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.
Unlike many of the agave producers in the neighboring region of Tequila, raicilla producers are focused on creating a sustainable agricultural climate. Esteban Morales of La Venenosa Raicilla, which has been in operation for four years, says his consortium of producers uses “at least 12 types of agave, whereas tequila will only use the blue agave. Commercial production in that area has altered both the land and the agave—the plant isn’t even capable of sexual reproduction anymore, thanks to the popular cultivation techniques. But here, we aren’t interested in monoculture farming.” In fact, the difference in cultivation methods is crucial to raicilla’s identity. Morales notes: “Raicilla is really more like a glass of wine than a tequila. The agave has a beautiful relationship with the soil, like grapes do. It spends at least seven years in the ground, and both terroir and microclimate matter, so depending on where and what kind of agave you plant, the drink will taste one way or another.” And this umbrella of raicilla could be the key to the spirit’s success. “There are towns in other areas 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.”
While raicilla is undeniably delicious, there are major headwinds for its future. First off, the local market is limited to a few high-end bars in major Mexican cities, and even there, most Mexicans haven’t heard of the stuff. Both Morales and Chenery agree that the industry’s current strategy is to go abroad first, then try to tackle the home market.
Chenery says, “70 percent of our international sales—which make up most of our sales—is from the United Kingdom, France , Denmark, Sweden, and Australia.
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.”
Compounding the challenges: Official recognition in Mexico remains as elusive as the unofficial recognition. The Council of Raicilla Producers, which meets once a month, has begun the process to obtain denominacion origen status, the same accreditation that mezcal and tequila have. This has created some concern among smaller producers who fear they’ll be squeezed out, but Morales’s liberal definition for raicilla seems to look to include anyone producing alternative agave spirits in western Jalisco. And Chenery says that, more and more, both mountain and coastal producers are banding together as a supportive force. Despite raicilla’s obvious challenges, the commercial moves behind the scenes hint at a bright future for the spirit. During our conversation, Morales insisted everything is still boutique, sustainable, handcrafted, and small batch. “So, it’s not like Jose Cuervo yet?” I asked. Morales replies, “No, of course not—though Jose Cuervo has hands in raicilla production. I saw a raicilla brand today in San Diego called Crisanta. It’s a small company, but it’s owned by Jose Cuervo.”
It seems like it might just be possible for raicilla to bottle success.