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Desert Door: An Ancient Desert Spirit Resurrected

Desert Door Sotol resurrects an ancient desert spirit.

Presented by Desert Door December 9, 2020

It tastes like the desert.

After sipping on sotol for the first time, that's how many describe it. It may not be the most technical description, but it makes sense. The sotol plant grows only in Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. Hearty and versatile, it was an extremely useful plant for Native Americans. They made weapons out of the stalks, ground the plant's meat to make flour, and used the leaves to make baskets and clothing. And…they made beer. This sotol beer was most likely the first alcohol Native Americans consumed in what is now Texas, about 1,000 years ago.

"They couldn't have survived in Southwest Texas without the sotol plant," says Jud Kauffman, co-owner of Desert Door Distillery in Driftwood. Desert Door Distillery serves up history in a bottle of sotol. When the Spanish arrived in what is now Mexico, they taught the natives how to distill.

Sotol grows in higher elevations in Mexico and Texas's hills, so it became known as hillbilly moonshine. That moniker stuck with sotol until recently!" Ryan Campbell, Brent Looby, and Jud met in the executive MBA program at UT.

They were all veterans, and all became fast friends. One of their courses involved coming up with a business idea to pitch "shark-tank style." It was easy to land on alcohol, but they weren't sure which kind. While brainstorming, a memory came back to Jud. "I went hunting with my uncle in west Texas when I was a kid," he explains. "One time he pointed out a mule deer behind a sotol bush, and I asked what a sotol was. He explained that when he was in high school in Fort Stockton, they would make moonshine out of it in grandpa's barn. The next day, I pitched the idea to my friends.

The group became fascinated with the rich history of sotol; they decided to start a business. They bought a tiny still and began experimenting. "Through trial and error, we landed on steam-cooking the plant," explains Jud. "We found a flavor profile that was super unique, and that we liked, and that was easy to drink." Sotol's taste stands alone, but some describe it as something between gin and tequila. The liquor's uniqueness is enhanced by the fact that Desert Door—opened by Jud, Ryan, and Brent on Veterans Day in 2017—remains the only sotol distillery in the country.

Luckily, the plant itself isn't hard to come by. Ranchers and farmers consider it an invasive weed nearly impossible to destroy. "We wild harvest all of our own plants," explains Jud. "We think there are about 20 billion sotol plants in Texas. It's a great spirit and natural resource, and I'd love to see others using it more for other applications like flour or clothing."

In the design of the brand, the bottle, the tasting room, and the sprawling distillery, it was important to them to honor the Texas history they feel sotol represents. Walking in the door, a visitor feels embraced by the beautiful Southwestern design, cool and clean atmosphere, and special touches like sotol plant hearts and old books for décor. And the cocktails they serve up, like the Paloma and Matador, are works of art in and of themselves.

Jud, Ryan, and Brent are three family men who remain good friends. Not only did they enjoy working out in the fields harvesting plants themselves at first, but they complement each other as business partners. Ryan, a former intelligence analyst in the Army, is the CEO and "mad-scientist" of the bunch. Brent was a jet pilot in the Marine Corps, a great communicator who raised funds and got investors. And Jud, a former Navy SEAL, enjoys the marketing and design element. They also had the wisdom to bring together a team of people with more experience in the industry who have helped to generate the rapid success of Desert Door.

They now have fresh plants coming in every week. "When we bottle the booze, it was growing in the ground five weeks before," says Jud. "It's extremely fresh, and I think you can taste it."