Raicilla: This agave spirit is Mexico's best-kept secret - The Daily Grog

Raicilla: This agave spirit is Mexico’s best-kept secret

You definitely know tequila; college kids have been getting hammered on tequila since the beginning of time. Or maybe you’re a big fan of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and have seen his Teremana Tequila.

And you probably know mezcal, the often smoky cousin of tequila all your hipster friends like. Perhaps you were feeling adventurous, ordered a mezcal margarita, and promptly regretted it.

But there is another agave liquor that will undoubtedly get its time in the spotlight: raicilla.

And at this point, you must be confused as hell, trying to understand why there are so many different types of agave spirits. What’s the difference between tequila vs. mezcal vs. raicilla.

Well, on a recent trip down to Puerto Vallarta, I was fortunate enough to talk to some experts that introduced me to the excellent agave spirit known as raicilla. And, of course, I had to imbibe.

A view overlooking Jalisco.

What is raicilla?

Raicilla is an agave liquor that hails from the Mexican states of Jalisco and Nayarit.

There are two categories of raicilla: del la costa (coastal) and de la sierra (mountainous). Like wine, raicilla takes on much of the terroir characteristics of where it’s grown. That’s one of the many beautiful things about raicilla; it truly represents an area or region of Mexico, giving a sense of place that you don’t really get with most spirits.

In a big win for producers and farmers, raicilla was recently awarded a Denominación de Origen (DO) status by the Mexican government.

Like most tasty beverages, raicilla has been around for hundreds of years, and its history is a bit murky. The agave spirit dates back at least 500 years, traditionally made by and for farmers; it was a working-class treat, born from resourcefulness and creativity.

When the Spanish eventually conquered the area in the 1800s, in a classic imperialistic move, they began to heavily tax raicilla. Rather than taking part in the local hooch, they wanted to incentivize the consumption of Spanish wine and liquor, providing revenue to the Spanish crown.

And these are the agaves on the farmer’s land. It was effectively like making someone buy a permit to use their own products. Not surprisingly, production moved underground.

Technically, the tax was on spirits that used the agave’s heart, or piña. So, when tax collectors would come to the farms, the farmers would lie and say they were using the “roots” of the agave, so it didn’t count. Of course, it was precisely the same thing. And this is where the name comes from; raicilla translates to “little root” in Spanish.

For years raicilla was referred to as “Mexican moonshine” due to the shadowy nature of production. Unfortunately, this gave the drink a negative connotation that lingered for years and thus was largely written off and forgotten by the public.

Even to this day, some raicilla is sold roadside throughout Jalisco in conspicuous plastic jugs.

Recently, advocates for raicilla have been fighting to give the agave spirit the recognition it deserves. The Denominación de Origen certainly helps, but now it’s time to get customers’ pallets acquainted with the agave liquor.

This is important, not only for cultural reasons but because it provides farmers with a sustainable source of income. By implementing the rules and regulations around raicilla, farmers who have produced and traded the spirit for centuries can now support their families with the raicilla production.

To be sure, it’s a tricky balance between protecting the history and tradition around the spirit while expanding and introducing raicilla to more markets (mainly the American market). Right now, the biggest threat to raicilla is also its most significant opportunity.

After listening to its history, what really stood out to me was how tradition plays a vital role with the raicilleros (distillers). The raicilleros aren’t concerned with profits or mass production; they’ve been making this spirit for decades; they have a deep connection with the land, environment, and the agave. In some ways, a spiritual connection.

Raicilla encompasses what I love about alcohol: a deep respect for the environment and land, a connection between people, and a sense of something bigger than any individual.

How is Raicilla made?

The production of the raicilla starts in the agave plant. Like mezcal, all the aging, and magic, are done in the roots of the agave plant itself. There’s no barrel aging; it’s all done by nature, another beautiful aspect of this agave liquor. But that comes at a cost; depending on the specific type of agave, it can take up to 25 years (8 is the average) to be ready to make raicilla.

Harvesting the piña

Throughout these many years, the agave picks up flavors of its terroir. The soil type and composition, the proximity to the ocean or mountains, or even the pollination and cross-pollination done by bats and birds; all these factors end up expressing themselves in the final product.

Many different types of wild agave can be used to make raicilla, most notably agave maximilian, agave ineaquidens, and agave rhodacantha. Similar to wine and grapes, the agave has an infinite amount of derivatives and sub-categories. What makes Jalisco unique is the vast amounts of biodiversity among agave plants, second only to Oaxaca.

Fun Fact

Notably absent is the blue agave plant, used to make tequila, which is not typically used for raicilla.

After harvesting, the agave’s heart, or piña, is separated from the leaves. The piñas are then roasted in a pit made from volcanic rock or in an above-ground clay oven.

Roasting the piñas can take up to three days, constantly tended to by the raicillero. During this time, it’s common to have a feast or celebration, often a pig roast, at the taverna (distillery).

After roasting, the piñas are smashed and shredded by the raicillero, usually by hand or with a mallet. Once the agave has been pulverized into a pulp, it’s ready for fermentation.

Preparing the piñas to be roasted.

Mountain water (in the case of raicilla de la costa) is added to the pulp, creating a mash, and left to ferment. No commercial yeasts are added; it’s an entirely wild fermentation using the yeasts found in the air (adding another element of terroir). Fermentation takes 2-4 weeks depending on the location; cooler climates take longer, hotter climates ferment quicker.

Finally, the mash is distilled. The distillation vessel varies by region; copper stills are more common in the coastal areas and clay stills in the mountains.

Fun Fact

Copper stills came to Mexico through trade with the Philippines, where they are used to distill coconuts.

Unlike mezcal, raicilla can either be single distilled – which isn’t allowed in mezcal production – or double-distilled. Using one distillation preserves much of the funky, fun terroir characteristics, making the raicilla noticeably unique.

raicilla stills
Photo courtesy of experienceagave.com

Traditionally raicilleros would test the alcohol volume of the raicilla by hand. A stream of raicilla is poured into a cup, adding bubbles to the liquid. The number and duration of the bubbles are indicative of the alcohol volume. With a lower alcohol percentage, the bubbles will burst rapidly. When the alcohol percentage nears 50% ABV, the bubbles will last a bit longer. Isn’t science is so cool??

And like mentioned before, all the aging happens in the agave itself during the sometimes 25-year life. That said, some raicilleros will “rest” the raicilla in a glass bottle for a year to help round out and soften the flavor without lowering the alcohol volume.

As the industry slowly grows, there are three different categories of raicilla production:

Raicilla Industrial: Like industrial mezcal, this category allows more modern cooking equipment, including column stills.

Raicilla Traditional: The agave must be cooked in a pit or above ground with a wood fire or gas as a heat source.

Raicilla Ancestral: the most traditional way of preparing the agave, including milling by hand and using copper or clay stills.

What does raicilla taste like?

What you notice, almost immediately, about raicilla is the aroma. The nose on raicilla is far more herbal and floral than tequila and even mezcal. And when you take a sip, you’re immediately confronted with an array of fruits, flowers, and grippy tannins. There is some familiar smokiness to the raicilla, but it’s far more subtle than on a mezcal.

What’s honestly unique about raicilla is the effect of its terroir. Because raicilla takes on the characteristics of its geography and climate, the flavors can vary quite widely. The raicilla de la costa will be a bit more citrus-forward. Whereas raicilla de la sierra takes on the characteristics of mountains; they’re often a bit more piney and botanical. And the flavors can even vary by year, as the climate and conditions can vary.

Furthermore, the raicilleros preparation can impart different flavors on the liquor; the types of agave used, the type of oven used, the wood used to fire heat the stove, and so forth. Even the distillation technique matters; copper stills lead to a crisper finish, while clay stills give raicilla more earthy notes.

How do you drink raicilla?

Straight up.

In all honesty, raicilla is best enjoyed by itself. There are so many flavors and notes it’s already a dynamic spirit waiting to be sipped slowly. When you drink, Mexicans often say “besalo,” which literally translates to “kiss it,” as if you’re kissing the glass of raicilla as you sip.

If there’s a cross at the bottom of a shot glass, good luck.

At most, put a drop of water or melt an ice cube. A bit of water can open up the bouquet of flavors you can get in a raicilla, creating a vastly different flavor profile than when drank neat.

And if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can pair it with some worm salt and roasted crickets….

Of course, some bars are starting to use some raicilla in cocktails. A few in Puerto Vallarta, such as Raicilleria la lulu, were serving raicilla based cocktails. When using it in a cocktail, think fresh fruit and citrus. You could probably even do a raicilla margarita.

Where can you find raicilla?

For better or worse, raicilla production is challenging to scale. It’s a wild agave, meaning it can’t be cultivated as quickly or easily as the blue agave plant used in tequila production. And since it’s wild agave, sometimes there isn’t enough to harvest, requiring raicilleros to blend different agaves.

A brand of raicilla de la sierra, only found in Jalisco.

And because it does have a terroir component, tastes can vary year to year. Consumers, especially American consumers, like consistency and don’t typically understand that spirit flavors can be impacted by the environment and weather conditions. And for cocktails, a varying flavor profile can also be tricky.

All of these factors, combined with the fact that it takes years for the agave to mature, mean that commercial production of raicilla has been a challenge.

The story of raicilla will likely take shape similar to that of mezcal. Over time, families who recognize the market desire will come together, streamlining their recipes to create a stable and replicable product.

Some brands like La Venenosa and Estancia Raicilla are already giving it a shot. In fact, I found a bottle of La Venenosa at my liquor store the other day…maybe the age of raicilla is already on us.

As always, your best bet is to go to Jalisco and try it out for yourself! That’s more fun anyway.

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