Desert Door Ranch Trip 2022
Last year, my friends Jon and Lindsay Yeager of PourTaste - Cocktail Consultation held their annual and brilliant Nashville Cocktail Festival, a weekend in our beautiful Southern September when the Yeager's host a wonderful celebration of all things cocktail! They find clever ways each year to engage all levels of cocktail connoisseur, from the weekend sipper to the distinguished sommelier.
I had the pleasure of representing pH Craft Cocktails throughout the week-long festival by attending a gin class led by J. Rieger Co., shaking up a few crowd-pleasing tiki-inspired cocktails at the Polynesian Pop event, and by competing in Desert Door Texas Sotol's Cocktail Competition.
The grand prize for the top 3 contestants was a 5-day, all-inclusive trip to the Desert Door Distillery and ranch properties in Driftwood, Texas in the summer of 2022!
So, if we flip the calendar pages forward a handful of times, all of the sudden we arrive at the excursion date. I was certainly excited leading up to this week-long adventure, already having been in travel mode from visiting my friend in Denver the week before. I packed my suitcase (again), met my soon-to-be new friends from Mother’s Ruin, Le Loup, M Street Entertainment,
Below: (Left) The group! Myself, Akinde, Hunter, Lucas, Bobbi, J.A., Lindsay, and Jon. (Center) The only other decent picture
I took of us all together. Texan Hospitality = always eating! (Right) Lucas & Bobbi in their natural habitat. 🤠
This trip ended up being way more in-depth than I imagined. Bobbi Hitchon, Director of Field Marketing for Desert Door (also their beekeeper & all-around bad-ass) and Lucas Wharton, Tennessee's Marketing Lead (also an all-around bad-ass), became our trip leaders and they truly went above and beyond to take care of our assembly of independently spirited bartenders, and also to navigate us through all of the roads, small towns, big cities, hotels, motels, and off-the-grid desert trails we encountered throughout Central/Southwest Texas. Their hospitable nature made our trip even more enjoyable, so here's a big shout out to you two, Bobbi & Lucas! 🗣🥂
Below: Some of the different plants in the Sotol family we encountered on our trip.
The tall shoot that sprouts out of a sotol is regarded as a sign that the plant is nearing its full maturity and peak harvesting time.
Video: Bobbi giving us a brief history of Sotol - North America's first native distilled spirit.
Sotol is a hardy desert plant in the same order as some agave plants you may be familiar with but it's smaller than most other agaves and can grow back after each harvest, whereas agave cannot. This makes Sotol more of a sustainable spirit to process, even though it can take up to 15 years for a sotol plant to fully mature! Americans indigenous to what is now considered Southwest Texas figured out they could cook the sotol pinãs (hearts) and also cook the otherwise inedible raw fibers into a sugary carbohydrate (food source). They would also take the cooked pinãs and crush the juice out and ferment it into a type of sotol "beer". Later on, they figured out how to distill it into the wonderfully smooth, vegetal, clay-earth spirit that we now refer to by the same name of the plant.
Video: Bobbi explaining some of the various Sotol varietals found in Texas.
Sotol as a spirit is made by chopping off the spiny long leaves and then harvesting the pinãs. The distillery team roasts the pinãs and then crushes them with an impressive extractor to press out the juice. They add clean & pure water from an aquifer they built the facility upon to the juice, and then they ferment the mixture in a large steel vat.
The solution is then distilled in copper pot stills, and then bottled into those beautiful deep blue ceramic bottles you may see on the shelves of today's best bars. Their Oak Aged model takes about a year-long nap in new & slightly charred American Oak barrels, while they take their Conservation Series Pollinator even further by introducing native Texas botanicals of persimmon, mesquite, hibiscus, rosemary, clover, and honeysuckle. The Pollinator has become one of my favorite spirits. Not only is it a fantastic spirit with a huge botanical nose, but every bottle comes with a pack of seeds native to each region of purchase. Desert Door's hope is that the consumer plants their native regional seeds to help combat the declining bee population. 🐝
Slides: Freshly harvested sotol pinãs, the roasting oven, the extractor press, a steel vat of fermenting sotol,
and the tall copper pot stills that give us incredible Sotol from the Desert Door Distillery.
Tasting Notes 🥃
Original: Sugary vanilla and green grass with a roasted agave profile, akin to a premium tequila.
Oak Aged: White pepper, caramel, toasted pecan, cherry pit, and oak, back to a vanilla custard finish.
Pollinator: Sotol with added Mesquite bean, clove, and rosemary notes, flowing into a long sage, persimmon, and honeysuckle finish.
Cowboy Art, Wilderness, and a Roadside Motel
One of the most memorable experiences we had during the trip happened to be a stop for lunch during the long 5-hour drive from the distillery to the ranch. We paid a surprise visit to
Mike Capron, who owns and operates an impressive art studio within the tiny unincorporated Pecos County town called Sheffield. Mike welcomed our surprise visit and enjoyed getting re-acquainted with Lucas, who evidently had stopped in to visit a few times before. Mike was eager to tell us some stories about the detailed and awe-inspiring cowboy art that lined his studio environment. The art was not only his own work, but many dozens of pieces on display were those of his other artist friends, signifying that this man is a respected figure in his craft. In addition to his daily ranch duties, Mike happily spends his time painting while the melodies of old-time country ballads and bouncy jigs quietly play in the background. He and his wife have a lovely open-air kitchen and range adjacent to a cozy "living room" (rocking chairs surrounding a wood-burning stove), to which you can look out the open front door and gaze upon their hazy Texas town.
Video: part of our tour of Mike's cowboy art studio. Oh, the charm!
Slides: The crew headed to Mike's studio, their cozy "living room", a second-floor view of Mike entertaining his guests,
Mike and J.A. sharing an artistic moment, a commission he was working on - destined to be some family's heirloom,
and a finished piece of a cowboy on his startled horse.
After we said our goodbyes, we drove on and arrived at the Desert Door Ranch, which took us a good 45-minute drive on a sunbaked desert road followed by a few miles of off-roading on some rugged trails. The 8,000-acre ranch boasts a modest cabin with some bunk beds, a bathroom, and a kitchen - just enough space for us to rest and make some cocktails and a second lunch!
Bobbi took us on a wonderful afternoon trip out in the desert on some ATV's. We took our time driving around, exploring an old cattle pen and well, and took in a canyon view that a picture couldn't possibly do the scene any justice. We got to learn all about the local plant species and other wildlife inhabitants such as her bee colony she maintains out there.
Below: Ancient, uninhabited land we had the privilege of taking in for a moment. 🦅
We drove back to the cabin to take a break from the hot summer sun and to have another cocktail and take a dip in the well. After a quick rest, we headed back on the road to Sanderson, TX to unpack our bags for a couple of days at the Desert Air Motel.
The Desert Air Motel proved to be an excellent launch pad for all that we still had left on our itinerary. This modest roadside motel had all of the simplicity and charm you could ask of 1960's architecture, but updated with powerful A/C units to combat the brutal summer heat. Sanderson itself was not made up of much more than some residential roads, a cute coffee shop, a couple of gas stations (all but one had run out of beer 🙄), a burger restaurant, and a school campus. Someone in the town must have had a fascination with dinosaurs, because the town seemed to be littered with large metal pop-art figures of dinosaurs, which probably make a good reason to stop for a while during a long road trip in the desert. We grabbed a bottle of sotol and iced some beers, ate some tacos, and hung out under the stars for the rest of the evening.
Canyon & Camaraderie
The next day we went and took a detailed tour of Seminole Canyon State Park.
We met a charming, retired couple from New Zealand who went on the tour with us. They seemed genuinely entertained that they got to hang out with a bunch of Nashvillian bartenders and explore the canyon with us for the afternoon! Admittedly, they could have gotten stuck with a worse group.
Our tour guide led us to a statue of a shaman type of figure, called The Maker of Peace.
After we checked that out, we descended onto the bottom of the canyon and admired its beauty.
The tour guide showed us some cave art dated at around 10,000 years and explained the scenes we were looking at and standing in. The cave art depictions seemed to be a good 12-15 feet above us, although the aboriginals did not have to use any sort of ladder system to reach the ceilings of the rock overcropping. They existed so long ago that the earth they would have stood upon had been eroded throughout thousands of years of water and wind activity.
Absorbing these specimens of ancient human history was truly a humbling experience.
After our tour of the Seminole Canyon, we drove back to Sanderson and ate lunch. That evening we drove into Marathon, about a 50-mile drive from our HQ, to check out the White Buffalo Bar & sip on some sotol cocktails (hey, it was the closest/best joint around!) and to enjoy an excellent coursed dinner at the 12 Gage Restaurant - The Gage Hotel (courtesy of the company card).
The indulgent dinner we enjoyed could not have tasted better. I remember sipping on too much good wine, eating the best fried oysters of my life, and savoring the most complex Chile Relleno I'd ever had!
Below: Real life cowboy problems.
Before we got home that night, the crew stopped in the middle of the road just short of Sanderson to check out the night sky. There was no light pollution, so we got out of the car and just gazed. I laid down in the middle of the road and just soaked in the warmth of the asphalt and the starlight from the Milky Way. I felt like I was lost in the throes of space (I was), and lucky enough to lay down on a piece of space debris (I was) and take it all in. 🌌 When we got back to the hotel for the night, Lucas, J.A. and I went for a very short walk on the street behind the motel so we could keep enjoying the night sky, but we got stopped by an off-duty deputy because one of his neighbors called him on us - they thought we were illegal immigrants! Although I was pissed about it at first, I had to remind myself that Sanderson is roughly 20 miles from the US/Mexico border, so I couldn't completely blame the locals. They deal with our complex border issues on a daily basis.
We drove back to the distillery the next day to meet with Brett, one of the owners of Desert Door.
He gave us a trove of information about the distillery, the ranch, and where the future of Desert Door is headed. He took us on a tour of the aging room, where we got to see many barrels of Oak Aged Sotol aging on the racks. He led us through a tasting of the Pollinator Series, and we ate yet another delicious meal from Lo Salvaje. Whoo boy.
Slides: The crew on tour in the rack room, many barrels of Sotol, a pallet of their Conservation Series Pollinator ready to
hit the market, and an incredible Nilgai (antelope) bacon cheeseburger with onions, pickled carrots, and a special sauce 🤤
Our last day was..... a day. To make a long story short - we were set to fly back to Nashville in the morning, but this trip was right in the middle of all the mayhem impacting US airline travel. Our flight got delayed and we switched flights through the airline website early that morning, only to be told at the airport that our flight info was missing. The earliest flight they could find was on another airline, but about 12 hours later. So, we booked that flight and rented a car so we could hang out in Austin for the day. It ended up being a blessing in disguise because we found this treasure of a coffee shop/bar/restaurant by the name of Better Half, which certainly lifted our spirits. We spent a few hours putzing around the city, going into shops and trying to not get dehydrated. That day also happened to be the day that our "Supreme" Court overturned Roe V. Wade, so there were activists out & about that we got to talk with and support. Akinde led us to a cool spot a friend of his bartends at called Half Step, where his buddy made us feel at home with some killer cocktails.
A food truck court happened to be situated next to us (Yes!), so I bought a killer grilled cheese from Burro Grilled Cheese Kitchen that paired well with my killer Pimm's Cup from Half Step. We bummed around and shopped a bit more until it was finally time to head back to the airport.
Landing in Nashville a whole half day later than expected had come with its own stressors.
Most of us had various gigs or work responsibilities that we could not afford to push back, so it was imperative we all got back at least before the next morning. ✅ All in all we made it home safely, and I am proud to be included among a circle of professional bartenders who run some of the coolest and most innovative programs and events in the city.
I absolutely had a great time being part of this trip to Desert Door, and I hiked/ate/drank/laughed way more than I could have imagined on a trip designed for those who made a winning cocktail in a competition! I made friends that I will cherish for a long time, and I learned much about Sotol, the history of the Southwest, my peers and their bar programs, and of myself. Many thanks again to Bobbi, Lucas, and Brett. Your team has made some amazing spirits that utilize the terroir of the Southwest in a delicious way, and I cannot wait to visit y'all again! Until next time, mates. 🥂