Heart of the Hill Country: Desert Door Distillery in Driftwood
Three military veterans refine, revive unique spirit rooted in Texas' past
The Texas Hill Country is a special place — it has the power to bring together people of all ages and all walks of life, and it holds a few surprises, too. Each month, we’ll be highlighting folks and features that make our community special. We call them Hearts of the Hill Country.
In spring of 2016, a former Navy SEAL, a Marine Corps pilot and military intelligence analyst walked into a bar.
They were on the cusp of a big, bright idea to revive a forgotten yet unique spirit called sotol, derived from a flowering plant that has thrived in West Texas and the Central Texas Hill Country for thousands of years. They molded their concept and brought sotol back to life at their new business venture, Desert Door Distillery in Driftwood.
Though sotol has a long history in Texas, it also had a long-running reputation of leaving a bitter, harsh taste in Texans’ mouths. That is, until Campbell, Judson Kauffman and Brent Looby decided to take a swing at it when they met each other through the University of Texas Executive MBA program in 2015 and joined forces together for a class project.
“We were given the task of finding the biggest hole in the market and assigned to fill it with a business plan,” Campbell explained. “We all decided early on that we wanted to have fun with this, and my partner, Judson, suggested sotol, even though he thought it was horrible. But we were just daring enough to ask ourselves, ‘What if we could make it taste good?'”
Their brilliant project turned into an award-winning idea when they took third place at the Texas Venture Labs Investment Competition the following year. It was clear to them that they were onto something, and in 2016, they created a business plan and brand narrative unlike any other distillery in the industry to pursue their dream as entrepreneurs.
There was just one problem though: How were they going to make sotol actually taste good? Their resolution was found in Campbell’s home kitchen.
“I hopped in the car one day and drove to West Texas, and I grabbed the first sotol plant I could find on the side of the road,” Campbell reminisced. “I brought it back to my house and started cooking it every which way to Sunday. We finally settled on the pressure cooker, and from there, it was just the three of us working with the experts to design equipment that would cook the plant the same on a larger scale.”
Once their recipe was set in stone, Desert Door Distillery picked up the pace. Their custom equipment arrived at the Driftwood facility in September and by mid-November, their desert-meets-modern themed tasting room was open for business. They serve mixed drinks and straight shots of their original sotol, which Campbell describes as clear, earthy and versatile, and their oak-aged sotol, which has a warmer, smoky flavor. You can’t go wrong with either one though: Both are smooth and don’t have the signature burn that most tequilas and whiskeys do, Campbell said.
“Whether it’s sweet, sour or spicy, sotol goes really well with pretty much anything,” he said. “The traffic we’ve gotten through our facility has been incredible and our sell rate has been above and beyond our own projections.”
The sotol story is a bona fide Texas story, which is the secret to their new and improved sotol’s swift success and why Texans and out-of-towners alike keep coming back for more at Desert Door.
“I think people like the aesthetic of our business and enjoy the story we’re telling about Texas,” Campbell said. “We’ve embraced this area and in return, our neighbors are interested in the uniqueness of what we’re doing here. We’re representing a Texas plant and making a spirit out of it that is synonymous with the Hill Country itself, and that’s how we have become one of the many hearts of this community.”
To learn more about sotol or Desert Door Distillery, visit www.desertdoor.com.