrion. Agave and sotol are, however, in the same order, asparagales, which contains such diverse plants as orchid, garlic and vanilla.
In Henry J. Bruman's epic "Alcohol in Ancient Mexico" (2000, The University of Utah Press), the author details the history and sociology around the many alcoholic beverages that people in what is now Mexico produced from a wide range of wild plants. People in the northern Mexican states, such as Chihuahua and Durango, would sometimes eat sotol's bulbous heart, which like the agave's heart (or pina, because it looks like a pineapple when the leaves are stripped off), are sweet-tasting and contain nutrients. The sugars in sotol and agave can be converted to alcohol, which became common after the Spanish introduced distillation to the Americas.
The sotol house at the National Ranching and Heritage Center was built in 1904, in the days when you could claim a piece of Texas land for your own if you made improvements on the property and lived there for three years. This sotol house was once the homestead of D.B. Kilpatrick and his wife Truda, who built this house of horizontal sotol stalks nailed to vertical cedar posts. At the National Ranching Heritage Center, preservation crews need to add new sotol every two-to-three years and rethatch the roof using native grasses.
Sotol grows in Texas and points further south, like the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Durango, but not much further north than the Lone Star State.
To make liquor from sotol, the heart is usually harvested after the plant has been growing for many years. Like the agave, the years spent in the earth give the sotol a chance to absorb the flavors of the soil, the sunlight and the plants growing nearby. Sotol is generally somewhat grassier and more herbal than tequila or mezcal, and it's believed that sotol growing in forested mountain areas tends to have a greener flavor and that sotol growing in desert areas has more mineral-like notes.
A commonly available version of the Sotol liquor is produced by Flor del Desierto, and you can get both the mountain and the desert versions through Binny's, which also regularly carries Hacienda de Chihuahua brand sotol ($37.99/750ml).