The story, as Brent Looby tells it, starts 10,000 years ago.
Okay, we’ll fast forward a bit. Looby is one of the three founders of Desert Door Distillery, a Driftwood-based distillery of sustainably sourced sotol, a Mexican + Texan spirit made from a desert plant of the same name.
What began as a class project for Looby and his cofounders Ryan Campbell and Judson Kauffmann has since — in the span of just five years, no less — ballooned into a business with presence in multiple states, thousands of acres of West Texas land, and a slew of awards on its resume.
The recognition of their spirit has been huge, Looby said, but their company’s signature purpose is this: Tell folks the story of sotol and conserve the plant’s natural environment + cultural history.
It’s Drink Up Week, so we sat down with Looby, tried sotol for ourselves, and learned about how sotol could be the first alcohol ever consumed in Texas.
First off, how would you compare the taste of sotol to other liquors?
It is much more nuanced and smoother than just about any tequila. It’s softer and more delicate than any mezcal. It takes you on a journey where it’s very bright, herbaceous, and floral up front, but it’s got a really soft, sweet, earthy, creamy finish. It’s super smooth, and there’s no burn.
What’s the Desert Door origin story?
Desert Door was founded by three veterans that met at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business. We all took an elective class [that required creating a business pitch] … and we came up with an idea that we wanted to start a distillery, and specifically one that did something uniquely Texas. I’m a fifth-generation Texan. Jud was a sixth-generation Texan. Ryan married really well and got here as soon as he could. And so, through a very iterative process, we stumbled upon this little plant called sotol.
We ended up getting the highest grade in class … I was hooked.
How did you develop your process for making the sotol?
One, we have to find the plant, which we did. It starts growing natively just out here north of San Antonio, and so Ryan and I were stealing plants off people’s property under the cover of dusk. And we had to learn how to harvest it. [The thing is] spiny, it’s a formidable opponent.
We tried cooking it in a multitude of ways, from roasting it in an oven to throwing it in a green egg. We burned up a couple of Cuisinarts in the process. And then we had an epiphany of sorts. We were like, ‘Hey, what about steam?’
One thing that we figured out pretty quickly was it doesn’t fit into a stovetop pressure cooker. So we got on Craigslist and bought a wood chipper, and we paid $400 for this wood chipper. We would chop the plant up and blow it through the wood chipper, and then catch it in a cheesecloth bag, which would then fit nicely into the stovetop pressure cooker.
When we bought the still, we had no idea how to run it, to be honest. We were really worried we’re gonna blow ourselves up … We didn’t know how to make alcohol. So we made vodkas, we made different types of whiskies, just to kind of learn to get the process down. … The next step was, how do you make sotol? It took us probably about eight different runs.
How does the name ‘Desert Door’ reflect your company’s mission?
I mean, when you think about what our brand is, it’s a transporter. The way you feel here, you don’t feel like you’re in Driftwood, you feel like you’re somewhere else. It’s the same way with when you imbibe, it’s supposed to put you in a state of reverence, right? It puts you at ease, and puts your mind somewhere.
So the door is a metaphor. It’s a personal metaphor that allows you to connect with yourself, your emotions, your friends, your family, music. In this specific case, it allows you to connect with Texas history and the Texas ranchlands, because this plant gives you a physical connection to the earth. And through the metaphor, this Desert Door, we’re trying to tell that 10,000-year-old history lesson of what this plant has been doing in this part of the world.
Can you tell me a little more about that history?
This plant has been a source of sustenance, tools, and materials for native peoples for millennia. About as early as 800 years ago, they would use pit earth oven cooking, which was used across the Americas, to cook what was available to them. In this case, it was sotol.
They would make unleavened bread with it, they would take the long thorny leaves and actually use them as a source for weaving. They make baskets, sandals, mats, even coffins out of it. The long stalks are very, very lightweight, and super strong. They would carve those and use those for weapons and for hunting.
On Meyer Springs Ranch, which has some of the best preserved cave art in the world, it shows the natives imbibing, paying homage with a picture of the sotol plant on the wall. [Archaeologists] believe that they were using this as an intoxicant during ceremonies. And so it could be the first alcoholic beverage consumed in this part of the world.
It’s just got a really rich, super cool story. And that’s what we’re trying to tell.
How does this make your distillery unique?
We are the first, and currently the only, distillers of sotol in the United States since Prohibition. There’ve been a couple of folks that have made little one-off projects, but we’re the first commercial distillery that all we do is this. And there are a couple of others now that do import sotol and sell it, but they don’t make it.
That’s where the business plan gets more complicated, because that agri supply chain did not exist five years ago. … At the time, there was no way to get sotol plants. So we had to go out, meet ranchers, and create that ourselves.
Now, we own it from the ranch to the bottle.
What does harvesting sotol look like?
We wild harvest our plants, so what that really means is there’s no water. There’s no fertilizer, there’s no herbicides, there’s no pesticides. We only take what Mother Nature gives us. Sustainability obviously is something you have to manage when you don’t cultivate. So that’s extremely important to us.
Our spirit is nothing but cactus, yeast and water, and so it’s absolutely one of the purest on the shelf anywhere. We just felt like this was something new and unique with an authentic backstory, and we just felt like this was a real opportunity.
I think most folks think about conservation and sustainability more in the agricultural side of things, and there’s more to it than just that. … The way we harvest [sotol], we’ve developed a technique that effectively is like a chef’s mandoline, where we go in and we slice the head off, leaving the root structure intact with the hope that there’s potential for regeneration from a mature root. And even if it doesn’t regenerate, it still helps with soil erosion.
This year alone, we’ll cover roughly 400 acres. By the time you would work your way across 1,000 acres, you’re talking 15 years from now, and the plants are already regenerating. So it’s a very, very sustainable model, so long as you manage it that way.
Can you tell me about your nonprofit, Wild Spirit Wild Places?
It goes back to wild harvesting, sustainability. Once you start spending time out in the vast open spaces that is southwest Texas, you are awestruck. It’s just awe-inspiring, is what it is. … We started learning more and more about that community, and what those folks are dealing with and how that impacts the rest of the state, the entire state ecosystem.
We’d been looking around and trying to partner with other nonprofits, but there wasn’t any one that was really wanting to do what we were doing. And so we were like, ‘Why don’t we look into forming or establishing our own nonprofit, so that we can focus on the conservation projects that are important to us.’
It all started with preservation of the plant, that is the physical connection to the ground. And so two years ago we formed a nonprofit called Wild Spirit Wild Places. And its charter is effectively preserving land and preserving culture through education and research. Every year we do a conservation series release.
This year is super exciting. It was inspired by the bee. I don’t think people understand how important pollinators are to our way of life, so we’ve been installing pollinator gardens around the city. … We’re making an infusion as well [using] native Texas flower pollinators.