Desert Door Sotol Barrel Aging | A New Central Texas Beer Trend
Feature post by Ruvani De Silva
Few things in life genuinely qualify as unique, so Desert Door Distilling has pulled off quite a coup. They are, at least to the best of the knowledge of the internet, the only producers of Sotol liquor in both Texas and the USA. While there are many Mexican brands of Sotol, Desert Door have created a truly unique Central Texas spirit using hand-harvested local Sotol plants. And not only does it taste great, but it also offers up new and exciting possibilities for our region’s brewers. Sotol barrel-aging is taking off here in Central Texas – and for good reason. The flavor potential of Sotol barrels differs significantly from other spirits and offers up the opportunity to create brand new barrel-aged beer experiences that are specific to Central Texas.
The Dasylirion, which sounds wonderfully like a sci-fi character, is a desert evergreen from the asparagus family. Its spiny spikes can reach 15ft tall and was a historically significant source of food for the Native Americans of the Lower Pecos region, and first fermented into alcohol some 800 years ago. It was revived in Central Texas back in 2017 by three local veterans on UT’s MBA program, who recreated it pretty much from scratch with custom-built equipment. Since then, Desert Door has flourished in popularity and is now distributed in over 20 states.
So, what does Sotol taste like? While comparisons with Tequila and Mezcal are inevitable, Sotol has its own very specific flavor – smoother than Tequila with a minerally herbaceous aloe taste that makes a fantastic Ranch Water. The barrel-aged version, left for a year in medium-charred American oak, has a smoky firmness closer to Mezcal or barrel-aged Gin – beautifully soft with a light warmth that makes it happily sippable in the Texas heat. Of course, having our very own Central Texas liquor with such an exciting flavor profile has piqued the interest of several of our most exciting and experimental breweries, and to date, a total of five Sotol barrel-aged beers have been released – all of which have been both delicious and innovative. For Desert Door, it’s a great way to recycle their used barrels as well as to build collaborative relationships with their beery neighbors, and for our breweries, it’s a chance to do something totally new.
The first Sotol barrel-aged beer came out back in September 2019 when Roughhouse Brewing released their Paloma-inspired Dovetail Farmhouse Saison. This small-batch brew was aged for just one to two months in freshly dumped Sotol barrels for a bright, zesty grapefruit-cocktail finish. Head Brewer Davy Pasternak worked up the recipe from scratch. “We started by drinking quite a bit of Sotol – both on the rocks and in cocktails. Tough work, right?” he says. “I find Desert Door Sotol to have a very subtle smoke quality with a pronounced earthiness. So this immediately led me to think about how to lighten and accent this earthiness, which brought me to thinking of using citrus of some kind. After determining we wanted to use citrus, it wasn’t long before we decided on a beer inspired by a Paloma.”
The Paloma, which Desert Door serves up in their gorgeous Driftwood taproom, was also the inspiration for Independence Brewing’s Sotol barrel-aged beer, a Paloma-flavoured version of their classic RedBud Berliner Weiss. “When it comes to barrel-aged beer, most distilled agave spirits like Mezcal and Tequila can be challenging to work with because often their strong flavors and aromas can easily overwhelm the beer. What I found so promising about Sotol is that it prizes subtlety, showcasing those earthy, botanical, and floral notes” says Head Brewer Brannon Radicke, “I’m really proud of how this turned out, probably one of my favorite barrel-aging projects to date.”
Desert Door’s Driftwood neighbors Vista Brewing have Sotol barrel-aged two of their beers to date – their award-winning Dark Skies Schwarzbier and their funky, rustic Desert Skies Saison, a project curated by the Fairmont Hotel Austin. “The Fairmont beverage director, Andrew Grenz, had worked with and loved both Desert Door’s and Vista’s products, and wanted to collaborate and create a brand new product,” says Vista Co-Founder Karen Killough, “Andrew joined us for a day here in Driftwood for a tour of both facilities, as well as emptying the Sotol barrels at Desert Door and refilling with beer at Vista.” Choosing which beers to use as a collaborative process. “The Desert Door Team and the Vista Team got together and tasted some of our core beers and some of the seasonal beers” adds Vista’s Brewmaster Pat Korn, “It was quickly apparent that some of the beers were a perfect fit”, which they certainly are.
Known for their inventive, globally-themed brews, Nomadic Beerworks found inspiration closer to home for their Sotol barrel-aged Prospect Tart Saison. “In order to determine a style that would fit the flavors we would pick up from the Desert Door Barrels, we had to taste the spirit from the barrels themselves. Luckily, the barrels were very fresh and there was still about a half cup of Sotol to be salvaged from each barrel” says Co-Founder Daniel Tyranski, “Sotol has a very herbaceous character so we made the decision to kettle sour the Saison in order to amplify the pineapple notes of the yeast strain while giving the overall product a tart dry finish.”
Collaborating with Desert Door and working with Sotol has been a really positive experience for everyone involved. “I really enjoyed the process of working with the Desert Door team,” says Vista’s Pat Korn, “They all have great palates, are open to trying cool new things, and are willing to think outside the box or try something that they might have doubts about.” “We didn’t like our barrels going to waste and wanted to support other local businesses,” says Ken Kobrin, Desert Door’s Director of Operations, “It was great to receive really positive responses and work closely with each of the breweries.” Independence’s Brannon Radicke agrees, “The Desert Door team has been great to work with – we’ve really enjoyed getting to know them.”
Moving forward, Independence already has more Sotol barrel-aged beers brewing, including a new Passionfruit-Guava RedBud and their Convict Hill Stout for a wintery treat. Roughhouse, Nomadic, and Vista are all also keen to do more Sotol barrel-aging. “We will absolutely be brewing more beer to age in the Sotol barrels,” says Nomadic’s Daniel Tyranski, “it’s exciting to work with ingredients that highlight and bring attention to a product from one’s region. As we see it, this trend won’t be going anywhere. We can’t wait to continue to experiment with and refine this newly emerging central Texas beer aging tradition.” Roughhouse’s Davy Pasternak agrees, “I could see doing Dovetail again honestly. I really enjoyed this beer personally, and I think our customers did too. I have seen quite a few breweries locally using Desert Door barrels, so I don’t see that trend stopping.” “We very much plan to do more Sotol barrel-aged beers” adds Vista’s Pat Korn, “Since we have done two, now I feel we have figured out the best beer to use, the proper amount of time in barrel, and the best place to age them in the brewery.” Indeed, as brewers become more accustomed to working with Sotol barrels, we can certainly expect to see even greater degrees of experimentation coming out of these collaborations.
Desert Door is equally keen to be a part of more Sotol barrel-aged brews. “We see collaborations as a blank slate and want to leave it up to the brewers to be as imaginative and creative as possible,” says Ken Kobrin, “As we’re heading into winter, a Scotch Ale or a Red Ale could work well with Sotol – but we’re open to ideas.” Desert Door is also releasing a new Sotol distilled with the burnt plants harvested from their prescribed fire conservation project, offering another new variety of flavors for brewers to work with. Sotol barrel-aging has the potential to grow into a regional specialty, offering a fully Central Texan drinking experience to visitors and becoming a key part of our nascent beer scene. “Desert Door Sotol is an amazing product, made by talented and passionate Texans,” says Vista’s Pat Korn, “Using their barrels to put beer in them by talented, passionate Texas brewers seems like a no brainer.” With beer aficionados perpetually on the hunt for the newest, most innovative, and exclusive brews, Sotol barrel-aged beer might become the phenomenon to put Central Texas firmly on the beer-world map.