This time for “Learning From the Pros”, I interviewed the three guys behind Desert Door: Ryan Campbell, Judson Kauffman, and Brent Looby. Desert Door is a sotol distillery that just opened up near Austin, TX. Their taproom, complete with stucco walls and warm earthy tones, gives off a Marfa vibe and serves craft cocktails using the sotol they produce. For anyone living in Austin, it’s worth a drive through the hill country to taste this spirit which surprisingly has deep roots in Texas. It’s earthy, slightly grassy, and easy drinking.
How did this all start?
“Desert Door started as a class project a year and a half ago. The three of us met at the executive MBA program at the University of Texas and the task was to build a business plan around some sort of opportunity you see around the market. We went through a lot of ideas but ultimately landed on something fun, which was booze. We then started looking for something uniquely Texas and found sotol, a liquor made in West Texas and Mexico. This plant has 10,000 years of history in Texas and has been used for food, sustenance, weapons, tools, hats, baskets and more. People made bread with it and consumed it like an artichoke. Ancient inhabitants used to make a beer-like substance with it by fermenting the sotol plant and used it for ceremonial purposes.
Once we had our business plan down, we began a year long process of going out to West Texas, cutting down the first sotol plants we saw, and cooking them in all kinds of different ways. We would cook them in a pressure cooker at my (Ryan’s) house and ferment them in my spare bathtub, and take it over to Brent’s house and run it through the still in his garage. There was no manual, no YouTube videos of how to make sotol, and in our two years of research we only found one academic paper. We didn’t even know how to get the sotol plant out of the ground, let alone how to trim it. In the beginning, it was purely trial and error for us.”
Is the process for harvesting a sotol plant similar to the process for harvesting an agave plant?
“For tequila, they cultivate the agave plants, so they know exactly how old the plant is and when to pick it. For sotol, we harvest wild plants so we had to learn to find the visual indicators of a mature sotol plant. Some people believe that a sotol plant matures at around 12 to 15 years, but not much research has been made for it to be trust-worthy.”
photo via John Davidson
Who goes and cuts down the sotol plants?
“In the beginning, the three of us would go and cut down the sotol plants. Now that we’re trying to scale, we have a team out in West Texas dedicated to this task. In most parts of our business, we teach ourselves the technique, get really good at it, and then teach other people the process we perfected.
The most beautiful part of our process is how in tune with nature it is. We harvest the sotol plant (which is basically a weed) in a way that the root system stays intact so that the plant can grow back. It gets juiced in Austin, and we send the leftover plant material back to feed the cattle that live on the land. Those animals naturally fertilize the soil and help facilitate the regrowth of the plant. And finally, the sotol that we make only has three ingredients: water, sotol plant, and yeast.”
How many plants do you need in a batch?
“10 lbs of plant for a liter of sotol. For one batch we use 4000 lbs.”
What does Desert Door mean?
“It’s a metaphor for a transported experience. We want to transport you spiritually to West Texas anytime you open a bottle of our sotol. We also wanted you to feel like you’re in Marfa when you visit our taproom.”
Tell us about this beautiful bottle.
“The bottle had to be a work of art, and it took us a year to bring what we had in mind to fruition. It’s custom designed, and we traveled all over the world to find the right manufacturer. The letters on the front are made with real gold, our logo is embossed into the mould in the back, and we chose a swingtop lid to add a retro feel. Our vision was rugged and refined, just like Texas.”