Just as the world is starting to take tequila seriously and opening its eyes to mezcal, another agave spirit has burst onto the scene. Raicilla, the newest drink on the block, is an herbal distillate from the Mexican state of Jalisco, an area best known for the tourist hot spot of Puerto Vallarta, and the country’s second-largest city, Guadalajara. And while the industry faces a few obstacles, it just might be time to clear a space for raicilla on the liquor shelf.
In contrast to the current bloom of interest, raicilla (pronounced rye-see-ya) had an inauspicious start. Originally distilled as the hooch for farmers and fishermen in the western part of the state, it was taxed by the Spanish crown 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 illegal and production was anything but organized. Even today, you can drive through Jalisco and buy unregulated raicilla on the roadside, where it’s often sold in nondescript plastic bottles.
In the last few years, however, producers have been trying to commercialize, and so they have begun to pay taxes, step up their bottling options, and define the characteristics of the spirit. Rio Chenery of Estancia Distillery, one of this new wave of raicilla producers, has been distilling the liquor in Jalisco since 2014. He explains that the herbal distillate comes in two types: de la costa (of the coast) and de la sierra (of 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 Oaxacan mezcal, 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 thinks consumption in Mexico will pick up once raicilla strikes it big internationally. “Most [Mexicans] don’t even want to buy it legally—as a handcrafted product, it’s very expensive—so it will have to go out before it comes back; Mexicans like the allure of international success.”
It seems like it might just be possible for raicilla to bottle success.
>>Next: More Boozy Wonders of the Agave Plant
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