There I was, slumped over my place setting, paying the price for a fun night out in Mexico. Having never been a Bloody Mary person, I decided to order my usual mimosa. I ordered it with the man behind the bar, Osvaldo Vasquez, local legend and (unbeknownst to me at the time) mixologist extraordinaire. He looked me up and down and said “Chica, I know what you need.” He grabbed a bottle by the neck, and placed it in front of me. I was face to face with a preserved rattlesnake in an enormous bottle of semi-opaque liquid. It was so large, I’m surprised he could even pick it up with one hand. In my tender state, I thought he was merely trying to make the American throw up, which I imagined was a fun game they played with tourists who had indulged a bit too much in the traditional cuisine of mezcal and tequila. Not the case—he was serious.
This drink, named sotol (after the plant it’s made from) is a close relative of tequila, and is the state drink of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango. Just like Champagne can only be produced in its namesake region of France, sotol is only made in those three states. The Sotol plant (which translates to Dasylirion) is tough to grow—it takes between 10 and 15 years to mature, and is frequently eaten by animals before it can ever yield alcohol. If it makes it to harvest, the plant is processed in a special type of distillery called a clandestine vinata.
When distilled and aged legend has it, it can cure whatever’s got you down. Something about the alcohol mixed with the venom supposedly settles stomachs, eases headaches, and numbs pain. (To be fair, so do a few beers.) In just about every tourist shop you can find infused sotol sold as medicine, just as it was throughout history. Infusions of marijuana are meant to ease anxiety; chuchupaxtle-infused sotol was used as anesthesia in early surgeries; and rattlesnake is that hangover cure. Sotol was actually illegal to produce until the 1990s, and thrived as the ‘moonshine of the south’ when the U.S. was operating under prohibition. But it was never as popular anywhere as it was in Mexico, which has thoroughly embraced it as part of its drinking culture.
At first, I balked at the use of a rattlesnake in a drink—because, well, do I really need to explain that one? But the bartender said it was a tradition, and admittedly, I have a weak spot for those. After asking repeatedly how the snake got into the bottle (a bit of my Portland farm-to-table roots showing), Marco, who works on the property, reassured me that the snakes are already dead when they’re put into the bottle (which I halfway believed). So Osvaldo poured up the drinks. Per my request, there were no rattlesnake chunks in my shot.
As he was explaining the long, storied history of sotol, I thought he meant that it was simply good ‘ol hair of the dog. After a lot of gesturing and miming, we found the spanish equivalent: “Un clavo saca otro clavo” or “a nail takes off another nail.” He laughed and said, “No mami, this is magic.” And sure enough, about an hour after drinking it, my hangover was gone.
So it was either the rattlesnake, or the Advil.