Tequila needs no introduction and mezcal has cemented its popularity and importance. But raicilla? That’s a much tougher sell. While the world is forever searching for the next “next best thing”, Mexican spirit producers think they have found their new nirvana. But what happens when the future is within reach, yet you can’t quite shake the past? This is the conundrum raicilla producers find themselves in: they’re trying to capture the imagination of the fickle international market while also struggling to convince Mexicans in their home market that raicilla is a comparable and confident substitute for beloved tequila and mezcal. It’s an uphill battle in both respects, with the former a matter of market share and the latter a result of tradition.
The clear liquor is best understood as a type of mezcal from the Mexican state of Jalisco, as the historic definition of mezcal means anything distilled from the agave plant. As such, 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 attest that raicilla is, “really a mezcal, we just can’t call it that because of location.”
Raicilla’s origins are, like many great things in life, steeped in illegality. Even today, driving along Puerto Vallarta’s jungle coast will yield plenty of roadside salesmen hawking nondescript plastic bottles of hooch, which will almost always be filled with raicilla. The drink first popped up in the 17th century, among the working class farmers and miners of western Jalisco, around San Sebastián del Oeste. It was eventually outlawed by the ruling Spanish crown, who wanted to tax all spirits in order to cut down competition with their own imports into Mexico. As a result, raicilla became illegal, produced in secret by farmers and families up in the mountains. Officially, a type of Mexican moonshine.
Fast-forward to today, where it’s become re-popularized in the last 20 years or so, thanks to tourism. Morales said most of the time he encounters raicilla outside of Jalisco, it’s in a gringo-heavy area, like Cancun. Chenery explains that there are two distinct styles of raicilla: de la Costa (from the coast) and de la Sierra (from the mountains).
According to Chenery, the mountains serve as a demarcation line and his own distillery produces only in the mountain style, using the lechugilla agave (also known as Maximiliana) cooked in clay ovens. Morales’ brand represents at least six raicillas from different regions and styles within Jalisco, which includes both pit and oven cooking methods and several different agaves. Like wine, terroir is incredibly important to the taste of raicilla and that there aren’t hard and fast rules as to what production styles or agaves are used. But recently, a Mexican Council of Raicilla Promoters has evolved. Made up of local producers representing both styles and requiring participation from everyone who makes the drink, the Council hosts an annual Raicilla Festival in December, which is open to anyone who wants to attend. Morales, however, admits with a smile that the festival is, “a really good excuse for all of us producers to get together and drink raicilla. It’s a lot of fun, but mostly just us…for now.”
As for the taste, it depends on which type of raicilla you’re tasting. Those made with pit-roasted agave bear a strong similarity to Oaxacan mezcal and in certain cases, it’s completely indistinguishable. The clay-roasted varieties have a wider range of flavors, with strong herbal notes, a sweet twinge and strong firewater undertone common to all. Some of the accents range from pungent cheese to citrus to pine, running the full gamut of flavor profiles. Because of its herbal properties, it’s the perfect spirit to use in place of gin, and Morales mentions pairing with tonic and using in a Negroni. He also added that the locals rarely drink it alone; you’ll often find people mixing it with something. “The quickest way to realize someone isn’t a local? They’re ordering it straight, acting all serious. Come on. It’s a drink. We’re having fun! Stop taking it so seriously.”
In addition to Estancia Raicilla and the offerings from La Venenosa, several new producers are set to hit the market by the end of 2016, greatly expanding what is available both in Mexico and internationally. Plus, the aforementioned Council is getting serious and seeking Denominacion Origen status, like tequila and mezcal have. That will take, “years, many, many years,” but Morales agrees that things are moving in the right direction. They’ve had runaway success in Europe – both Sweden and France have been big customers – and are looking to capitalize on the recent explosion of interest in Mexican spirits. New York City has been the biggest hit in the United States so far, with Los Angeles, San Diego and Chicago following right behind it. Thanks to international success, it seems clear that buying bootleg bottles on the side of the road is becoming a thing of the past. “It’s a fast moving spirit. It’s fresh and new, tastes different, and there’s a place for it in the family. People overseas are starting to recognize that,” says Chenery.
As for the Mexican market, all producers I spoke with mentioned a lack of recognition and unwillingness to try something new among Mexicans consumers, thus pushing focus on the international market. “The thing in Mexico is that it has to go international, make it big and then come back,” Morales explains. “Nobody will be interested without international attention. So I’m working on that, first.”