Notes of licorice. Hints of smoked Gouda. A whiff of—what is that, Band-Aids? This is the Mexican distilled spirit known as sotol, or at least one of the more flamboyant versions of it. There are sotols with far more nuance: simultaneously funky, mineral-bright, vegetal, and savory. And the best part is, you can now find them here in Chicago, thanks to a spike in imports by local companies.

Sotol is different from its cousins. Unlike mezcal, distilled from any of several species of agave, and tequila, made from blue agave, sotol derives from the fermented and distilled core of another desert plant entirely. In Spanish, that plant, which can grow up to 15 feet tall, is named sotol; in English, it goes by the rather poetic moniker “desert spoon,” because of its distinctively shaped leaves.

“I love it,” says Jay Schroeder, the beverage director at Todos Santos, the mezcal bar under Quiote in Logan Square. If a cocktail is like a band, he says, then sotol is the shredding lead guitar: “You try to build a structure around it and just let it star.” He also appreciates it straight up. His favorite on the Todos Santos list is Sierra from Flor del Desierto ($13 for a 1.5-ounce pour): “It has this grassy greenness that just doesn’t stop.”

Because big distilleries often produce multiple labels, says Chicago-based importer Ismael Gomez, “you have to know what you’re looking for.” Flor del Desierto is a showcase for the handcrafted spirits of smaller, traditional producers. Yet another distillery’s bottling, called Sotol Por Siempre in the United States, has the smell of a campfire and a flavor that might remind you of digging into a can of Blue Diamond smoked almonds.

Gomez is petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to allow him to import Veneno sotol, which is cured for three months with rattlesnake venom and is usually accompanied by dried rattlesnake meat and grasshopper salt. And to think we were once weirded out by worms.


Three Great Ways to Sample Sotol

Check My SoundCloud cocktail at Todos Santos

Check My SoundCloud at Todos Santos

Sotol, lemon juice, amaro, and absinthe. Big flavors in balance.
$12. 2456 N. California Ave.


Leña Fire cocktail at Leña Brava

Leña Fire at Leña Brava

It’s a riff on a margarita, with Ancho Reyes red chili liqueur adding the fire and sotol bringing some funk.
$14. 900 W. Randolph St.


Tequila cocktail at Estereo

Tequila at Estereo

As its name suggests, there's plenty of tequila in this drink, plus the agave-based spirit raicilla, prickly pear, grapefruit bitters, and a little sotol for freshness.
$10. 2450 N. Milwaukee Ave.