Have you heard of raicilla? Maybe not yet, but you’ve certainly heard of tequila and mezcal. Consider raicilla a cousin of those two beloved agave spirits, it being distilled in a similar fashion, with some differences depending on who produced it.
It’s best to think of this clear liquor as a sort of mezcal from the Mexican state of Jalisco, as the historic definition of mezcal means anything distilled from the agave plant. That means even mezcal from Oaxaca is a type of mezcal. Producers Rio Chenery of the distillery Estancia Raicilla and Esteban Morales of the La Venenosa Raicilla consortium agree that raicilla is, “really a mezcal, we just can’t call it that because of location.”
Originally distilled as a type of “Mexican Moonshine” for farmers and fishermen in the western part of the state, it was taxed by the Spanish during the 18th century to make way for imported liquor and wine. As a result, the spirit moved underground, and up until recently, it was technically illegal and production haphazard. Though availability of the spirit has legitimized, you can drive through Jalisco and buy unregulated raicilla on the roadside, where it’s often sold in nondescript plastic bottles.
Fast-forward to today, where it’s become popular (and legal) again, thanks to tourism. Morales said most of the time he encounters raicilla outside of Jalisco, it’s in a gringo-heavy area, like Cancun or Cabo San Lucas. Chenery explains that there are two distinct styles of raicilla: de la Costa (from the coast) and de la Sierra (from the mountains). Most of the major producers are de la sierra, and the designation is further broken down into two roasting techniques. Pit-roasted agave produces a smokier taste, similar to better-known Oaxacan mezcals, and clay-roasted agave gives the raicilla a cleaner, more herbal characteristic, not unlike a strong gin. Some of the clay-roasted raicillas even have cheesy or grassy undertones. Morales says, “One of my favorite ways to drink raicilla is in a Negroni, as a gin substitute. It’s an excellent mixer.”
Morales also asserts raicilla has a lot in common with wine. “Terroir is very important, as is the type of agave. A different kind will produce a different taste, as will its location.” This is seen in Oaxacan mezcal, as well, but not in tequila, which relies on monoculture farming of the blue agave. “There are towns in other areas of Jalisco that produce a similar spirit but don’t call it raicilla,” Morales says. “Since they can’t call it mezcal or tequila, I am trying to invite them to be with us. They use different agaves and techniques, but we can still call all of it raicilla.” This has led to a council of raicilla makers lobbying for Denominacion Origen status, like Oaxaca has with mezcal and tequila in another part of Jalisco.
For now, though, raicilla is available throughout Mexico, as well as in the United States and certain European countries. Both Morales and Chenery tell us that the spirit has caught more traction overseas, as preferences take time to change and curiosity is harder to grow at home. Morales says it’s more popular in the Mexico as a mixer and sipped straight overseas. Chances are though, wherever you enjoy it, you’ll be the first of your friends to do so.
Article By: Jackie Bryant