Raicilla: Mexican Moonshine Moves Into The Spotlight

Just when everyone was getting their head around the idea of mezcal, there’s a new agave based spirit we need keep abreast of to maintain cocktail cred: Raicilla.  And “new” is relative, as this little spirit has been around since the 1600’s and is considered by many to be Tequila’s grandpappy.

Raicilla (rye-see-ya) means “little root” and it’s a small batch spirit distilled from the agave plant in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It’s heavily associated with Puerto Vallarta and hard to come by outside of Mexico and, as a result, has garnered a bit of a cult following.  But it’s stealthily slipping into stateside restaurants and even a few Paris bars.

To first get a grip on raicilla, let’s talk mezcal.  Mezcal is any spirit distilled from agave in Mexico.  While the anglo spelling is often (at least previously) spelled with an “s” as in “mescal”, many drinks writers and bartenders have adopted the Mexican spelling of Mezcal with a ‘z’. (I understand part of this reason may be to distance it from the idea that the distillate contains mescaline that will get you high.)

Mismaloya Beach

The quick version on its origins: In the 18th century, a group of mezcal producers changed the name of their product and went underground to avoid paying taxes. They changed the name to raicilla and continued to illegally distilled this mezcal hidden from the law – and taxman – and consumed the product personally, shared it with friends or sold it at roadsides out of old plastic coke bottles and the like.  While tequila eventually went mainstream and ‘mezcal’ is an umbrella term for all agave based spirits, raicilla has remained more of an underground, grassroots spirit made from closely guarded recipes and traditions passed from generation to generation.  And this secretive process is part of the reason it has remained such an artisanal and non-industrial product.

Raicilla is distilled primarily from two different types of agave plants found in Jalisco either from the coast (de la costa) or from the mountains (de la sierra).  In the mountains, is the agave maximiliana (locally called lechuguilla) while on the coast Amarillo is the main agave used – but you can also find Chico Aguiar and Pata de Mula being used in some cases. (Tequila, on the other hand, uses only blue agave) Flavors are also affected by toasting techniques (pit or clay roasting) and aging. Raicilla can be Joven (young, aged for less than a year in oak barrels), Reposado (1 to 2 years in oak) or Añejo, which is aged for more than 2 years.

Like Absinthe, raicilla is surrounded by its fair share of legend and lore. It has the same undercurrent of psychedelic possibilities, with the hazy notion that the final distillate contains mescaline.  It went underground as a not entirely legal spirit for decades.  It even has a little stardust sprinkled on it with stories circulating about John Huston and Richard Burton getting legless on it while filming “The Night of the Iguana” in ’63 in Mismaloya (a small village a short distance from Puerto Vallarta with a long history of raicilla production.)

To get to know a little bit more about this mysterious “bad boy” spirit, I interviewed Rio Chenery of Estancia Raicilla, one of the few producers making it into the markets outside of Mexico.  Rio was born in Australia and, in 2014, he moved to Mexico to reunite with his Mexican mother and began working on his dream project. In the 1960’s his grandfather had visited the small mountain town of Mascota in the state of Jalisco and stumbled across a local drink called “Raicilla” and fell in love with its unique flavor. Fifty years later Rio founded R&J Estancia Distillery with the goal of making his grandfather’s beloved drink and sharing it with the rest of the world.

Estancia Raicilla source: estancia-raicilla.com/

And here’s what he has to say about the drink and his project:

FC: What’s the best way for a newbie to discover Raicilla?

RC: At the moment it’s a hard spirit to come by. We’re available in some select venues around Paris, London and Denmark, but it’s still early days in Europe. The best way to discover this spirit is to visit the Sierra Madre Occidental in Jalisco Mexico – this is Raicilla’s heartland.

Tell us a little bit about Estancia Raicilla.

Estancia Raicilla is made in the highlands of Jalisco from the wild Maximiliana agave that naturally grows 6000+ feet above sea level. Much like the concept of terroir, the flavor of our Raicilla is created through the climate, geology and volcanic soil where our Maximiliana agave grows. These conditions, along with our double distillation process impart the floral aromas that make this spirit truly special.

We are focused on creating a really high quality product, which comes through in every detail. From using a handcrafted bottle made from recycled Coca-Cola bottles to using old Jack Daniel’s bourbon barrels to ferment, every last detail is important to us.

I understand Raicilla producers have applied for denomination of origin. Is that correct, and if so, what’s the status of that application?

Yes, the Raicilla Council has applied for the D.O. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what level of progress has been made.

Is it important for Raicilla to gain a D.O. status?

Yes, of course. I think it would definitely provide Raicilla with more legitimacy and direction as an agave spirits subcategory, which is much needed.

How have you seen attitudes changing towards Raicilla over the past few years in Mexico?

Here in Jalisco, where there’s a long tradition of drinking Raicilla, it hasn’t changed much. But when I visit Mexico City there is definitely a lot of buzz and interest in Raicilla. I guess because there’s already a strong mezcal culture and appreciation for agave spirits in DF so it’s a natural progression.

How have you seen attitudes changes towards Raicilla over the past few years internationally?

It’s really hard to say because the knowledge base around Raicilla has been almost non-existent, so I guess there hasn’t been a change in attitude as such. However, in terms of the level of appreciation and interest, I think some markets have been better than others simply because of the existing appreciation for agave spirits that exists (NY, Cali, London come to mind).

I’ve heard people refer to Raicilla as “Mexican Moonshine” Is that a fair description?

It is and it isn’t.

Raiciila does have an old reputation for being this crude rocket fuel. The first time I tried Raicilla was out of a coke bottle on the side of the road. It was very strong and the next day I certainly had a hangover. I think a lot of peoples’ first (and maybe only) experience has been like this, but if you travel through this region and know what you’re looking for, you’ll soon find the good stuff, it’s nothing like rocket fuel.  Mezcal had a similar reputation internationally back in the day with the idea that it was a poor man’s tequila, and I think it’s the same with Raicilla. However, as more high quality Raicillas come to market, those old attitudes will quickly change.

I do think Mexican Moonshine it’s a fair description in the fact that Raicilla has a history as a clandestine spirit made in secret to avoid paying taxes to the Spanish – similar to US Moonshine in the prohibition era.

Raicilla is difficult and expensive to get outside of Mexico, why is it so expensive?

I guess it’s just really difficult to make in large quantities. From getting the wild Maximiliana agave that only grow on the side of mountains (accessible only by mules), to the adobe ovens and fire stills that can’t be too large in size, it’s a very labour intensive spirit to make well.

What’s your favorite way to drink Estancia Raicilla?

I drink Raicilla neat, but a lot of people love it on the rocks.