A Sotol Story
A modern-day adventure on the road to rediscover a classic Mexican liquor.
by Tom Barry
For John Grady Cole, the first taste of Mexico after crossing the border illegally was a generous draught of sotol.
The US and Mexican borderlands were different then — no border wall, no Predator drones flying overhead, and no drug war raging. Today, the cattle fences that obstructed Grady's joy in open range riding are the least of the obstructions in the borderlands. Multiple checkpoints, manned by heavily armed soldiers and drug agents often wearing black ski masks, now make traveling through the borderlands something akin to making your way through an occupied zone.
For too many years, the combination of the border security buildup on the US side and the barrage of reports about horrific drug war violence on the other side bred fear and reluctance.
Recently, the violence that has for years wracked the northern reaches of Chihuahua and Sonora has diminished, and you can also find some reassurance in that there have been no reports that noncitizens are being targeted. My eagerness to return to the deserts, grasslands and mountains of the Mexican borderlands has been rising over the past year or two. The border security buildup and the unending drug wars have trapped us in our country.
Unlike Grady in Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses (or Matt Damon in the film adaptation of the great novel), I didn't cross on horseback when I began traveling into Mexico's borderlands a few months ago. But there was something like the same sense of adventure of traveling into unknown parts.
In early January, after driving south from Palomas on a new highway, I turned southwest toward Ascensión and then, after a couple of interviews, headed to Janos — an Apache settlement dating back to the 17th century and later a colonial military outpost. Janos, which sits on the banks of the now-dry Río Casas Grandes, is the gateway to the Paquimé or Casas Grandes ruins that lie about an hour south. Janos is situated almost directly south of the southeast corner of New Mexico's Bootheel. (Google Map it!)
At sundown I arrived at Rancho La Guadalupana on the eastern outskirts of Janos. Celso Jacquez offered me a copa of sotol — and I relaxed into the spirit and enchantment of Chihuahua.
Celso Jacquez and Emma Jacquez in Janos.
I didn't go to Janos to drink sotol, but rather to interview Celso, the former presidente of the Janos Municipio (roughly "county") and Chihuahua representative on the Border 2012 environmental commission, a binantional project of the Mexican and US governments. His counterpart in New Mexico was Allyson Siwik, the environmental expert and determined activist who directs Silver City's Gila Resources and Information Project (GRIP).
But concerns about crossborder water depletion and dust pollution fell away that night as I was treated to a glass of reposado sotol — whose alluring aroma seemed to capture the essence of the desert after a long-awaited rain.
In McCarthy's novel, an amused Mexican girl served Grady and his buddy Lacey Rawlins mugs of a strong homebrew that is still a favorite drink in mountain towns and the rancherias of Chihuahua, northern Durango and Coahuila — the only areas of Mexico where the sotol plant grows. Pleasantly plastered, the two young cowboys let their cares drift away as they began their troubled romance with Mexico.
I, however, was treated by Celso and his son Jacobo to an enticing liquor that poured from a bottle of Don Cuco Sotol into a crystal bar glass. "It is truly more of a spirit, like cognac," explained Jacobo, describing the reposado sotol I started appreciatively sipping. It's a sotol that is picked, cooked, fermented, distilled, aged and bottled by the Jacquez family, which owns the Don Cuco Sotol brand.
Even before I took my first sip, I knew that work was over for the day. First the rich aroma, faintly smoky but also with a tantalizing allure of the desert after a long-awaited rain. "Do you know the song 'Viva Chihuahua'?" asked Celso. I did, but hadn't until then understood the reference to sotol in the verse he began singing: "Tierra que sabe a cariño, Tierra que huele a sotol." (Chihuahua, "Land that tastes like love, Land that has the aroma of sotol.")
Since that first drink, I have been, as it were, on the sotol road in Chihuahua, captivated not only by the quality of the spirit but also pursuing sotol's still largely untold story — one that I am finding out has deep roots in our crossborder history and shared natural world.
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